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The idea of founding a separate colony in America as a refuge for persecuted Quakers was not original with William Penn, but with George Fox, the founder of the sect. Fox was a man of intense religious fervor and of wonderful personal magnetism. Greatly trouble in conscience, he sought rest for his unquiet soul in the Established Church, then among the Dissenters, and finally, after a most diligent study of the Bible, he felt that the "inner light" had dawned upon him, and he went forth to preach to the world. He began preaching at the age of twenty years, in 1644, the year in which William Penn was born. His sincerity was unquestioned and his fervor was contagious; he became the found of a sect, the prime actor of one of the greatest religious movements of the seventeenth century. The times seemed ripe for such an awakening, and within forty years from the time that Fox began preaching his followers numbered seventy thousand.

The Quakers refused to recognize all social ranks, or to pay taxes to carry on wars, and they met with great opposition from the beginning; their meetings were often dispersed by armed men; an act of Parliament pronounced them a "mischievous and dangerous people." It was not long until the Quakers, driven by persecution, began to migrate to America. Their reception in Massachusetts and elsewhere was anything but cordial, and this led them to turn their attention to founding a colony of their own. Most of the followers of Fox were from the lower walks of life, and they were greatly elated when the talented young son of Admiral Penn, a personal friend of the king, became an open convert to their society. The admiral at first stormed at his son for taking this step. The king was about to raise the elder Penn to the peerage, but when he heard that the son had become a Quaker, he drew back. This increased the fury of the father against his son. But his anger was short-lived; he at length forgave him, and William Penn soon became the most prominent Quaker in England. His experience in New Jersey we have noted; but owing to the various contentions of that colony with New York and to the want of clear land titles, home seekers were rather repelled than invited, and Penn cast a wistful eye to the fair lands beyond the Delaware.

The king of England was indebted to Admiral Penn to the sum of 16,000, and William Penn, on the death of his father, inherited the claim. At Penn's request King Charles granted him, in payment of this claim, a tract of forty thousand square miles in America. In the petition to the king, dated June, 1680, Penn asked for the territory west of the Delaware River and from the northern boundary of Maryland to the north "as far as plantable, which is altogether Indian." It was the largest grant ever made to one man in America. The charter was granted the following March. Penn had chosen the name New Wales for his province, but the king called it Pennsylvania in memory of the deceased admiral.1

The dispute between Lord Baltimore and Penn began the same year in which the charter was granted, the former claiming that the fortieth degree fell north of Philadelphia, whereas the king in granting the charter had supposed it would fall at the head of Delaware Bay. Penn therefore insisted that the line be fixed where it was supposed to be, and, after a long contention, the matter was settled in his favor. The boundary line, however, was not determined until many years later -- long after Penn and Baltimore were in their graves. It was not until 1767 that two English surveyors, Mason and Dixon, completed this line, which has since borne their names, and which, after acquiring a new meaning, became the most famous boundary line in the New World.2

Of all the colony builders of America the most famous in our history is Penn. Nor was he excelled by any in sincerity of purpose and loftiness of aim. His province was a princely domain, a vast fertile region traversed by beautiful rivers and lofty mountain ranges, and holding beneath the soil a wealth of minerals unequaled for it was one vast forest, extending from the Delaware over the Appalachia Mountain system, down its western slope and far into the Ohio Valley. It was inhabited by Indians alone, except for a few Swedish hamlets along the lower Delaware, the inhabitants of which, some five hundred in number, Penn pronounced a "strong, industrious people." Penn was granted ample power for the government of his new possessions, the king requiring, as a token of allegiance, two beaver skins each year, and also a fifth of the gold and silver that might be mined. In this feature the charter reminds us of the charter of Maryland. The proprietor was clothed with the power to establish courts, appoint judges, to train soldiers, to wage wars, and to make laws; but the king retained the veto power, and, unlike all the other colonial charters, the power of taxing the people of the colony was reserved to the English Parliament. This provision remained a dead letter until the approach of the Revolution, when it became very significant.3 A strange omission of this charter was that it did not guarantee the settlers the rights of Englishmen, as did the other charters. To gain an outlet to the sea Penn purchased of the Duke of York the three counties of Delaware, as we have seen.

