As the World Day for Cultural Diversity is being celebrated today on 21 May, it seems fitting to remember the vision of William Penn for an inclusive society, a place where various religious groups would live together in peace and harmony.
William Penn was born in England on 14 October 1644, the son of William Penn, an English captain in the Navy and Margaret Jasper, herself the daughter of a rich Dutch merchant from Rotterdam. When William was born, his twenty-three year old father was blockading Irish ports as part of the effort to quell Irish Catholic unrest. The captain was rewarded for his role in the English Civil War with lands in Ireland that had been confiscated from Irish Catholics following the massacre of Protestants. Those were turbulous times: Oliver Cromwell had led a successful Puritan revolution against Charles I, resulting in the King being beheaded in 1649.
Penn spent his youth between England and Ireland where his father was exiled for a while after a failed mission to the Caribbean. It is there that, at fifteen, young William first heard Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary. The talk Loe gave made a lasting impression on the young man who had become interested in religious issues. Quakers belonged in a Protestant sect founded in 1647 by George Fox, and believed in a direct relationship with God. Morals for them were guided by an individual’s conscience, and not by the Bible.
Following Oliver Cromwell’s death, the Puritan Revolution came to an end and William Penn’s father, who since had been promoted to the rank of Admiral, was instrumental in bringing Charles II back to the throne. As a result, Admiral Penn was knighted and became Commissioner of the Navy.
Meanwhile, William Penn was sent to study at Oxford, where students came from various religious background, including aristocratic Protestants, austere Puritans and non-conformist Quakers. Among the faculty were free-thinkers: one of them, a dean was eventually fired. Young William, along with a number of students decided to stand by the dean, resulting in their being fined and reprimanded. Following this incident, stricter religious practices were imposed by the administration: Penn rebelled against imposed chapel attendance worship and was expelled. His parents then decided to expose him to a different culture and sent him to France where he studied in Saumur for one year with Moise Amyrault at l’Academie Protestante, the most respected Protestant university in the country. There Penn learned about religious toleration.
Upon his return to England, Penn studied law and then served as his father’s personal assistant, a position which allowed him to gain access to king Charles II and his brother the Duke of York. In the gloomy aftermath of the Great Plague, and the Great Fire in London, Penn elected to settle for a while in the Irish family estate. At a time when restrictions against all religious groups other than Anglican were being severely tightened, Penn started to attend Quaker meetings.
In 1667, Penn was arrested at one of these meetings. Upon his insisting that he was a Quaker, and demanding to be treated as such, he was sent to jail. It is in prison that he first wrote about freedom of conscience. Because of his father’s position, he was eventually released and returned to England. Admiral Penn tried to reason with his son to no avail; giving up, he decided to disown his son who eventually found shelter with Quaker families. It is during that period, that he met his first wife, Gulielma Springett, whom he finally married in 1672, and that he became friends with Georges Fox, with whom he traveled around Europe. Fox had founded the Quaker movement during the more tolerant years of the Puritan revolution. The movement had no written doctrine, Penn became its first theorist.
His writings led him to the Tower of London where he was imprisoned for eight months. While in prison, he wrote one of his most famous pamphlets: No Cross, No Crown. Remorseless, once free, Penn continued his religious activities. In 1670, in an attempt to test the new law against assembly, Penn convoked a public meeting during which he started preaching. He was arrested. At the trial, contrary to the law in effect at the time, he was denied the right to hear the charges against him, and the jury was asked to give their verdict without hearing the defence. In spite of this, jurors found him not guilty and refused to change their verdict. Although the judge sentenced them to jail, they still refused to change their verdict. The jurors spent more than two months in prison, and fought for their right from jail. They won, an outcome that led thereon to the recognition of the right for English juries to not be coerced or punished for their verdict.
Following his release from prison, Penn traveled to Germany and the Netherlands to study the living conditions of Quakers in these countries. What impressed him the most what the freedom he observed in the Netherlands, which had become a land of asylum for persecuted Jews and Protestants from various parts of Europe. The peaceful coexistence of various religious there inspired him to develop a vision of a community based on liberty.
Back in England, Penn tried to introduce the concept of religious toleration, with the support of the King, but failed with the Parliament. At this point, he realized that such a project could only be achieved outside of England. A mass immigration of Quakers was planned, and a group of them, including Penn, purchased a land in North America: West Jersey.
Trying to expand the Quaker region, Penn decided to go to the King and ask for a charter that would establish an American colony. The King and his brother were indebted to Admiral Penn, who, before his death had asked for their protection of young Penn. The charter was granted and Penn was given a territory located South of West Jersey and North of Maryland, making him the largest land owner after the King. Penn suggested it be called Sylvania, it was the King who suggested Pennsylvania, adding Penn’s name in honour of the deceased Admiral. In return, one fifth of the gold and silver that would be mined in the province, along with two beaver skins would have to go to the King at the beginning of each year.
The charter was signed on March 4, 1681. While still in England, in early 1682, Penn started working on his charter of liberties for the territory, the First Frame of Government for the Province of Pennsylvania. Most importantly, the document guaranteed freedom of worship to all inhabitants. Religious toleration was foremost, but another set of rights was also granted which reflected Penn’s early experiences. Freedom of the press, as well as the right to a fair trial by jury, and free elections along with more generally the rights of Englishmen were recognized by the Frame of Government for “all the freemen, planters and adventurers of, in and to the province” of Pennsylvania.
Penn sailed to America and landed in Newcastle on 27 October 1682.
In spite of having been given the territory through a royal charter, Penn decided that he would purchase the land from the Lenape Indians, and after some negotiations, a price of 1,200 pounds was agreed upon.
With friends, he set to establish a city between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers, naming it Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Penn also chose the names of the major streets, such as Spruce, Chestnut, Broad and Pine. Meanwhile, he had invited Quakers to join his community: some 250 settlers responded. He later advertised his land of religious freedom all over Europe, and representatives from persecuted minorities arrived: Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews coming from England, France, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and Wales.
The First Frame of Government was revised, and twenty drafts were issued. One of the great innovative ideas Penn came up with was the introduction of amendments that would allow to respond to changing times and circumstances and enable social changes without violent uprisings or revolutions.
In 1684, Penn returned to England to see his family. Conditions had changed there with a new absolutism modeled after the French monarchy. Books were being burnt, quakers were being sent to jail. Penn was able to help save a number of them, including George Fox himself. Meanwhile, in the colonies, his business manager, Philip Ford, was proving unworthy of the confidence entrusted in him. Ford cheated his employer by having Penn sign a deed transferring Pennsylvania to his business manager.
Much of Penn’s later years were marked by his fight to recover from this deed transfer. He returned to America in 1699 where he stayed until 1701 with his new wife, whom he had married in 1696 two years after Gulielma’s death. Back in England, having lost most of his money, he was sued by Ford’s widow who, in 1702, had Penn imprisoned for debt. Fellow Quakers collected money to get him released, and in 1708, a ruling allowed Penn to regain Pennsylvania, for himself and his heirs. Four years later, he suffered a stroke and died penniless soon thereafter.
In spite of his later years troubles, Penn’s legacy is one of a man who fought for his convictions, defended freedom of religion and developed a model for a free society where people of different ethnic background and religion could live in peace. His Frame of Government inspired Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence.
“Any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion.”