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  William Penn (1644–1718), by Francis Place, c.1696 William Penn (1644–1718), by Francis Place, c.1696
Penn, William (1644–1718), Quaker leader and founder of Pennsylvania, was born in the liberty of the Tower of London on 14 October 1644, the son of , admiral in the English navy, and Margaret (1610?–1682), the daughter of John Jasper, a Dutch merchant of Rotterdam, and the widow of Nicasius van der Schuren.

Early years

Penn's developmental years took a conventional route. His education was fairly typical of his social class, being schooled at home until the age of eleven. From eleven he began his formal training at Chigwell Academy, near Wanstead in Essex. Established in 1629, the academy comprised two schools within the same building. One school concerned itself with more practical applications such as reading, writing, and mathematics. The other was more classically orientated, teaching Latin and Greek. Given the political environment in which young Penn was being educated, it seems highly likely that he would be given instruction for more practical applications. Only after the fall of the protectorate, and the impending restoration of the monarchy, can we say for certain that Penn's education took a more classical turn.

Penn entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1660 as a gentleman commoner. There, under the deanship of John Fell, he improved his knowledge of classical scholarship. Although he was to spend less than two years at Christ Church, he came into contact with men who would become political allies, such as Robert Spencer, later earl of Sunderland. Also at this time there were other men who influenced Penn's thinking in ways which would enhance his religious-political outlook. John Locke was then a lecturer at Christ Church and most probably instructed Penn in Greek. While it could not have been through any acquaintance with Locke that Penn would have developed a radical political philosophy at this time, since Locke was then still conservative in his thinking, nevertheless Penn would have developed a rigorous style of debate that would serve the Quaker later in political and religious disputations. In later decades, however, the ideas of his former tutor may have influenced Penn's concept of colonization. Later in the 1690s Locke's influence would be seen in the development of colonial policy. Also during these early years Penn probably listened to the well-known puritan theologian Dr John Owen. Although this experience is usually seen as a turning point in Penn's religious leanings, it must be remembered that he came from a dissenting background. His father was a presbyterian, albeit one that conformed to the Church of England after 1660, and his mother was a Dutch Calvinist. Therefore, it would not have been unreasonable to be instructed by somebody sympathetic to dissent, in this case Owen, who had not yet been dismissed from the college.

By the winter of 1661 Penn left Oxford and went to the continent, ostensibly to escape the political controversy that was arising from the stringent enforcement of the Act of Uniformity on the university which even required students to wear surplices. While travelling through Europe with Robert Spencer, he spent time in Italy and visited the city of Turin, which was being rebuilt. The design of the city, along a grid pattern, may have influenced Penn's thoughts when, as proprietor of Pennsylvania, he developed Philadelphia in the same style. After his visit to the French court, where he made a dashing impression, Penn attended the protestant academy of Saumur under the tutelage of Moise Amyraut, one of the leading Calvinist theologians of the day. Although Penn's studentship was short, because Amyraut died in 1664, it was a watershed in his religious and political outlook. Amyraut's philosophy of non-resistance and the illumination of the mind and will, or the inner light, greatly influenced Penn's religious outlook. Amyraut also had entrée to the French court and supported the view on the divine right of kings; his position was probably influenced by the hiatus between the siege of La Rochelle, in 1628, and the revocation of the edict of Nantes, in 1685, when a window of toleration was opened. Amyraut's religious philosophy was tempered by political necessities. This philosophy not only helps to explain Penn's later attraction to the Quaker life, it also explains his political position particularly during the reign of James II. His recollection of the Frenchman's teachings might have influenced Penn's support of James II's toleration of Catholics, for which Penn was labelled as a papist.

Young adult years and Ireland

A more mature Penn returned to England in 1664, ready to take on his responsibilities as heir. He spent some time in London learning law at Lincoln's Inn, a valuable foundation for anyone embarking on a life involving business, not least in pressing his father's Irish claims. He left there, possibly because of the plague, some time in the spring of 1665. Meanwhile, a second war had broken out between the Dutch and English, and in March Penn was actively involved in the effort, acting as messenger running between court and the flagship the Royal Charles. His position was no doubt due to the influence of his father, who was based at the Navy Office in London. By July Penn was cutting his teeth in the local politics of Buckinghamshire. As one of the commissioners for charitable uses, he determined cases brought on by complaints of abuse of charitable trusts. This position also gave him the experience of how government operated that he later applied so ably in his defence of religious toleration. Moreover, at this time he was establishing his influence in the locality which served him well in national politics during the period between 1679 and 1681.

In February 1666 Penn went to Ireland, where, as his father's agent, he settled the admiral's titles to the family estates in co. Cork. Subsequently the Irish years became a prelude and a training ground for William. His experiences there gave him the expertise for future business ventures, and it was the political arena in which he honed his disputatiousness. In May 1666 he travelled to northern Ireland, where he became involved in suppressing a mutiny in the English garrison at Carrickfergus in co. Antrim. The place erupted when the men, who had been unpaid for nine months, took over the castle. Penn impressed the duke of Ormond, who was lord lieutenant of Ireland, by assisting him and the earl of Arran in putting down the revolt. The grateful Ormond wrote to Sir William, recommending that his son take command of the garrison at Kinsale. Penn's father refused, not because he thought that his son could not handle the responsibility, but because of Sir William's plans to retire to his Irish estates in the near future and to live off the revenue from them together with the income from his post as commander of the garrison at Kinsale. As for young William, he was given the role of victualler at Kinsale, a position in keeping with his business responsibilities.