That Penn was a religious enthusiast and a true philanthropist is well known; that he was a man of the world whose secondary object, private gain, was never lost sight of, is not so well known, but equally true.4 His venture in colony planting was soon published widely over England. He drew up a frame of government and offered a liberal share of the government to the colonists. He also offered five thousand acres for one hundred pounds and one hundred acres for two pounds, subject to a small quitrent, and it was not long till many were ready to join the enterprise. Penn appointed his relative, William Markham, the first governor of Pennsylvania, and in the autumn of 1681 sent him ahead with three shiploads of emigrants. Markham bore an affectionate letter from the proprietor to the Swedes in which he said, "You shall be governed by laws of your own making, and live a free, and if you will, a sober, industrious people."

The year after Markham's voyage Penn himself followed him to the New World in the ship Welcome. The passengers numbered about a hundred, one third of whom died of smallpox on the ocean. The Welcome sailed up the Delaware and landed at New Castle in the autumn of 1682. Penn was received with a cordial greeting by the inhabitants; he produced his royal patent, which transferred the territory from the duke to himself, and spoke so kindly to the people that he readily won their hearts. Reaching Chester, he called a provisional legislature, and some time was spent in allotting lands and framing laws. Proceeding up the Delaware, he came to the site on which was to rise the city of Philadelphia, soon to become the chief city in colonial America, and in a later generation the birthplace of independence and of the Constitution of the United States. Here already stood a Swedish village, and a Lutheran church at Wicaco,5 and here Penn decided to build a city and make it the capital of his province. He purchased from the Swedes the neck of land between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers, and in the early months of 1683 the streets of the new city were laid out. The growth of Philadelphia was phenomenal. In less than four years it had passed New York, which had been founded sixty years before.

It was a few months after this time that Penn made his famous treaty with the Indians under a great elm tree on the banks of the Delaware, a short distance north of the newly founded city.6 The Indians were of the Delaware or Lenni-Lenape tribe. The chiefs sat in a semicircle on the ground, says tradition,7 while Penn, with a few unarmed attendants, all in their Quaker garb, addressed them as friends and brothers, compared the white and red men to the different members of the human body, and made a pledge to live in peace and friendship with them. These children of the forest were deeply touched by the sincerity and open candor of the great Englishman, and they answered through a chief that they would "live in love with William Penn and his children as long as the sun and moon gave light."

These mutual vows constituted the treat; no written words were required and no oath was taken. Yet this sacred treaty was kept unbroken till long after those who had made it had passed away. It was said that the Quaker dress was a better protection among the Indians than a musket, and that when an Indian wished to pay the highest compliment to a white man, he would say, "He is like William Penn."8

In the early spring of 1683 the legislature of the colony met in Philadelphia. The proprietor presented a new frame of government, giving all power of lawmaking into the hands of the people represented by a council which should originate all laws and an assembly that should approve them. All freemen were made citizens and all Christians were freemen, except servants and convicts. A law passed united the "Lower counties" to Pennsylvania and naturalizing the Swedes. Penn was voted the veto power for life. Laws were made for the training of children, the useful employment of criminals, religious toleration -- and all were in keeping with the human spirit of the proprietor. For some years the government was very unsettled.

Penn had established a home in Philadelphia, and there would he gladly have spent his life; but his trouble with Baltimore took home back to England in the summer of 1684, and his business kept him there for fifteen years. After the English Revolution Penn was suspected of giving aid and comfort to the dethroned monarch whose brother had granted him his charter, and in 1692 he was deprived of his colony. The control of Pennsylvania was then placed into the hands of Governor Fletcher of New York. But nearly two years later, the charges against Penn having been removed, his right to Pennsylvania was restored. In 1696 Markham granted a new frame of government, in which the power to originate legislation was taken from the council and given to the assembly. Again, in 1699, William Penn crossed the Atlantic to visit his growing family in the forest of Pennsylvania, and he found that vast changes had been wrought in his absence. Twenty thousand people had made their homes in his province. The city that he had founded was fast rising to importance, and the wilderness of the river valley was dotted with farms. Here he found not only his fellow Quakers, but Germans from the Rhine, Swedes, and Dutch, together laying the foundations of a great commonwealth.

