William Penn


Public life


NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Anglo-American Atlantic World (1641-1750)








Founder of Pennsylvania and eminent English Quaker�

During the 1670s William Penn achieved front-rank leadership in the Society of Friends, and became involved in colonization in North America� Penn became involved in American colonization in 1675 when Friends chose him to serve as mediator in a dispute over West New Jersey� Penn successfully negotiated a settlement�

In 1680 Penn embarked on the project for which he is best known, the founding of Pennsylvania. His reasons for doing so were both idealistic and financial. With his various efforts to secure religious freedom in England showing little effect, he conceived the idea of establishing a society in America in which the government would offer freedom of conscience to all believers in God. Penn's involvement in New Jersey prepared him for proprietorship and made him aware of the availability of the west bank of the Delaware for settlement. He was also motivated by his need to find additional income�

After negotiations lasting approximately a year, in March 1681 Penn received his charter for Pennsylvania; he began immediately to organize for colonization. At a time when the English government was tightening control over its American colonies, the charter granted Penn remarkable discretion in constituting his government and distributing land. He recruited settlers through personal contacts and a series of promotional tracts� He used the international Quaker network to advertise Pennsylvania's resources and his terms for selling land, but was interested in attracting non-Friends as well�

Penn developed his constitution for Pennsylvania� The Frame of Government and Laws Agreed upon in England, published in 1682 and subsequently altered by the Pennsylvania colonists, called for a popularly elected bicameral legislature composed of a provincial council, which with the governor initiated legislation, and a general assembly, which could approve or reject proposed laws but not draw up legislation of its own. Penn's constitution also codified the basic principles of his moral society, prohibiting such entertainments as cards, dice, stage plays, and cockfights, confirming the right to trial by jury, and extending freedom of worship to all believers in one God. However, only Christians could vote or serve in public office.

The years from 1681 to 1684, when Penn obtained Pennsylvania, planned the colony, and actually settled there for two years, were the high point of his life. With attractive land prices� sales were brisk. By August 1682 he had sold 620,000 acres to over 500 purchasers� One of Penn's chief successes was maintaining peaceful relations with the Delaware Indians by exchanging goods for land and requiring fairness in mediation of disputes between natives and settlers.

In other respects Penn's venture in Pennsylvania had less favorable results. After 1684 he came to view his "holy experiment" as a failure, both financially and with respect to his vision for an ideal society. Personally disastrous to the proprietor was the colony's failure to turn a profit�

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