Though Penn made subsequent visits to Ireland in 1669 and 1698, his first marked a major turning point in his religious development. The time of his conversion to Quakerism is imprecise, but it is certain that in 1667 he attended a Quaker meeting in Cork and was subsequently brought before the magistrate for being part of what was termed a ‘riotous and tumultuary assembly’ (Penn to Orrery, November 1667, Papers, 1.51). Most likely, Penn's sympathy towards the Quakers was enhanced by the event.

Penn was increasingly being seen as the spokesman for a growing economic segment of society, in England as well as Ireland. By 1677 there were at least fourteen substantial Quaker merchants in London alone. These, together with Quaker merchants and tradesmen throughout England and Ireland, represented a sizeable contribution to the economic growth of the country. Therefore, his commercial connections were not limited to Quakers. It was his broader dissenting relationships which increased his political attraction, so much so that Penn was the leading spokesman for toleration when he presented evidence to a committee of the House of Commons debating the use of recusancy laws against Quakers.

On 4 April 1672 Penn married Gulielma Maria Springett (d. 1694), whom he had courted for the last three years. She was the daughter of Sir William Springett (d. 1643), of Broyle Place, Ringmer, Sussex, a parliamentary officer who died at the siege of Arundel Castle, and Mary Proude (bap. 1623, d. 1682), who married in 1654 Isaac Penington (1616–1679), a notable London merchant and Quaker [see ]. The pair had known each other since the 1660s and their marriage seems to have been a love match. One of their earliest known letters shows an affection that went beyond mere friendship. At the same time their relationship was based upon shared interests and background. Both were Quakers and both came from families of good standing—Gulielma held considerable lands in Kent and Sussex. They had three sons and four daughters; the youngest son, William, lived to adulthood, became a dissolute rake, and died in 1720; their only daughter to survive infancy, Letitia, married William Aubrey.

Quaker conversion

Penn's conversion marked a crucial point in the path towards furtherance and consolidation in Quaker principles. Although the time of his conversion to Quakerism is not certain, it roughly coincides with his involvement at the Quaker meeting in Cork in 1667. By the time he returned to England that year, he had taken on the mantle of the Friends, ready to proselytize his beliefs. After a couple of spells in prison, in 1671 Penn embarked on an evangelical tour of Europe, making important contacts with Princess Elizabeth (1618–1680) of the Palatinate. He returned by the end of that year, by which time his father had died, leaving him heir to the family estates. Penn's position in society elevated him in the Quaker ranks as a force for the sect, for as an heir and gentleman of rank he had social clout. Paradoxically, his new status created tension between the unworldly philosophy of some Quakers and his involvement in the political world. Nevertheless, the radical tendencies of his youth were now tempered with his new responsibilities as head of the family.

By this time Penn had developed a close relationship with George Fox, whom he had met a couple of years earlier. This relationship resulted in a collaboration which created a coherent Quaker philosophy. Its beginnings can be traced to George Fox's decision to lay down the sword of violence and write the Peace Testimony at the time of Venner's rising in 1661. Through this document Fox hoped to show the restored monarchy the non-violent and non-threatening nature of the Friends. It went some way to distinguish a more pacific group from the radical elements in the society, but it also can be seen as the beginning of a move to regularize Quaker thought. Penn's relationship with Fox and his wife, Margaret Fell, can be traced to a mutual belief, not only in Quakerism, but in their similar pragmatic approach exhibited in the Peace Testimony. Whereas Fox's approach was unsystematic, Penn's input was to make it intellectually more rigorous. Penn added to this development in his own work, No Cross, No Crown, in 1669, which set out the rules for Quaker behaviour. Rejection of hat honour, titles, the vanity of apparel, and promotion of the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ when addressing one another, regardless of title, were the outward hallmarks of a simpler approach to life. Penn listed scriptural reasons for the rejection of outward vanities, observing ‘Honour was from the beginning, but hats, and most titles, here of late; therefore there was true Honour before hats or titles, and consequently true honour stands not therein’. Furthermore, he quoted James 2: 1–11, urging people to look further than man's outward appearance, not accepting any man just ‘for his gay cloathing, rich attire, or outward appearance’ (Barbour, 1.46, 47). As Penn became more involved in the politics of dissent, he found it increasingly difficult to maintain the standard he set in this work. Nevertheless, it was the first coherent guide on Quaker behaviour. Also, as he became more involved in court politics and when confronted with direct responsibility of running a colony marked by its religious tolerance, Penn found himself hard put to sustain these rules, particularly his support for eschewing oaths in favour of affirming. His apparent ambiguity was compared to that of the great courtier in the book of Esther and, as James II said of Penn, ‘I suppose you take William Pen[n] for A Quaker, but I can assure you he is no more so than I am’ (Bishop Burnet's History, 4.140).

