William Penn: Quaker Benefactor

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William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania Colony, cast a long shadow in colonial America yet was in North America for only four years of his long life.

William Penn

Penn was born on Oct. 14, 1644, in London, in the middle of that country's civil war. Penn's father (also named William), an admiral in the Royal Navy, was a supporter of King Charles I and was able to keep his possessions even though the king lost the war (and his life). The Restoration, the ascension to the throne of Charles II, came in 1660, and the new king rewarded Admiral Penn for his loyalty by investing heavily in the navy.

The family wealth afforded young William a quality education. He had private tutors and attended the prestigious Chigwell School and a private school in London. He first went to Oxford University, attending Christ Church College, when he was 16. (Among his fellow students was noted philosopher John Locke.) He was expelled from Oxford for criticizing the Church of England, and his father sent him to France, where he attended classes in Saumur's Protestant Academy. Back in London in 1644, he took up the study of law.

Penn was 22 and had joined the militia in containing an uprising in Ireland when he heard Thomas Loe, a Quaker leader, speak. It quite literally changed his life.

The Quaker religion, more properly the Society of Friends, had beliefs that were different from England's official religious order, the Church of England. Technically, belonging to the Quaker religion or the Puritan religion was against the law. (This is one of the reasons that the Pilgrims left England for North America.) Penn was arrested for attending Quaker meetings; his family connections were enough to get him released, but his father threw him out of the house and he had to live with Quaker friends for awhile.


Penn found the Quaker faith appealing and was often seen in the company of the faith's founder, George Fox. The Friends believed in religious freedom for all. They believed that they didn't need rituals or sacraments in order to practice their religion. They were pacifist to the point of being conscientious objectors, and they became known in North America for supporting the abolition of slavery and for supporting and participating in the Underground Railroad. Quakers also didn't believe in bowing or taking off their hats for anyone, even a king. Penn, when in the presence of King Charles II, refused to remove his hat; the king, who could have had Penn thrown prison, instead laughed and removed his own hat.

Penn was arrested again for speaking out in favor of an "illegal" religion, and his father, who was ill, didn't save him. William spent time in prison, where he wrote about this faith. Among his writings were No Cross, No Crown. He had been arrested in part for the publication of another writing, The Sandy Foundation Shaken. He was released in 1669 but did not stop promoting Quaker ideals. He married a fellow Quaker, Gulielma Springett, in 1672.

Birth of Pennsyvlania

Conditions in England for Quakers were increasingly hostile, and Penn wanted to help. He proposed to King Charles II that, in order to settle the debt that the king owed Penn's father, he give Penn a charter for a large amount of land in North America, to be used as a save haven for Quakers to live. The king agreed, and Penn set about making plans. The land was in what is now the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Penn's Frame of Government in the new settlement, initially named Sylvania, envisioned a two-house parliament, which would be tasked with protecting the Sylvania residents' right to privately own property, worship the way they wanted to, have a free and fair jury trial, and freely elect their leaders. In addition, any taxes were to be fair to those having to pay them. It was a true framework for democracy.

Pennsylvania colony

In 1682, Penn accompanied about 100 Quakers from towns in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire to the New World. The first settlement was Burlington. They later established the city of Philadelphia, naming it after a settlement in Ancient Greece. The settlers William Penn peace with Lenape made peace with the Lenape Native Americans living in the area, not least because Penn took the trouble to learn their language, and the Quaker settlement thrived. As a result of the complete freedom of religion, the colony attracted members of many Christian denominations. Emigration from England continued as well; just two years later, the colony's population was 4,000.

In that same year, 1684, Penn returned to England in order to settle a border dispute with Lord Baltimore and his colony, Maryland. Penn encountered financial difficulties, even losing the charter to his colony, by this time named Pennsylvania. He was in such dire financial straits that he endured a stay in debtors' prison.

During this time, his wife and son died. Penn remarried, to a woman named Hannah Callowhill; they had seven children.

William Penn

He returned to Pennsylvania in 1699 and found that his colony was bigger and better than ever. Again in 1701, Penn had to return to England because his financial advisor had cheated him out of most of his financial holdings. He never went back to the New World.

In 1704, the Dutch, English, and Swedish settlers in what is now Delaware won the right to leave Pennsylvania and form their own colony.

Penn suffered a stroke in 1712, and his health deteriorated after that. He died on July 30, 1718, in Ruscombe, Berkshire, England.

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