William Penn
English Quaker who founded Pennsylvania

1644 - 1718

William Penn was a famous English Quaker who founded Pennsylvania. The Quakers, or Friends, were often treated harshly in England. They wanted the right to follow their religious beliefs without scorn or fear of violence. Penn, one of their leaders, persuaded King Charles II to let them set up a colony in America. This colony became the state of Pennsylvania.

Penn was born on Oct. 14, 1644, in London, the son of a naval officer later knighted as Admiral Sir William Penn. The boy went to school in Essex. He entered Christ Church, Oxford University, in 1660. This was the year the Stuart family returned to the throne of England. Penn opposed the university rule that everyone must attend the Church of England. He believed in religious freedom and the right of individuals to worship as they pleased. Penn met with other rebellious students, outside the university, and was expelled from school. His father then sent Penn to France and Italy, hoping that the fashionable life there would make the boy forget his religious beliefs, or at least change them. Penn returned after two years of travel and study. The signs of his religious zeal were gone. His father, glad for this change, sent him to study law in London.

Penn went to Ireland in 1667 to manage his father's estates. There, he became acquainted with Thomas Loe, a Quaker preacher. Loe convinced him of the "truth" of the Quaker faith. Penn was then 22 years old. He chose to become a Quaker at a time when Quakers were scorned, ridiculed, imprisoned, and sometimes banished. His father was heartbroken.

Penn was imprisoned several times for writing and preaching about Quakerism. He was first imprisoned in the Tower of London. After eight months, his father managed to have him released. During this imprisonment, Penn wrote No Cross, No Crown (1668), a piece explaining Quaker beliefs and practices.

In 1670, he was arrested at a Quaker meeting and accused of planning with another Quaker to start a riot. A jury found Penn not guilty of any crime. But the judge threatened to fine or imprison the jurors unless they changed their verdict. When they refused to do so, the jurors were in fact imprisoned. But on appeal, England's highest judges prohibited the penalizing of jurors. This action helped establish the independence of juries.

In 1677, Penn went to the Netherlands and Germany with George Fox and other Quaker leaders. In these countries, Penn met other Quakers who were eager to settle in a free, new land. Some people in England also wanted to settle where they could worship in their own way without fear. Penn realized that the only hope for the Quakers was in America.

Charles II owed Penn's father an unpaid debt of about $80,000. In 1680, Penn asked the king to repay the debt with wilderness land in America. On March 4, 1681, a charter was granted, giving Penn the territory west of the Delaware River between New York and Maryland. The charter also gave him almost unlimited ruling power over it. The king's council added Penn to the suggested name of Sylvania, making Pennsylvania, which means Penn's Woods. Penn drew settlers, including many Quakers, with promises of religious liberty and cheap land. Several thousand people came from England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Wales. Penn drew up a frame of government for his colony which greatly influenced later charters. It authorized an elected assembly and may even have influenced the Constitution of the United States.

In October 1682, Penn sailed up the Delaware River, and saw his colony for the first time. That same year, he made his first treaty with the Indians. His dealings with the Indians were so fair that they never attacked the colony. Penn returned to England in 1684 after the colony was well started.

In his drive for religious tolerance, Penn had become a close ally of King James II of England, a Roman Catholic. James granted pardons to Quakers and other religious prisoners. But in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, James was forced to give up the throne and flee abroad. His daughter Mary and her husband, Prince William of Orange, who were Protestants, became joint rulers of England in 1689. Penn was suspected of plotting the return of James, and was arrested several times. In 1692, his colony was placed under royal control. Penn wrote two of his greatest works in 1693. One was An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, a plan for a league of nations in Europe based on international justice. The other, Some Fruits of Solitude, described general principles for proper living. In 1694, Penn's colony was restored to him. That same year, Penn's wife, Gulielma Maria Springett Penn, died. They had married in 1672 and had eight children. In 1696, Penn married Hannah Callowhill, who was to bear him seven more children.

In 1697, aware of problems between the colonies and England, he drew up a plan for a union but it was not implemented.

Penn returned to Pennsylvania in 1699. Problems had arisen in the colony over government, piracy, and illegal trade. Penn had some success solving these issues. He granted a new constitution, the Charter of Privileges, in 1701. This document created a unicameral (one-house) elected assembly with greater power. The provincial council was reduced from a legislative body to a small group of advisers to the governor. Efforts by the English government to place all proprietary colonies under royal control caused Penn to return to England in 1701. He never saw America again.

The government attempt to gain control failed. But Penn was arranging to sell Pennsylvania to the English crown in 1712, when he suffered a stroke. The stroke impaired his mental ability and eventually paralyzed him. From 1712 until his death, Penn's affairs in Pennsylvania were handled by his wife and by his colonial secretary, James Logan. Pennsylvania remained a proprietary colony in the Penn family until it gained statehood during the Revolutionary War in America (1775-1783).

Contributor: Craig W. Horle, Ph.D., Associate Editor, Papers of William Penn, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Additional resources

Foster, Genevieve S. The World of William Penn. Scribner, 1973. Younger readers.

Soderlund, Jean R., and others., eds. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, 1680-1684: A Documentary History. Univ. of Pa. Pr., 1983.

Wildes, Harry E. William Penn. Macmillan, 1974.

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