Penn was, nevertheless, able to further the Quaker cause through his forceful polemics and by practical applications in parliamentary elections. His writings on dissent from his first exuberant tract, Truth Exalted, in 1668, to his final thoughts on life in general in More Fruits of Solitude in 1702, provide a map of his philosophical development. He wrote over forty works, most of which dealt with his ultimate goal of toleration in general. The only exception for toleration which Penn made was in the case of Roman Catholics as stated in his tract A Seasonable Caveat Against Popery (1670), but that is muted later under James II. Penn's first theological tracts, Truth Exalted and The Guide Mistaken and Temporizing Rebuked, published in 1668, reflect Amyrauldian influence. While the latter work is the more polemical in its reply to other dissenters, such as Jonathan Clapham, and his rationalization for conforming to the Act of Uniformity, both assert the inward light and the possibility for universal salvation. In Truth Exalted the young Penn challenged the doctrines of Catholics and protestants alike for not being based on the Bible. ‘What Scripture ever made a Pope’, and where do the scriptures ‘own such persecutors’, were some of the questions which Penn asked in order to illustrate how far professed Christians had moved away from their beginnings (Barbour, 1.29–30, 32). Penn argued that only by looking within one's self, or for the light within, could there be resolution and, ultimately, salvation. The Guide Mistaken furthers Penn's ideas on salvation by defending his stand against conformity, and comes ever closer to the issue of the Trinity, three persons in one God. ‘The Scriptures do not warrant that division into, and appellation of three persons’, Penn maintained, and queried whether or not we should take this on faith (Barbour, 1.195). Also written in the same year, The Sandy Foundation Shaken logically followed Penn's doubts on the Trinity and tested the grounds for the rejection of the divinity of Christ. If the Trinity was not valid, as he implied, was Christ of divine essence? ‘If God, as the Scriptures testifie, hath never been declar'd or believ'd, but as the Holy ONE, then will it follow, that God is not a Holy THREE, nor doth subsist in THREE distinct and separate Holy ONES’ (Barbour, 1.217). The immediate reaction to Penn was his being charged with Socinianism, which denied the doctrine of the Trinity. Although he quickly backed off this approach following a spell in the Tower, and published a new tract, Innocency with her Open Face, thereby mollifying the authorities by saying that he was misinterpreted over the issue of divinity, the label of deist stuck to him for much of his life.

Political career

Although Penn's earlier writings included defences of the Quaker way, his first foray into political activism on behalf of dissent came with the onset of the new Conventicle Act in 1670. The new law prohibited sects such as Quakers from gathering for worship that was not in accordance with the liturgy and practice of the Anglican church. In response to this, and during another sojourn in Newgate prison, Penn wrote The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience, which was directed to the consideration of Charles II. The thrust of the tract was the immorality of persecution, which was against reason and nature. ‘For my own part’, he boldly proclaimed, ‘I publickly confess my self to be a very hearty Dissenter from the establish'd religion of these nations’ (Barbour, 2.419). Penn's protest against the Conventicle Act did not spare his being arrested under it for what the authorities claimed was sedition. Charged with addressing a tumultuous assembly at Gracechurch Street, he and a fellow Quaker, William Meade, were imprisoned at Newgate. But unlike his earlier imprisonments, where he modified his views, this time he was determined to defend them in court. Their arguments, based on the rights of Englishmen which were being threatened by the act, established an important precedent in English law. At the conclusion of the trial a verdict of not guilty was delivered, for which the jury was imprisoned by the mayor of London. The order was overturned by the chief justice, thereby establishing the future autonomy of juries. The action by the mayor, however, raised the spectre of arbitrary power that had not been seen since the reign of Charles I, and it heightened political tensions. It also brought Penn widespread respect for his able championing of dissent. From this point Penn was taken seriously by the crown as well as parliament as somebody who could influence the dissenting element in society.

Penn's networking certainly paid dividends, for he established valuable contacts with several prominent English politicians. One of the most useful of his friends was Robert Spencer, now second earl of Sunderland, with whom he shared a similar viewpoint on religious toleration; Sunderland was in a position of power, as privy councillor and secretary of state. Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, was another connection at court, perhaps even more useful to him than Sunderland. Rochester, together with his brother Henry, now second earl of Clarendon, and his father, had accompanied the king into exile, and had spent time in Europe as envoy; by the end of the decade he was first lord of the Treasury and a privy councillor. A third useful contact was Sidney Godolphin, whose career was intricately involved with that of Rochester. Both were employed as diplomats by Charles II in the late 1670s. Godolphin purchased the post of master of the robes from Rochester and served under him as a commissioner of the Treasury. In 1680 these three men, all known to Penn, formed a ministry satirically dubbed the Chits on account of their youth and relative inexperience. It was Penn's relationship with such men, who were able to influence policy and act as brokers between the court and parliament, that gave him access to power. If he wanted a favour, it was accomplished through the mediation of these managers. They were men of broad experience, too broad to be hemmed in by a narrow view of the church. For this reason they were neither whig nor tory but court politicians. They took their lead from the king, not from party leaders.

