The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
The man who founded one of the largest and most successful colonial enterprises ever launched in the western hemisphere belonged to a fringe religious sect known as the Quakers. Quakers were part of the long tail of the Reformation. Actually, they were a breakaway faction of the breakaway Puritans. The sect was born in the mid-seventeenth England under the leadership of George Fox, a weaver who emerged as a religious savant amid the political turmoil of the English Civil War. Fox named his group The Society of Friends; they got their nickname for the way they allegedly shook or trembled when they experienced union with God. English Puritan reformers were trying to reform the clergy; Fox argued that the faithful could do without clergy altogether. He and like-minded believers embraced a simple practice of worship that involved gathering in meetinghouses and sitting silently until – literally – the spirit moved someone to speak, an experience of growing tension and intensity that often led to the so-called quaking.
Such experiences made everything else secondary, if not dispensable. Walk into a Catholic Church to this day and one will see a large, graphic piece of piece of religious inconography in the form of a crufix with a bleeding Christ nailed to the cross. It gets your attention and commands reverence. Walk into a mainstream Protestant denominational church like that of the Anglicans, and one will find a simple, abstract cross. Walk into a Quaker meetinghouse, however, and you will find plain white walls. (Needless to say, there will be no stained glass windows, not to mention a minister). This emphasis on simplicity would prove durably attractive; today people with little in the way of religious inclinations themselves admire everything about the Quakers from their furniture to their pacifism.
There was a curiously aggressive quality to Quaker simplicity, however. Quakers insisted on using informal pronouns like “thee” and “thou” instead of “you” and “your” with everyone, and refused to remove their hats for anyone, rituals of religious egalitarianism that caused them no end of trouble when dealing with government authorities who did not deal kindly with those unwilling to show due deference. Quakers also had a disturbing tendency to go naked in public, a statement of transparency that could be a little hard to take. All of this might not have been so bad if the they had not also proselytized, amid many official and unofficial warnings that they desist, in civic places. At a time when there was a growing consensus in England and elsewhere that people could worship as they wished in private or secluded settings, Quakers got in your face. Nicely.
At the heart of the Quaker vision of life was an affirmation of “the inner light,” a belief in the holiness of every person that allowed them to know right and to do good. In a sense, this was the worst of all Puritan worlds: an Antinomian conceit that one can know the will of God coupled, with a retrograde Catholic notion that good works can become a means of salvation. Quakers drove lots of people crazy, but Puritans in particular hated their flat rejection of predestination. Mary Dyer, a Quaker friend of Anne Hutchinson who repeatedly refused to comply with her banishment, was finally hanged for her intransigence. And yet, like the Puritans and many other Protestant dissidents, Quakers weathered multiple forms of adversity, managing to grow in numbers and cross the Atlantic. And like the Puritans, too, they proved to be skilled traders and became increasingly prosperous.
William Penn was the most famous Quaker in American history – and a highly unlikely one. Here, truly, was a man to the manor born, the son of a successful Admiral who largely managed to stay on the good side of King Charles I, the regime of Oliver Cromwell that overthrew him, and the restored monarchy of Charles II (which strikes me as more impressive than his naval accomplishments, which included adding the fabulously profitable island of Jamaica to the England’s portfolio). His namesake would inherit his father’s money along with his social skills.
At first, young William Penn did not appear especially unusual among men of his class, then or later. He went to good schools, traveled widely, and embraced fads like French fashion. His Quakerism, which he picked up from a missionary in Ireland, initially seemed to his father part of a passing phase like venereal disease – irritating for sure, but not something that prevented his son from taking on responsibilities like helping put down an insurrection there and managing the family estate. But though he put it aside for a time, the younger Penn’s adopted faith became an increasingly important, and obvious, dimension of his life. In the famous words of English writer Samuel Pepys, “Mr. Will Pen, who is lately come over from Ireland, is a Quaker again, or some melancholy thing.” (Maybe drug addiction is a better analogy than VD.)
Like his compatriots, Penn was disputatious: he frequently got into arguments, staged formal debates, and wrote prodigiously in promoting Quakerism and the right of good English subjects to practice it. Such habits frequently got him thrown in jail, but his social connections also repeatedly got him out. Actually, Penn is an important figure in Anglo-American jurisprudence for his success in prevailing in a landmark legal dispute, the Bushel Case (1670), where a judge’s repeated overturning of Penn’s acquittal for unlawful assembly was declared illegal. (Edward Bushel was one of the jurors imprisoned for his refusal to convict Penn and his co-defendants.)
But Penn’s greatest talent may well have been his ability to make strange bedfellows. One of the most confusing aspects of his career is his sustained good terms with King Charles II and his brother James, the former a closet Catholic and the latter an avowed one. The royal family seems to have viewed Penn’s youthful shenanigans indulgently, apparently with sympathetic affection for Penn’s father. (The Stuart monarchs have been fairly criticized on any number of counts, but they have always seemed less doctrinaire in their personal lives than the often self-righteous Puritans and Anglicans who surrounded them.) It was in the mid-seventeenth century that the modern political system that pitted reform-minded Whigs against more traditionalist Tories first emerged, and for most of his career the younger Penn was affiliated with the former, notwithstanding his sometime awkward relations with both factions arising from his increasingly common presence at court.
There was, nevertheless, an element of logic in Penn’s relationship with the Stuarts, especially James, who became King in 1685. In important respects Quakers and Catholics were about as far apart as one could get on a Christian spectrum. Actually, there have been doubts, then and since, about whether Quakers are in fact Christians at all, given a persistent vein in their thinking that has challenged the divinity of Christ, an argument Penn himself made in the 1660s that got him in serious trouble before he backtracked in order to get out of prison. But Quakers and Catholics alike were subject to harassment and criticism, both in the social realm as well as in the laws passed by Parliament, and both had an interest in promoting the right of conscience.
