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William Penn was born in London, October 14, 1644. He was the son of a naval officer of the same name, who served with distinction both in the Protectorate and after the Restoration, and who was much esteemed by Charles II. and the Duke of York. At the age of fifteen he was entered as a gentleman-commoner at Christchurch, Oxford. He had not been long in residence, when he received, from the preaching of Thomas Loe, his first bias toward the doctrines of the Quakers; and in conjunction with some fellow-students he began to withdraw from attendance on the Established Church, and to hold private prayer-meetings. For this conduct Penn and his friends were fined by the college for non-conformity: and the former was soon involved in more serious censure by his ill-governed zeal, in consequence of an order from the king that the ancient custom of wearing surplices should be revived. This seemed to Penn an infringement of the simplicity of Christian worship; whereupon he, with some friends, tore the surplices from the backs of those students who appeared in them. For this act of violence, totally inconsistent, it is to be observed, with the principles of toleration which regulated his conduct in after life, he and they were very justly expelled.
Admiral Penn, who, like most sailors, possessed a quick temper and high notions of discipline and obedience, was little pleased with this event, and still less satisfied with his son's grave demeanor, and avoidance of the manners and ceremonies of polite life. Arguments failing, he had recourse to blows, and as a last resource, he turned his son out of doors; but soon relented so far as to equip him, in 1662, for a journey to France, in hope that the gayety of that country would expel his new-fashioned and, as he regarded them, fanatical notions. Paris, however, soon became wearisome to William Penn, and he spent a considerable time at Saumur, for the sake of the instruction and company of Moses Amyrault, an eminent Protestant divine. Here he confirmed and improved his religious impressions, and at the same time acquired, from the insensible influence of those who surrounded him, an increased polish and courtliness of demeanor, which greatly gratified the admiral on his return home in 1664.
Admiral Penn went to sea in 1664, and remained two years on service. During this time the external effects of his son's residence in France had worn away, and he had returned to those grave habits, and that rule of associating only with religious people, which had before given his father so much displeasure. To try the effect of absence and change of associates, Admiral Penn sent William to manage his estates in Ireland, a duty which the latter performed with satisfaction both to himself and his employer. But it chanced that, on a visit to Cork, he again attended the preaching of Thomas Loe, by whose exhortations he was deeply impressed. From this time he began to frequent the Quakers' meetings; and in September, 1667, he was imprisoned, with others, under the persecuting laws which then disgraced the statute-book. Upon application to the higher authorities, he was soon released. Soon after the admiral again turned him out of doors.
In 1668, he began to preach, and in the same year he published his first work, "Truth Exalted, etc." We cannot here notice his very numerous works, of which the titles run, for the most part, to an extraordinary length; but "The Sandy Foundation Shaken," published in the same year, claims notice as having led to his first public persecution. He was detained in prison for seven months, and treated with much severity. In 1669 he had the satisfaction of being reconciled to his father. He was one of the first sufferers by the passing of the Conventicle Act, in 1670. He was imprisoned in Newgate, and tried for preaching to a seditious and riotous assembly in Gracechurch Street; and this trial is remarkable and celebrated in criminal jurisprudence for the firmness with which he defended himself, and still more for the admirable courage and constancy with which the jury maintained the verdict of acquittal which they pronounced.
In the same year died Sir William Penn, in perfect harmony with his son, toward whom he in the end felt the most cordial regard and esteem, and to whom he bequeathed an estate computed at #1,500 a year--a large sum in that age. Toward the end of the year he was again imprisoned in Newgate for six months, the statutable penalty for refusing to take the oath of allegiance, which was maliciously tendered to him by a magistrate. This appears to have been the last absolute persecution for religion's sake which he endured. Though his poor brethren continued to suffer imprisonment in the stocks, fines, and whipping, as the penalty of their peaceable meetings for divine worship, the wealthy proprietor, though he travelled largely, both in England and abroad, and labored both in writing and in preaching, as the missionary of his sect, both escaped injury, and acquired reputation and esteem by his self-devotion. To the favor of the king and the Duke of York he had a hereditary claim, which appears always to have been cheerfully acknowledged; and an instance of the rising consideration in which he was held appears in his being admitted to plead, before a committee of the House of Commons, the request of the Quakers that their solemn affirmation should be admitted in the place of an oath.
Penn married in 1672, and took up his abode at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire. In 1677 we find him removed to Worminghurst, in Sussex, which long continued to be his place of residence. His first engagement in the plantation of America was in 1676, in consequence of being chosen arbitrator in a dispute between two quakers who had become jointly concerned in the colony of New Jersey.
In these transactions he had the opportunity of contemplating the glorious results which might be hoped for from a colony founded with no interested views, but on the principles of universal peace, toleration, and liberty; and he felt an earnest desire to be the instrument in so great a work, more especially as it held out a prospect of deliverance to his persecuted Quaker brethren in England, by giving them a free and happy asylum in a foreign land. Circumstances favored his wish. The crown was indebted to him #16,000 for money advanced by the late admiral for the naval service. Accordingly, Penn received, in 1681, a grant by charter of that extensive province, named Pennsylvania by Charles himself, in honor of the admiral.
He immediately drew up and published "Some Account of Pennsylvania, etc.;" and then "Certain Conditions or Concessions, etc.," to be agreed on between himself and those who wished to purchase land in the province. These having been accepted by many persons, he proceeded to frame the rough sketch of a constitution, on which he proposed to base the charter of the province. The price fixed on land was forty shillings, with the annual quit-rent of one shilling, for one hundred acres; and it was provided that no one should, in word or deed, affront or wrong any Indian without incurring the same penalty as if the offence had been committed against a fellow-planter; that strict precautions should be taken against fraud in the quality of goods sold to them; and that all differences between the two nations should be adjudged by twelve men, six of each. And he declares his intention "to leave myself and my successors no power of doing mischief; that the will of one man may not hinder the good of a whole country." It was this constitution, substantially, which Burke, in his "Account of the European Settlements in America," describes as "that noble charter of privileges, by which he made them as free as any people in the world, and which has since drawn such vast numbers of so many different persuasions and such various countries to put themselves under the protection of his laws. He made the most perfect freedom, both religious and civil, the basis of his establishment; and this has done more toward the settling of the province, and toward the settling of it in a strong and permanent manner, than the wisest regulations could have done on any other plan."