Penn's political alignment with opponents of the crown such as the republican Algernon Sidney represented what was still a somewhat idealistic approach to politics. He supported Sidney's attempts to enter parliament at Guildford in the first election held that year, and at Amersham and Bramber in the second, and backed the son of a Cromwellian major-general at Bramber when Sidney withdrew. Penn had sufficient influence in the county of Sussex to support Sir John Fagg, another Cromwellian officer, against the dominant interest of the Pelhams, though Sir John Pelham topped the poll. His victory was commented on by his sister-in-law and mother to the earl of Sunderland; the dowager countess's contemptuous remark that ‘Penn did what he could to help Fagg and hinder my brother, Pelham, who had not one gentleman against him’ is more than socially revealing (Blencowe, 1.123). That Penn was worthy of mention illustrates the extent of his interest in Sussex, and his electoral activities displayed the natural interest of his gentry family more than the campaigning of a dissenting leader on behalf of whigs. Penn himself was never a whig. The electoral tract he wrote at that juncture, England's Great Interest, did not support exclusion. Rather it advocated country measures against the court. His disaffection with courtiers such as the earl of Danby arose from his frustrated efforts to petition for a colonial charter in those years. Where throughout Danby's ministry he had been knocking on a closed door, after the earl's fall the Chits opened it and beckoned him in. Penn's connections at court with managers like Sunderland and Rochester now began to pay off. He dropped his country acquaintances and became a court politician himself. He never looked back, always thereafter identifying his interests with those of the crown's managers. Although the politicians with whom Penn associated himself would change over time, their loyalty to the court rather than to a party would be the common denominator. Finally, in 1681, his tactics paid off in a land grant in the New World.

The Pennsylvania charter

Penn claimed that the grant of a charter to colonize the large tract of land west of the Delaware River was in payment of debts owed by the crown to his father. This mundane motive has never been regarded as the main reason for his seeking a proprietary colony. Rather an explanation has been sought in Penn's Quaker commitment. Thus he has been regarded as desiring to obtain for the Friends a refuge where they could seek relief from persecution in England, and at the same time take part in a ‘holy experiment’ (Papers, 2.108). Penn's involvement in colonization stems from a 1673 letter to the duke of York in which Penn probably recommended somebody, possibly a relative, to a post in either Carolina or Virginia. The next and more significant involvement was as trustee for West New Jersey. In this capacity he mediated a dispute between two other Quakers involved in the initial sale of the colony. Ultimately the colony's shares were sold to resolve its financial difficulties, and a frame of government was drawn up, presumably by Penn. The West New Jersey concessions and agreements, which guaranteed the right to vote and hold office, as well as freedom of worship, provided a model for the future Pennsylvania government. Pennsylvania would test Penn's commitment to religious toleration and his conviction that it would generate economic growth. While the colony undoubtedly realized these hopes and expectations, such aspirations were not necessarily paramount in Penn's motivation throughout the 1670s while he was soliciting the government. Moreover, the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672, although the king revoked it the following year, did afford relief for dissenters, and particularly Quakers, for the rest of the decade. Whatever Penn's motives, the timing of the grant was dependent not upon him but upon Charles II. The king was persuaded to grant him a charter as part of a political strategy of dividing his opponents. Penn had support among the London merchant community, many of whom were dissenters who sided with the opposition in parliament. Charles was anxious to avoid pushing them into rebellion when his confrontation with the Exclusionists reached a crisis. The Pennsylvania charter, issued simultaneously with the dissolution of the Oxford parliament in March 1681, was one of the tactics employed by the crown to forestall civil war. Following his efforts in obtaining the colonial grant, Penn was nominated as a fellow of the Royal Society. That the grant had commercial as well as ideological appeal was shown when Penn insisted on also obtaining the three lower counties below Pennsylvania, which formed what was to become Delaware and were then part of the duke of York's proprietorship. James reluctantly yielded them, aware as Penn was of their economic value. They provided tobacco, a valuable export. They also were inhabited by Swedes, Finns, Dutch, and English, most of the latter being Anglicans rather than dissenters. Penn was particularly attached to this part of his grant and he was determined to keep it even when he later decided to sell Pennsylvania.

Having obtained his charter, Penn set out, in the company of fellow emigrants, to the new world. On arrival in October 1682, he received a piece of turf, a twig, and some river water from the Delaware inhabitants to symbolize his authority over the new land. After a brief stay at New Castle, he travelled up to Philadelphia, and for the next two years Penn proceeded to get the new government in working order.

Overall, Penn's philosophy of government was fashioned from the fires of political crisis in England on the issue of dissent. Pennsylvania would provide the political solution to the problem. The evolution of the colony's constitution from its first draft in 1681 to the final version of 1701 illustrates the priority put on inclusive political participation regardless of religion or ethnic background. Thus the colony's development as a holy experiment can be considered a success where trade, politics, and religion could coexist. Toleration of various religious groups percolated down to inclusive political participation. Oaths were not required for office holding, and there was no provision for an establishment church. Thus the make-up at one quarter sessions consisted of three Anglicans, six ‘strong Foxonian Quakers, one Swede, and one sweet singer of Isreall’ (Hunt. L., MS BL4, ‘A brief narrative of the proceedings of William Penn’). Penn was no democrat and no republican, but he was anxious that there should be a consensus in the new society. Also, while he was not concerned primarily with the style of government, he was determined that it should rest on a firm basis of law. For those reasons, the government was run by elected freemen, yet the core of power rested in the proprietor's deputy lieutenant, who had final approval over elected office holders such as sheriffs, justices, and coroners, and his council, who held the legislative initiative until 1701. All these powers were subject to the proprietor's wishes. Penn's view of government was that, while it was to secure the people from the abuse of power, nevertheless he declared himself to be ‘a palatine’ and that his power was ‘far greater than any kings governor in America’ (ibid.).