The great-souled proprietor had been deeply humbled since last he saw the fair lands of Pennsylvania, -- he had lost his faithful wife and eldest son, he had lost his fortune, and he had borne the charge of treason against his native country. And now to these was added another sorrow -- the people of his province had been weaned away from him during the intervening years; he was no longer the "Father Penn" that he had been before; they clamored for even greater freedom than his generous soul had granted them at first, and to this was added the demand of Delaware for a separate government.9 Penn was grieved, but he granted these requests. He gave Delaware a separate legislature, and a new government to Pennsylvania. The form of government that Penn now conferred on his colonists practically transferred all power to the people, subject to their allegiance to the Crown, and the veto power of the governor. It eliminated the council as a legislative body, giving it but a negative influence as an advisory board to the governor. It also defined the rights of prisoners, granted liberty of conscience, and made provision for amendments. This constitution remained in force for seventy-five years -- to the War for Independence.

In 1701 Penn bade a final adieu to his beloved Pennsylvania and sailed again for his native land. But even now, after his long years of turmoil, it was not for him to spend his old age in rest and quiet. On reaching England, he found that he had been robbed of the remnant of his fortune by an unjust steward, and later he was thrown into prison for debt. In his earlier manhood he had suffered various imprisonments for conscience' sake, but now he chafed under confinement and to secure his release mortgaged his province in the New World. But still other misfortunes awaited him. He was stricken with paralysis, and for years he lay a helpless invalid, dying in 1718 at the age of seventy-four.

The character of Penn is one of the most admirable in history. It is difficult to find a man, especially one whose life is spent in the midst of political turmoil and governmental strife, so utterly incorruptible as was William Penn. When on the threshold of manhood, when the hot flush of youth was on his cheek, the blandishments of wealth and station and of royal favor beckoned him to a life of ease and pleasure; but he turned away from them all and chose to cast his lot with a despised people -- purely for conscience' sake. No allurements of Pharaoh's court, no threats of an angry father, nor frowning walls of a prison-cell could shake his high-born purpose to serve God in the way that seemed to him right. His life was full of light and shadow. He suffered much, but he also accomplished much -- far more than the age in which he lived was ready to acknowledge. He founded a government and based it on the eternal principle of equal human rights, with its sole object as the freedom and happiness of its people; and that alone was sufficient to give him a name in history.

Thirty-seven years elapsed between the founding of Pennsylvania and the death of the founder, and he spent but four of these years in America; yet we are wont to regard William Penn almost as truly an American as was Franklin or Washington, and in the annals of our country his name must ever hold a place among the immortals.

The growth of Pennsylvania was more rapid than that of any other of the thirteen colonies, and though it was the last founded save one, it soon came to rank with the most important, and at the coming of the Revolution it stood third in population. Penn had willed the colony to his three son, John, Thomas, and Richard, and these with their successors held it until after the Revolution. In the early part of the eighteenth century a great number of palatine Germans, driven from their homes by religious wars, found their way to Pennsylvania, settled Germantown (since absorbed by Philadelphia), and scattered over the Schuylkill and Lehigh valleys. The English were for a time alarmed at the influx of such numbers of a foreign people; but they were not long in discovering that these Germans were an industrious, peace-loving people, fairly educated, and, while wholly unostentatious, as sincerely religious as the Puritan or the Quaker.

Still greater during this period was the stream of Scotch-Irish from Ulster. These hardy Scotch Presbyterians, who had occupied northern Ireland for two or three generations, being curbed in their industries for the protection of English industries and annoyed by petty religious persecution, came to America in great numbers,10 -- so great as to form more than half the population of Pennsylvania, and to spare many thousands of their numbers to the southern colonies along the coast and the wilderness of Kentucky and Tennessee. In Pennsylvania they settled chiefly on the plains and mountain slopes west and south of the Susquehanna. These people, as well as the Germans and others, were attracted to Pennsylvania because of the liberal, humane government inaugurated by William Penn. Slavery was never popular in Pennsylvania, and the number of slaves was kept down by strict laws against their importation. Before the Revolution many of them had been set free by their masters. Of Redemptioners, mostly Germans and Irish, there were probably more in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century than in any other colony. The majority of them, after their period of servitude, became useful citizens.

