William Penn, the Proprietor

Posted in: 1723-1730
By Jeri Haynes
Aug 15, 2008 - 9:17:44 AM

When George and Veronica arrived in Pennsylvania in 1723, John Penn was Pennsylvania’s proprietor. His father, William Penn, had died in 1718 at the age of seventy-three while the Hain’s were living in Schoharie. For most of his life, William Penn lived in England, visiting Pennsylvania only twice, the last time in 1699. But, Pennsylvania and his Quaker faith were uppermost in his thoughts during his entire adult life, where Pennsylvania became a sanctuary for protecting freedom. As a result, William Penn left an important legacy to America’s freedom of religion, liberty and justice.


William Penn was born in 1645, during the reign of Charles I in England. During his rule, the King and Parliament engaged in a struggle for power over the Divine Right of Kings. There were fears throughout England that the King was attempting to gain absolute power, where the people and Parliament would have no right to disobey his Divine powers.


Furthermore, there was the religious issue. Over one hundred years prior, Henry XIII had banished Roman Catholicism from English soil, and in its place established the Church of England. At its head was the King of England. Early in his reign, King Charles took a Catholic princess from France as his wife. The marriage came over the strong objections of both Parliament and public opinion. To make matters worse, he appointed a controversial religious leader who were sympathetic to Catholics as Archbishop of Canterbury. Many believed this act brought the Church of England too close to the Catholic Religion. Many in Parliament could not stand by and see English being forced to change their faith by an unpopular King. 


Wars between Protestants and Catholics had been raging in Europe for decades. And often the conquered citizens would be forced to change religions or be vanquished.  In addition, the politics of Europe would radically shift if England were to become Catholic. The balance of power among the countries would shift probably leading to more wars.  Anger mounted.


To make religious matters worse, England was in the midst of a “Puritan Revolution”, which was challenging English monarch’s control over religion. Puritanism was attempting to change religious intolerance in England and on the Continent. These Puritans were supporting of those in Parliament who were against arbitrary monarchical power. King Charles I was losing control of his realm. These disputes erupted into the English Civil War in 1642. The result was that King Charles I lost his realm and his head.  He was beheaded on a scaffold in the front of Banqueting House at Whitehall in 1749.


Oliver Cromwell succeeded King Charles I after the English Civil War. For the first time in its history, England was ruled without a monarch. William Penn grew to a young man during this time when Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector, and Parliament ruled England. Penn saw the turmoil caused by an absolute Monarch and wars in Europe caused by lack of religious freedom.


In 1660 the Cromwell protectorate collapsed and Charles II, son of Charles I, was invited to return to England and assume the throne. William Penn developed a cordial relationship with King Charles through his father, William Penn, Sr., who was a famous Admiral in the English Navy. I was William Penn, Sr. who took part in the restoration of King Charles II. For his loyalty William Penn, Sr. was knighted by the King.


This close relationship between the Penn family and King Charles II became very valuable to William Penn. In 1681, King Charles II granted the charter as proprietor of Pennsylvania. This charter was in settlement of a debt owned to William Penn, Sr., who had died in 1670. As proprietor and sole owner of Pennsylvania, he was responsible only to the king. This was one of the largest land grants to an individual in history. Making William Penn was one of the largest landowners ever. 


At age twenty-two, William Penn joined the Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends. He saw the Quaker religion as a way to avoid these conflicts and warfare. The Quaker beliefs were based on the principles of non-violence, equality, integrity, and simplicity. These beliefs formed the foundation for his values of religious freedom, government by consent, and rule of law.


He carried these beliefs to Pennsylvania. There he applied them to how he was to govern his colony. In Europe he saw Protestants persecute Catholics, Catholics persecute Protestants, and both persecute Quakers and Jews. Penn established an American sanctuary protecting an individual’s freedom of conscience. William Penn made an important contribution to religious freedom, liberty and personal property rights, constitutional government in the colonies and in England, which laid the foundation for framing the United States Constitution later in the Eighteen century.

William Penn desired his Pennsylvania to be a commercial success, as well as a sanctuary from treachery and intolerance. His plan was to sell partials of land to immigrants and to develop this vast wilderness.

William Penn promoted his venture of his Promised Land by distributing pamphlets in several languages throughout Europe. Even though thousands immigrated during his lifetime, Pennsylvania's rapid growth never provided enough funds to turn a profit. In fact, Penn would later be imprisoned in England for unpaid debts and, at the time of his death, he was virtually penniless. Three generations of the Penn family were proprietors of Pennsylvania. With the signing the Declaration of Independence in 1773 in Philadelphia and the start of the American Revolutionary War the Penn family lost all ownership to their land.

Penn’s planned to attract three classes of settler: purchasers, renters and servants. He believed that purchasers would become the foundation of which he could build a new society away from all the ongoing, hunger, tyranny, conflicts and wars in Europe. Penn would sell each purchaser 5,000 acres. He expected them to subdivide this acreage into smaller tracts. Later, he expanded this purchaser group to include the sales of much smaller tracts of land. The renter class was those immigrants who could afford ship passage for themselves and their families, but did not have the money to purchase land when they arrived. These settlers were given the right to purchase the land whenever they could afford the purchase price. The third class of settler was the servants. Penn considers these people as the labor force. They were the indentured servants. After their indenture period was satisfied, he granted them citizenship and the right to purchase fifty acres of land.

The funds from these sales would pay expenses, and provide income for his family. To run this vast enterprise, he appointed a Governor to act on his behalf while he spent his time in Europe. Hisduty was to administer the holdings and governor the colony.

Penn’s effort to make his colony a commercial success proved futile. It proved to be a serious drain on his funds. He became deeply in debt and desperate to make a profit. By 1708, Penn was force to mortgage Pennsylvania to provide the necessary funds to continue his venture. To insure payment, the lender required sale and collection responsibilities to be administered by commissioners appointed by the mortgagee. Penn’s lifelong quest to have his colonial venture provide wealth for his family never succeeded. At the time of his death in 1718, he was virtually penniless.

Jeri Haynes, June 22, 2008