Another concern was to try to implement a land policy which would settle the colony in line with his ideal of developing it so that it would be filled with inhabitants spread over the whole, with no empty spaces as had occurred in other colonies. To this end he hoped to allot land on the basis that every 5000 acres should have a minimum of ten families. Unfortunately for Penn such a tidy chequerboard scheme came into contact with economic realities. It would have proved impossible to cope with the tidal wave of settlers that moved into Pennsylvania in the opening years of the 1680s even if they had been content to conform to the proprietor's policy. But they wished to make their own arrangements, and more to the point were prepared to purchase plots from other buyers as well as Penn. In addition to internal squabbles over land, there were boundary disputes with Maryland which, in 1684, resulted in Penn returning to England, where he could lobby the court against Lord Baltimore's claims. The only solution to the land dispute for the time being was to set up a commission of proprietary to administer his policies in his absence.

Penn's relations with the indigenous people of the colony was, partly, an extension of crown policy, where peaceful coexistence through negotiations and treaties was the preference. Penn's attitude towards the native Americans can be gleaned through the colony's charter. Its instruction was to ‘reduce the savage natives by gentle and just manners to the love of civil society and Christian religion’. To that end Penn took the trouble to learn the local language of the Lenne Lenape. He saw them as ‘natural sons of Providence’, and they returned the respect he paid them with the affectionate name of Miquon, or feather, to represent a quill pen (Papers, 2.448, 454). However, Penn's negotiations over land with the American Indians revealed a certain ignorance of the complicated ownership which had developed between the nations and settlers. Prior to Penn's grant the colony was under the jurisdiction of New York, whose governor had negotiated with the Iroquois Five Nations the ‘covenant chain’ in an effort to stabilize the area. The sectioning off of Pennsylvania for Penn did not necessarily invalidate the chain. However, he proceeded to set up another treaty, the ‘friendship chain’, in an effort to extend trading rights up to the New York border. The result was to threaten Anglo-Indian relations in general. Within his own colony, however, Penn was able to maintain good relations with the Indians through a presumption of fairness and goodwill.

Political years, 1685–1688

Between 1685 and 1688, during the reign of James II, Penn realized the highest point in his political career. He was cultivated by the king not only as a dissenter but also as a courtier. Thus he was groomed for high office in the customary way by being sent on an embassy. This was the route which such courtiers as Godolphin, Rochester, and Sunderland had taken when they were fledgeling politicians. Penn was sent as an unofficial envoy to The Hague in May 1686, to sound out the attitude of the prince and princess of Orange towards the repeal of the penal laws and Test Act. Ostensibly travelling through parts of Europe to visit Quakers and to proselytize, Penn was delegated by the king to travel to The Hague in order to find out how William and Mary viewed James's strategy for toleration. Penn had in 1680 gone to Holland to address the prince of Orange on behalf of fellow Quakers in the Netherlands who were being persecuted. This time, however, his hope that he could convince the pair on James's behalf was, alas, based upon sand.

Prince William assured Penn of his support for toleration, but he could not agree to abandoning the Test Act, because it was the only security for protestantism, especially when the king was of a different religion. He agreed with Penn that conscience was a private matter, but it was no good promising toleration without enacting it first into law. Otherwise it could be revoked on the king's whim just as the edict of Nantes had been by Louis XIV in 1685. Anyway, the number of dissenters in Britain was clearly in the minority; therefore, to ignore the primary base of support for the monarchy, the Anglican tories, was political suicide.

While William's view was more cynical, his wife's opposition came from her firm religious beliefs. As a staunch Anglican, she believed that as future protector of the established church, she would be responsible for the souls of her people. To open the door to what she considered nothing more than schismatic sects would weaken the pillar of religious belief and cause social instability. Only by James having a son would William and Mary's claims be superseded. Paradoxically, the birth of a royal son in 1688 sealed James's fate and ensured their claim.

Penn also tried to persuade Burnet, who was also at the court in The Hague, to return to England and support James in his policies. In return, Burnet would be rewarded by preferential treatment from the king. James appreciated Burnet's role as an exiled whig confidant of Mary, and must have realized that, if he could persuade him, he would be able to sway his daughter. Burnet's description of Penn's visit was laced with venom. An egotistical man himself, Burnet recognized a like fellow in Penn. He depicted Penn's performance before William and Mary as one brimming with over-confidence with an address which was given in a ‘tedious and luscious way’, all of which would only succeed in boring the listener. None the less, Burnet declined Penn's invitation on the same grounds as that of the prince and princess, and probably because he had information that James had a contract out for his assassination. According to Burnet, Penn left him with a prediction passed on to himself by a man ‘that pretended a commerce with angels’. According to this ‘friend’, in two years' time, 1688 to be exact, there would be momentous changes that would amaze all the world (Bishop Burnet's History, 4.139–41). The momentous event was not what Penn had envisioned. On his return from The Hague, Penn apparently satisfied Sunderland with the accomplishment of his mission. Although he was not entirely successful, since the prince and princess of Orange baulked at repealing the Test Act, they had expressed their toleration for all including Catholics. One sign of Penn's acceptance at court was his appointment as a deputy lieutenant in Buckinghamshire. This commission in the county militia, while perhaps curious for a Quaker, was quite fitting for a country gentleman.