Penn’s father died in 1670, shortly after his son’s success in the Bushel Case. By that point the two men had made their peace with each other, and Penn inherited a substantial estate. Over the course the next decade he was drawn to the center of an increasingly complex and volatile political situation, caught in the middle between Whig allies trying to check the Stuarts and prevent the Catholic James from succeeding to the throne on one side, and his personal ties to the dynasty on the other. It was also in these years that both Crown and Parliament were seeking tighter controls over England’s North American colonies.
In the midst of all this, Penn managed to draw the political equivalent of an inside straight. Until this point he had shown little interest in America, despite its evident attraction to many of his fellow Quakers. But he was beginning to feel his situation and that of the Friends was growing increasingly difficult. Penn’s father had loaned Charles II a substantial sum of money; it was far from clear when or if it would ever be paid back. Penn managed to diplomatically suggest the debt could be painlessly discharged by granting him a piece of remote real estate on the other side of the world. The King liked the idea, so much so that he gave Penn a tract that was bigger than England itself and convinced his brother to drop his claims on the territory we have come to known as Delaware. Though he was planning on taking away the charters of recalcitrant colonies like Massachusetts and centralizing colonial government generally, the King clearly considered a splashy gift to a vocal dissident who happened to be a trusted ally a good political move. Charles even named the grant; Penn was planning on calling it “Sylvania,” but the King demanded it be dubbed Pennsylvanvia: Penn’s Woods. It was officially established as a colony in 1682.
Penn’s gift came with all manner of complications. His territory, sandwiched between New York, Maryland, and the murkily organized New Jersey, would provide an endless series of border headaches. The English government imposed all kinds of trading restrictions, and the notoriously independent minded Quakers had their own ideas about governance. But Penn threw himself into this new project with boundless energy. As one of his recent biographers has written, for him “religion was an experience, not an intellectual process.” It was also one that spoken to a core precept of his faith: a sense of agency that allowed him to act as he saw fit. As Penn once said, “Godliness don’t turn Man out of the World, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it.” [191,63]. Endeavor Penn did.
To that end he made a series of important decisions that would decisively shape the fate of Pennsylvania, embodied in the famous Frame of Government that he drafted before leaving England. Among its key provisions were religious tolerance for all who believed in God, the same civil rights to settlers as were available in England, and scrupulous care in negotiating with Indians (indeed, Pennsylvania became a haven for harassed Indian tribes). The government would consist of a governor, a 72-member council, and – an important innovation – a 500-seat general assembly. Penn would have veto power, but he assumed he wouldn’t really need it: popular will and executive will would dovetail in what would literally and figuratively be a Society of Friends.
Penn would be repeatedly frustrated in this assumption. He was forced to revise his Frame repeatedly, and for the rest of his life – only a few years of which were actually spent in Pennsylvania – he wrangled with the government and people of Pennsylvania over how the colony should be ruled and over rents he expected but rarely received. (He was almost broke when he received Pennsylvania, and bad financial decisions hobbled his fortunes until his death in 1718.) For the next century, Pennsylvania would be among the most fractious of Great Britain’s American colonies, and among the most politically divided at the time of the American Revolution.
Part of Penn’s problems stemmed from a seeming contradiction that probably appears a lot more glaring to us than it did him and many of his contemporaries: he was a Quaker aristocrat. Though he embraced many of the egalitarian tenets of his faith, Penn always acted with the serene confidence of a member of a small national elite, and expected others to recognize him as such. Regarding other people as spiritual equals did not necessarily mean you regard them as a social equals, and even if you do regard them as social equals, that doesn’t necessarily mean you regard them as a political or economic ones. Quakers were not communists, especially as they grew more prosperous, and while many opposed slavery, for example, it’s also clear that many did not. (Slavery didn’t even begin to become illegal in Pennsylvania until 1780, on a basis of gradual abolition.) Notions of equality are always relative.
That said, Penn never seemed to realize that a substantial and growing number of his fellow Quakers had a wider and deeper notion of equality than he did. He was surprised and hurt when they did not simply passively accept his leadership – or in many cases actively rejected it, as when they refused to pay taxes to defray the costs of his colonial experiment. Penn’s heirs (he had eight children with two wives over the course of his long life) proved less interested than he was in Quakerism. In the decades before the American Revolution the omnipresent Benjamin Franklin took the lead in resisting what many residents regarded as the family’s high-handedness.
And yet for all this, Pennsylvania was a fabulous success. Penn’s decision to make his colony a uniquely open place made it the magnet he hoped it would be, and though it was the penultimate of the 13 colonies to be founded (Georgia came along in 1732) it was among the largest in population by the time of the Revolution. He had been dealt a very good card in its access to the Delaware Bay, which he exploited in personally laying out the broad avenues for the city of Philadelphia, which became the biggest city in America by the time of the Revolution, second only in the Anglo world to London. After the Revolution, the state became the linchpin of the nation, a major source of its agricultural productivity and industrial prowess.
It would be inaccurate to say that William Penn single-handedly brought this about – for one thing, he was the product of a religious culture that profoundly shaped his choices. But few individuals have acted in ways that have had more profound and durable consequences. In an evocative 1983 essay Edmund Morgan summed up his life: “He made his mark because what he wanted and argued for, pleaded for, almost fought for was not quite outside the possible. He left his mark because he knew how he world worked and was prepared, in spite of its denunciations, to work within its terms.”  Penn chose an identity, and with it he fashioned a world.
Next: some closing thoughts on God and the self-made man