During the long period of her colonial youth we find in Pennsylvania the same kind of quarreling between the people and the governors, the same vagaries in issuing paper money, the same unbridled spirit of freedom, the same monotonous history, as we find in most of the other colonies. Among her governors we find in the early period no really great men, but in 1723 there arrived in Philadelphia a young man from Boston who soon rose to be the leading figure in the colony, and so he continued for more than half a century. This was Benjamin Franklin, who, it may be further said, was the greatest character of colonial America.


1Penn came near being the author of the name of his colony. When "New Wales" was abandoned he suggested "Sylvania" (from the Latin word "sylva," a forest) and the king added the prefix, "Penn.." [return]

2The province was to extend five degrees westward from the Delaware River; and "the said lands to be bounded on the north by the beginning of the three and fortieth degree of Northern Latitude, and on the South by a Circle drawn at twelve miles distance from New Castle Northward and Westward unto the beginning of the fortieth degree of Northern latitude." (See Poore's "Charters," Vol. II, p. 1510.) Just what the "beginning of the three and fortieth" and the "beginning of the fortieth" degrees meant was not clear. Penn, finding that the fortieth degree fell too far north to give him a harbor on the Chesapeake, contended that the "beginning" of the fortieth degree did not mean the fortieth degree, and he won in part; but it cost him dearly, for, although the charter set the northern boundary at the "beginning of the forty-third degree," which would have thrown it north of Buffalo, was finally fixed at the forty-second degree. In 1732 the heirs of Penn and Baltimore signed an agreement that the line between Pennsylvania and Maryland be run due west from the tangent of the western boundary of Delaware with the arc twelve miles from New Castle. Many years of further wrangling followed, when it was decided to employ the two expert surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who fixed the line at 39 44 and extended it westward about 230 miles. At intervals of a mile small cut stones were set in the ground; each stone had a large "P" carved on the north side, and a "B" on the south side. Every five miles was placed a larger stone bearing the Pennsylvania coat of arms on one side and that of Lord Baltimore on the other. These stones were cut in England and afterward brought to the colonies. A few of them still stand, but time has crumbled many of them; others have been carried away piecemeal by relic hunters, and a few are doing service as steps before the doors of farmhouses along the route.
nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; When Mason and Dixon's line was run both Pennsylvania and Maryland were slave colonies. In later years Pennsylvania emancipated her slaves, while Maryland retained hers and went with the South. During the half-century preceding the Civil War, the original limits and meaning of the line were lost sigh of; no one thought of it as a boundary between two states, but rather as the boundary between the free and slave states.

3See Poore's, "Charters," p. 1515.[return]

4See Shepherd's "Proprietary Government in Pennsylvania," p. 174.[return]

5This church still stands near the bank of the Delaware, and is one of the most interesting landmarks in Philadelphia.[return]

6The city has long since absorbed the place. The elm was blown down in 1810, and a beautiful monument now marks the spot.[return]

7This tradition is doubtless based on Benjamin West's painting. See Fisher's "True William Penn," pp. 242-245. [return]

8Governor Markham had already treated with the Indians for the purchase of lands, and Penn, on various occasions after this meeting at Shackamaxon, made bargains with them for lands, the most famous of which was the "Walking Purchase." By this he was to receive a tract of land extending as far from the Delaware as a man could walk in three days. Penn and a few friends, with a body of Indians, walked about thirty miles in a day and a half and as he needed no more land at the time, the matter was left to be finished at some future time. (See Channing's "Students' History," p. 117.) In 1733, long after Penn's death, the other day and a half was walked out in a very different spirit. The whites employed the three fastest walkers that could be found, offering each five hundred acres of land. One of them was exhausted and died in a few days, another injured himself for life, but the third, a famous hunter named Marshall, walked over sixty miles in the day and a half, greatly to the chagrin of the Indians. See Walton and Brumbaugh's "Stories of Pennsylvania," p. 39.[return]

9Delaware had been granted a separate government as early as 1691, but the following year Governor Fletcher, of New York, reunited it to Pennsylvania.[return]

10Fiske, "Dutch and Quaker Colonies," Vol. II, p. 353.[return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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