A more significant sign of his arrival in power came in the spring of 1687, when Penn became involved with the writing of the declaration of indulgence. The declaration was seen as more than just a repeat of the attempt in 1672 by Charles II to carry through his promise at Breda to ensure the liberty of tender consciences. It was an edict of toleration, granting immunity from prosecution for breaches of the penal laws against religious dissent. In theory, it included not only Catholics and protestant non-Anglicans, but even non-Christians. The motives behind the declaration would fit in with Penn's aspirations. He certainly wanted religious and political liberties for his brethren even if it meant taking a softer line than before on the Roman Catholics. Furthermore, the declaration was preceded by a proclamation of toleration in Scotland, which specified groups such as the Quakers.

Penn's next step was to sell the declaration and promote the repeal of the penal laws and Test Act by writing tracts in support, organizing addresses thanking the king, and travelling throughout the country speaking for James's policies. However, the reasonableness of Penn's arguments did not convince opposition which existed on both sides of the religious divide. Dissenters as well as Anglicans feared the power of popery if Catholics were allowed political participation. In one embarrassing instance Penn was shouted down and forced to move on with ‘the mob knocking the bulks as he passed’ (Westmorland MSS, 376).

Penn became James's right-hand man, helping the king to regulate corporations, and acting as a commissioner into the regulation of recusancy fines, and as a mediator between the king and Magdalen College, Oxford. He became a general spokesman for James's policies and a door through which men had to pass to receive royal favours. Penn had, at last, the chance to use his unique position to further his aims for toleration. What emerged was the pairing of the king and the dissenter which created a possibility for a broader religious toleration that went beyond either one's expectation and beyond anything that England had experienced. At the same time Penn was fulfilling his father's ambitions for him. Towards the end of James's reign Penn held a position of influence which rivalled that of a minister. In May 1687 rumour had it that he would be named secretary of state, and shortly after he received a letter addressing him as Sir William (Sir Ralph Verney to John Verney, Middle Claydon, 15 May 1687, Claydon House, Verney Papers, microfilm 636, reel 41).

In summer 1687 the king dissolved parliament and set out to spearhead the campaign to convince people, either through reason or by browbeating them, to select amenable candidates for a new parliament. He had extended wholesale toleration to Catholics and dissenters alike, thus completely alienating the Anglican tories. Penn helped in the effort to fashion a pliable parliament by involving himself at the local level of politics. He was given the power to act as an intermediary regulating the corporations in Buckinghamshire and in Huntingdonshire. Writing from Kensington Palace to a friend and former Quaker, Robert Bridgeman of Huntingdon, Penn directed him to send a distinct account of all the representatives of that corporation and their political attitudes on the matter of the repeal of the penal laws and Test Acts. Penn was thus at the very heart of government in these months, and collaborated with the king over the packing of parliament. He later justified his involvement by saying that it was the only way to achieve his goal of toleration by an act of parliament even if it meant stacking the odds. ‘I allwaies endeavoured an impartiall liberty of conscience to be established by law, that the Papists might never be able to null it, and this is all that can be charged upon me, and I count it no crime’ (DWL, Morrice MS Q, pp. 353–4). In other words, the end sometimes justified the means and the language of denial by Penn was carefully chosen.

Penn was also on the road drumming up support for the king by organizing addresses of thanks starting with his own brethren. However, the number of addresses, of which there were only 197 over a period of a year, and the kinds of religious groups involved, qualified the success of the campaign. Indeed, the prospects for a compliant parliament were not auspicious. On the contrary, responses to a crude public opinion poll undertaken by the king were ominous. James asked the leading peers and gentry to answer three questions to ascertain their views on toleration. First, if elected to parliament, would they support the repeal of the penal laws and the Test Acts? Second, would they vote for candidates who supported the repeal? Finally, would they live peaceably with their neighbours no matter what their religious beliefs? By December 1687 the responses were largely negative. Penn, who had advised the king not to conduct the survey, concluded that an election must be postponed until March at the earliest. He was being much more realistic than the king, showing as much awareness of gentry as of dissenting opinion. Early in the new year he told James Johnstone that ‘there would be a parliament at the end of May’. Johnstone replied that he ‘would wager twenty to one against. He began to laugh, and said I imagined Sunderland had more credit than he actually possessed—he hadn't the power to prevent it, and he would be ruined if he did not allow it.’ Johnstone replied ‘that he had no need of power, he would use trickery instead. “That is what I fear myself”, he said’ (Kenyon, 187). Sunderland managed to put off the election until September, persuading James that his soundings in the constituencies did not augur well. By September, however, Sunderland and Penn were convinced that ‘the Parliament will do what the king will have them’ (ibid., 214). Confidence in the regime was such that Penn received the post of commissioner of the hearth and excise. This had a twofold effect in seeing to it that the king's much needed revenue would make him less reliant on parliament while making Penn a profit. Penn's increasing worldliness was also being noted by the Society of Friends, in their comparison of him to the great courtier in the book of Esther (Clarendon State Papers, 89, fols. 175–6, Dublin, September 1688). Unfortunately for Penn, his political career was put on hold when news arrived that William of Orange was preparing to invade.

