William Penn - History

William Penn, in a landmark case, helped shape the English and American Justice System, and then laid the foundation for religious freedom, democracy, and tolerance, in the New World, as he directed the planning and development of Philadelphia. Read about his history below, pens made from trees on his country manor will be found here

Born in London in 1644 to Margaret Jasper and a twenty-three year old, ambitious naval captain, destined to become, Admiral Sir William Penn. The senior Penn served in the Commonwealth Navy during the English Civil War and later took part in the restoration of Charles II. The younger Penn grew up during tumultuous times in England.

Early in his years, William suffered from the pox, and the family move to an estate in Essex. The country life made a lasting impression on young Penn, and kindled a love of horticulture.

The Penn family took in a missionary of the unpopular Quaker faith when Penn was around 15. The conversations he had with this, Thomas Loe, had profound effects on the young Penn, and changed the course of his life.

Penn arrived at Oxford in 1660 and enrolled as a gentleman scholar. The student body was a mix of aristocratic Protestants, sober Puritans, and nonconforming Quakers. The new government of Charles II, that his father helped establish, gave license to the Protestants to harass the minority groups. Though considered a Protestant, Penn’s sympathies lay with the Quakers. To avoid conflict he withdrew and became a reclusive scholar. He felt as “a child alone” but it was during this time that he developed his philosophy of life and individuality. Penn and other open-minded students began attending intellectual discussions at the home of, the former, Dean Owen, who had been fired for his free- thinking. Here he learned the valuable skills of forming ideas into theory, discussing theory through reasoned debate, and testing the theories in the real world. Even though he was reprimanded and fined by the university, Penn continued to pursue his association with Dean Owen until his father pulled him out of school to remove him from these influences.

At 18, William was sent to France to improve his manors and was invited to stay a year with the French, humanist, and Protestant theologian, Moise Amyraut. Amyraut talked of a tolerant, adapting view of religion, which appealed to Penn.

After two years a matured Penn returned home and the Admiral had great hopes that his son now had the ambition and sense to succeed as an aristocrat, and enrolled him in law school.

However, in 1666 the Admiral was ill and William was sent to Ireland to manage the family holdings. While there, he became a soldier and took part in suppressing a local Irish rebellion. Swelling with pride, he had his portrait painted wearing a suit of armor.

The reign of King Charles had further tightened restrictions against all religious sects other than the Anglican Church, making the penalty for unauthorized worship imprisonment or deportation. Despite the dangers, Penn attended Quaker meetings and was soon arrested. Instead of avoiding prosecution by stating that he was not a Quaker, he publicly declared himself a member. Though Penn made arguments for his release based on law, he was released because of his family’s social position. He was, however, no longer welcome in the Penn home and his inheritance was withheld.

Penn became good friends and traveled with Quaker founder George Fox. Fox extended the Protestant Reformation saying, "God who made the world did not dwell in temples made with hands" thus supporting the most important principle of modern political history – the rights of the individual – upon which modern democracies were later founded.

Penn was moved to write pamphlets, the second of which landed him in the Tower of London. The Bishop of London ordered that Penn be held indefinitely until he publicly recanted his written statements. Penn was threatened with a life sentence but refused to budge. Instead, he wrote a third treatise, No Cross, No Crown. He was released after 8 months by the efforts of one of the royal chaplains.

William Penn continued fighting against the wrongs of Church and King and was arrested many times. In 1670, to test a new law against assembly, he spoke before a street gathering and arrested. He demanded to see a copy of the charges and the law, but was refused. In addition the jury was directed to give a verdict without hearing the defense. Despite heavy pressure, they returned a verdict of not guilty. Ordered to come to a different verdict, they refused. Penn and the jury were sent to jail and fined a year’s wages. Fighting their case form prison the jury managed to win a case that shaped the future of English and American law and was a victory for the use of habeas corpus in the courts.

Penn’s father was dying, but the elder had gained respect for his son’s integrity and courage. To protect his son after his death, the Admiral arranged for a vow of protection from the Duke of York and the King and for the young Penn to become a royal counselor, -- and the inheritance was reinstated.

William came into a large fortune. He continued to advocate for religious tolerance, which continued to get him into trouble.

In 1677 he joined with a group of Quakers who purchased the colonial province of West Jersey to establish a Quaker settlement in the new world. As conditions for the minorities continued to deteriorate, he approached the King and the Duke of York with a proposed solution -- the extension of the Quaker region in the colonies and the mass emigration of English Quakers. In recognition of his father’s service and to free the crown of a large financial debt owed to the Admiral, Penn was granted over 45,000 square miles. Penn became sole proprietor and gained sovereign rule over the territory. On March 4, 1681, the King signed the charter, and named this land Pennsylvania, in honor of William’s father.

Penn now had to become more than a theoretician, scholar, and agitator for change. He had to become a city planner, real state promoter, and Governor of his new “Holy Experiment.” In his Frame of Government and Charter of Liberties, Penn carefully safeguarded the traditional rights of Englishmen, guaranteed freedom from unjust imprisonment, free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, and free elections. Penn thought it important to limit his own power. The new government would have two houses, safeguard the rights of private property and free enterprise, and impose taxes fairly. He included a revolutionary idea—the use of amendments—to enable a written framework that could evolve with the changing times. Though admirably ambitious and laudable this experiment had to be practical (profitable) as well. To attract settlers in large numbers, he wrote a glowing prospectus, promising religious freedom as well as material advantage, which he marketed throughout Europe in various languages. Within six months, he had parceled out 300,000 acres to over 250 prospective settlers, which included several persecuted minorities. Despite many difficulties and disputes, when Penn came to his colony in 1699 Pennsylvania had grown to a population of nearly 18,000, and his planed city of Philadelphia to over 3,000. Shops were full of imported goods proving a valuable market for English goods, and religious diversity was succeeding. His insistence that Quaker schools be open to all citizens resulted in a highly educated work force, and the open intellectual discourse led to Philadelphia becoming a leader in science and medicine. Though the vigor and forcefulness of his writings had subsided somewhat by this time, he did put forth a plan to make a federation of all English colonies in America, and eventually his Philadelphia became the seat of that vision.