Colonial America – The Holy Experiment


Penn was born on October 24, 1644 into a family who held a high position in English Society. His father, Admiral Sir William Penn, was a naval hero and a member of the landed gentry. Young William grew up with the finest education and, for a time, considered going into the Army as a career.

In the early 1660’s, he was so influenced by the teachings of Thomas Loe, that he converted to the Society of Friends, derisively called the Quakers. Much to his father’s chagrin, Penn stuck to his new religious ideals of pacifism and nonconformity, landing himself in jail on more than one occasion.

Penn dreamed of a place where Quakers could gather, free from religious intolerance, and men could practice good government. To obtain this, he called in a debt owed to his father by King Charles II. On March 4, 1681, Penn was granted the charter to Pennsylvania in lieu of the money owed him. (He later obtained the lower counties that comprise Delaware). The original name was to be Sylvania or New Wales, but the King insisted on naming the new colony for his recently deceased father, Pennsylvania.

Penn departed from London in 1682 on the ship Welcome, after striving to promote his colony to Quaker settlers and other tradesmen. On arrival, he found that his deputies had been carrying out his wishes and the new town of Philadelphia was a thriving port (the city was laid out according to Penn’s plans and it’s name is a translation of “City of Brotherly Love”). Despite pressing issues, one of Penn’s first goals was to obtain the land granted by the English from the Delaware Indians who already inhabited these lands. Under treaty, Penn purchased most of Pennsylvania from the Delaware Indians. Although no record of it exists, the famous treaty signed by Penn and Chief Tamanend at Shackamaxon in 1682 symbolizes the care and good feeling with which Penn treated the local Indians. This care in Colonist-Indian relations kept Pennsylvania safe from Indian attack for 70 years. (Penn had also taken care not to alienate the Swedes, Finns and Dutch who had settled Pennsylvania before the English arrived).

Meanwhile, Penn began building his country estate Pennsbury and convened the first provincial Assembly in Chester in December 1682. During the first sessions, the Assembly passed laws protecting the freedom of conscience and a criminal code making only treason and murder punishable by death. However, Penn ran into trouble with Lord Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, over border disputes for the southern part of Pennsylvania. In August 1684 Penn set sail for London to try to head off Lord Baltimore in his efforts to obtain the land for Maryland.

Through his friendship with the Duke of York, Penn halted he transfer of his lands to Maryland. However, he also did not obtain clear title and was destined to remain in England for 15 years. The Duke of York became King in 1685, only to be overthrown in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. His friendship the King made Penn suspect to the new sovereigns, William and Mary, and Penn spent the next few years either on the run or in prison.

Ill luck continued to plague Penn. In 1694, his wife Gulielma died, leaving Penn with three children. Due to conflicts in his colonial government, Penn wasn’t able to collect the quit rents he had planned on for his financial support. In financial trouble, Penn married again in 1696 and was finally able to return to Pennsylvania in December 1699.

During Penn’s absence, his government had fallen into disarray and had, in fact, been rumored to have aided pirates off the Pennsylvania coast. After taking care of the pirate problem, Penn found a thriving Philadelphia and retired to Pennsbury with his family. He set about setting up a new government under the Charter of Privileges in 1701 (which lasted until the American Revolution). Once again, Penn faced troubles in England and had to hurry back, after having given Delaware their independence from Pennsylvania.

Penn succeeded in putting out the threat annexation of his by the Crown, but Penn was not destined to find the fulfillment he sought. One of his agents had been defrauding him of large sums his money and the litigation stemming from these actions lasted for years. In 1712, Penn suffered a stroke and remained in ill health until his death on July 30, 1718.

Although he was never able to enjoy his holy experiment for more than a few years and never realized it’s full potential, Penn’s colony had became a thriving and model colony before the American Revolution.