Immediately James switched his allegiance back to the Anglicans and began the electoral process for a new parliament. However, upon hearing that William's fleet was blown back by a gale to Dutch harbours, James took it as a sign from above that providence had once again intervened, so the king ordered that the writs for elections be recalled. But, when he learned of William's landing at Torbay on 5 November, the king began backtracking by removing Catholic officials from their posts, and again issued writs for an election.

Serious doubts about the king's motives must have come surging forth in Penn's mind. He must have felt very insecure in the first instance when James stopped the issuance of writs, but his fears must have heightened on the second occasion when the king undid everything that he and Penn had accomplished in the past year. The only thing that Penn could do was clumsily to issue a tract, Advice in the Choice of Parliament Men, in which he once again attacked the Catholic element. He also tried to cobble a draft of confirmation of his authority over the three lower counties on the Delaware River, something which was never clarified, but it was too late. Only a partial draft was completed, dated 10 December 1688, the day before James made his first attempt to escape to France and the very day the little prince of Wales and his mother were shipped off. James was caught at Faversham and brought back to London, but thirteen days later he succeeded in escaping from London and then to France. For the rest of Penn's life he was plagued with doubts over his hold on Delaware, doubts that people in the new regime seized upon. He had more immediate problems in the panic that ensued right after the king's departure.

In the vacuum between James's departure and the accession of William and Mary uncertainty and fear pervaded the country. Anybody suspected of having been part of James's inner circle was rounded up. Penn was looked upon with suspicion, and one of the first fruits of this suspicion was a hostile encounter, in December 1688, shortly after the king's escape. The council of peers of the realm ordered the safeguarding of the ports and seizure of anyone deemed to be a threat to the government at such a time. Penn had been walking past Scotland Yard in Whitehall when some officers of the guard seized him on suspicion and brought him before the peers at Whitehall. In fact, he had come from Lord Godolphin, who had just spoken to Prince William. Clearly, there was a lack of communication within the government brought about by the chaos, because Penn's abrupt arrival before the peers, many of whom were his personal friends, was somewhat embarrassing for both sides. Ultimately Penn was released on bail amounting to £5000, for which ‘two gentlemen of great estates in his neighbourhood were his bayle’ (R. Beddard, A Kingdom without a King, 1988, 175). The two gentlemen were Lord Philip Wharton and Charles Gerard, Lord Brandon, both whigs and no lovers of papists. Yet Penn was seen as a collaborator with James. In the whig view of the revolution, Penn and other dissenters who collaborated with the Catholic king were regarded as at best turncoats and at worst traitors. While many contemporary whigs and dissenters undoubtedly shared this view, there was a significant number who did not feel that co-operating with the king was a betrayal of their principles. They argued that the end of universal toleration justified the means whereby they sought to attain it through working with the monarch. Penn was one of these people, and his defence of his position was clearly accepted by most of the peers before whom he was brought.

Evidently the council was split over what to do in the interim between the flight of James and the acceptance of the government by William. At this point nobody had decided that William was to be king. The greater fear was for the safety of the realm against a Catholic insurrection or invasion. For that, Penn was looked upon as a Jesuit in Anglican quarters to the extent that he was referred to as Father Penn by his enemies. His opponents in the council were led by Sir Robert Sawyer, former attorney-general to James and virulent opponent of Catholic toleration, who resigned from office in 1687 over the issue. The combination of papist threats and the manner in which he pursued toleration put Penn squarely as one of the key collaborators with James and his policies. Therefore, Sawyer accused the Quaker as a dangerous invader of English laws and liberties. It was true that Penn took part in the strategy to pack parliament and could therefore be accused of subverting the liberties of Englishmen. He tried to justify his involvement by explaining his desire to secure toleration by means of a statute in law. That could only be accomplished through parliament. The process of selecting MPs was, perhaps, questionable, but Penn defended himself by saying that he had always endeavoured to secure liberty of conscience by law so that no papist could ever take it away. The explanation must have been particularly galling to the likes of Sawyer and incredible to the peers before whom Penn stood. No less than one of the greatest political minds of the period was part of that group: George Savile, marquess of Halifax, who had chastised Penn in print for his methods. At this point there was no hard evidence that Penn had ever subverted the freedoms of the people, so he was set free on bail. He had friends in high places including the council. Nevertheless, he found himself arrested time and again and in greater danger than he had ever been.