In 1682 a number of settlers, principally Quakers, having been already sent out, Penn himself embarked for Pennsylvania, leaving his wife and children in England. On occasion of this parting, he addressed to them a long and affectionate letter, which presents a very beautiful picture of his domestic character, and affords a curious insight into the minute regularity of his daily habits. He landed on the banks of the Delaware in October, and forthwith summoned an assembly of the freemen of the province, by whom the frame of government, as it had been promulgated in England, was accepted. Penn's principles did not suffer him to consider his title to the land as valid without the consent of the natural owners of the soil. He had instructed persons to negotiate a treaty of sale with the Indian nations before his own departure from England; and one of his first acts was to hold that memorable assembly, to which the history of the world offers none alike, at which this bargain was ratified, and a strict league of amity established. We do not find specified the exact date of this meeting, which took place under an enormous elm-tree, near the site of Philadelphia, and of which a few particulars only have been preserved by the uncertain record of tradition. Well and faithfully was that treaty of friendship kept by the wild denizens of the woods; "a friendship," says Proud, the historian of Pennsylvania, "which for the space of more than seventy years was never interrupted, or so long as the Quakers retained power in the government."
Penn remained in America until the middle of 1684. During this time much was done toward bringing the colony into prosperity and order. Twenty townships were established, containing upward of seven thousand Europeans; magistrates were appointed; representatives, as prescribed by the constitution, were chosen, and the necessary public business transacted. In 1683 Penn undertook a journey of discovery into the interior: and he has given an interesting account of the country in its wild state, in a letter written home to the Society of Free Traders to Pennsylvania. He held frequent conferences with the Indians, and contracted treaties of friendship with nineteen distinct tribes. His reasons for returning to England appear to have been twofold; partly the desire to settle a dispute between himself and Lord Baltimore, concerning the boundary of their provinces, but chiefly the hope of being able, by his personal influence, to lighten the sufferings and ameliorate the treatment of the Quakers in England. He reached England in October, 1684. Charles II. died in February, 1685. But this was rather favorable to Penn's credit at court; for beside that James appears to have felt a sincere regard for him, he required for his own church that toleration which Penn wished to see extended to all alike. The same credit, and the natural and laudable affection and gratitude toward the Stuart family which he never dissembled, caused much trouble to him after the Revolution. He was continually suspected of plotting to restore the exiled dynasty; was four times arrested, and as often discharged in the total absence of all evidence against him. During the years 1691, 1692, and part of 1693, he remained in London, living, to avoid offence, in great seclusion; in the latter year he was heard in his own defence before the king and council, and informed that he need apprehend no molestation or injury.
The affairs of Pennsylvania fell into some confusion during Penn's long absence. Even in the peaceable sect of Quakers there were ambitious, bustling, and selfish men; and Penn was not satisfied with the conduct either of the representative Assembly, or of those to whom he had delegated his own powers. He changed the latter two or three times, without effecting the restoration of harmony; and these troubles gave a pretext for depriving him of his powers as governor, in 1693. The real cause was probably the suspicion entertained of his treasonable correspondence with James II. But he was reinstated in August, 1694, by a royal order, in which it was complimentarily expressed that the disorders complained of were produced entirely by his absence. Anxious as he was to return, he did not find an opportunity till 1699; the interval was chiefly employed in religious travel through England and Ireland, and in the labor of controversial writing, from which he seldom had a long respite. His course as a philanthropist on his return to America is honorably marked by an endeavor to ameliorate the condition of Negro slaves. The society of Quakers in Pennsylvania had already come to a resolution, that the buying, selling, and holding men in slavery was inconsistent with the tenets of the Christian religion; and following up this honorable declaration, Penn had no difficulty in obtaining for the negroes free admission into the regular meetings for religious worship, and in procuring that other meetings should be holden for their particular benefit. The Quakers, therefore, merit our respect as the earliest, as well as some of the most zealous, emancipators.
The governor returned to England in 1701, to oppose a scheme agitated in Parliament for abolishing the proprietary governments and placing the colonies immediately under royal control; the bill, however, was dropped before he arrived. He enjoyed Anne's favor, as he had that of her father and uncle, and resided much in the neighborhood of the court, at Kensington and Knightsbridge. In his religious labors he continued constant, as heretofore. He was much harassed by a lawsuit, the result of too much confidence in a dishonest steward; which being decided against him, he was obliged for a time to reside within the Rules of the Fleet Prison. This, and the expenses in which he had been involved by Pennsylvania, reduced him to distress, and in 1709 he mortgaged the province for #6,600. In 1712 he agreed to sell his rights to the government for #12,000, but was rendered unable to complete the transaction by three apoplectic fits, which followed each other in quick succession. He survived, however, in a tranquil and happy state, though with his bodily and mental vigor much broken, until July 30, 1718, on which day he died at his seat at Rushcomb, in Berkshire, where he had resided for some years.
His first wife died in 1693. He married a second time in 1696; and left a family of children by both wives, to whom he bequeathed his landed property in Europe and America. His rights of government he left in trust to the Earls of Oxford and Powlett, to be disposed of; but no sale being ever made, the government, with the title of Proprietaries, devolved on the surviving sons of the second family.