After the revolution Penn fell from favour. James had absconded to France, and the new regime of William and Mary looked upon him as a part of a larger threat to the country's security. He was accused of conspiring against the new regime. For this he was imprisoned and stripped of his right to govern Pennsylvania. The accusation that he was involved in Jacobite conspiracies to restore James II has generally been rejected by those who regard him as an icon and regard it as a stain on his character, but there is evidence of his being closely involved with Jacobite conspirators. Penn had to claw his way back to political influence by showing support for the new regime. His ability to sway dissent in England and his influence over his colonists in Pennsylvania were also factors in his return to power. His ability also to bring about a Quaker settlement with the new regime resulted in another milestone in his efforts to secure toleration for dissent through the enactment of the affirmation law. However, though he regained his colony and reinstated himself in the political environment, he never attained the pinnacle of influence in England that he enjoyed in the past, despite charges from some quarters that he ‘hath greater interest at Court now than ever he had in King James's reign’ (Hunt. L., Blathwayt MSS, box 4, BL 2). His second and last visit to Pennsylvania in 1699–1701 proved very disappointing for him. He had to make concessions to a strong anti-proprietary party by granting them the charter of privileges, thus annulling the right of the council to sit as a second legislative chamber, effectively making the Pennsylvania legislature unicameral. He also reluctantly conceded to the lower counties the right to secede, a right they exercised in 1704. In the last years of his life, during the reign of Queen Anne, Penn worked to put the Affirmation Act on a permanent basis. But, other than writing a tract against the Anglican effort to penalize occasional conformity at the outset of the reign, he seems to have distanced himself from any overt religious activity.

Last years and legacy

On 5 March 1696 Penn married for the second time. His wife was Hannah Callowhill (1670–1726), daughter of Thomas Callowhill, an influential Bristol merchant. They had two daughters, one of whom, Margaret, lived into adulthood and married Thomas Freame of Philadelphia, and four sons, John, , Richard, and Dennis, all of whom became co-proprietors of Pennsylvania.

Penn's last years were overshadowed by illness and financial worries. He suffered two strokes in 1712 and left his wife to take care of his business. He died on 30 July 1718 at Ruscombe, Berkshire, and was buried at the Quaker burial-ground at Jordans, near Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire.

By the time of his death Penn had become an inextricable part of the political life of England, connected with everyone who was anyone in politics and business. Among his contacts had been Godolphin, a central figure in English politics under the later Stuarts, the duke of Marlborough, Lord Somers, the leader of the whig junto, and the earl of Rochester, a prominent high-church tory. After the accession of George I he remained close to the powerful third earl of Sunderland and to the former tory prime minister, Robert Harley, earl of Oxford. Penn chose Harley to be one of the executors of his will. Even after his debilitating stroke in October 1712 Penn's influence was impressive enough to fend off creditors and political enemies. He influenced religious and political thought in an age of experimentation. Although he did not invent the concept of religious toleration, he brought it to its highest point in the governing principles of his colony. Such toleration became the touchstone of religious and ethnic plurality from which the American ethos grew. His political philosophy extended to Europe, where, in his efforts to resolve once and for all a continent in conflict, he showed his awareness of a changing world and an acumen for realpolitik. In his 1693 work An Essay toward the Present and Future Peace of Europe, Penn was able to assess astutely the realities of political diplomacy by recognizing Turkey in the great scheme of Europe rather than limiting his vision to a narrow view of Christendom.

Mary K. Geiter


M. K. Geiter, William Penn (2000) · Papers of William Penn, ed. M. M. Dunn and R. Dunn, 1–4 (1981–6), vols. 1–4 · Hist. Soc. Penn., Penn papers · CSP dom., 1690–91 · BL, Add. MSS 70015–70017 · The manuscripts of S. H. Le Fleming, HMC, 25 (1890), 280, 285, 314 · Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. C. 938, fol. 117 · A collection of the works of William Penn, ed. J. Besse (1726) · H. S. Barbour, William Penn on religion and ethics: the emergence of liberal Quakerism, 2 vols. (1991) · M. Amyraut, A treatise concerning religion (1660) · ‘Ent'ring book’, DWL, Morrice MS Q · The manuscripts of the earl of Westmorland, HMC, 13 (1885); repr. (1906) · Bishop Burnet's History, vol. 4 · Diary of the times of Charles the Second by the Honourable Henry Sidney (afterwards earl of Romney), ed. R. W. Blencowe, 2 vols. (1843) · J. P. Kenyon, Robert Spencer, earl of Sunderland (1956) · Clarendon state papers, Bodl. Oxf., 89 · W. N. Hargreaves-Mawdsley, Oxford in the age of John Locke (1973) · Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, Verney papers · Hunt. L., Blathwayt papers · DNB


American Philosophical Society, Phildaelphia, corresp. and MSS · Beds. & Luton ARS, papers · BL, papers, Egerton MS 2168 · Haverford College, Pennsylvania, letters and MSS · Hist. Soc. Penn., corresp. and MSS · Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, papers |  RS Friends, Lond., letters and other material · Surrey HC, letters to Lord Somers


F. Place, drawing, c.1696, Hist. Soc. Penn. [see illus.] · B. West, portrait, 1773 · statue, 1893, Town Hall, Philadelphia · Prior?, etching, NPG · copy (of portrait, 1666), Hist. Soc. Penn. · copy (of portrait, 1666), Christ Church Oxf. · duplicate (of ivory bust by S. Bevan, 1727), Hist. Soc. Penn.

Wealth at death  

12,000 acres in Pennsylvania and Shanagarry, Ireland; also Warminghurst Place, Sussex: Dunn and others, eds., Papers of William Penn