William Penn


William Penn was born in London, the son of an admiral, and he grew up during the reign of Oliver Cromwell. At a young age, he contracted smallpox, causing him to lose his hair and prompting his parents to move him to the countryside. After his father failed in a sea mission to the Caribbean, however, Penn’s family was banished to their property in Ireland. William was at this time fifteen, and he soon met and became friends with Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary who lived for a time in the Penn home. Within a year of the family’s exile, Cromwell was killed, and the Penns returned to England. In 1660, Penn began attending Oxford, where, while an aristocratic Protestant, he found himself sympathizing with the mistreated Quaker students.

William Penn
Penn returned home for the King Charles’ restoration ceremony, where he was a guest of honor alongside his father. Upon his return to Oxford, however, he learned that a well-liked dean of students had been fired for his freethinking philosophy. Penn and other students rallied on the side of the former dean, even when their association resulted in severe punishment. Penn was brought home for a time, and he went back to find that stricter religious requirements had been put in place during his absence. William rebelled and was expelled. His parents, desperate to improve his manners and expose him to other cultures, sent him to Paris. After two years, Penn was brought home once more, and he enrolled in law school for a short time before following his father out to sea. The two returned from their duties during the devastating European plague; the Penn family was spared any losses, but William reflected deeply on the images of suffering that surrounded him. Shortly thereafter, his father contracted gout, and the younger Penn was sent to Ireland to secure the family’s landholdings. While there, he was employed as a soldier, and for a time he considered pursuing a military career. His enthusiasm soon dissipated, however, and Penn returned to London for a visit (this time narrowly missing the Great Fire of 1666) before renewing his work in Ireland.

While in England, he learned that the country’s already restricted religious tolerance had been further tightened, allowing little freedom for any but the Anglicans. Yet regardless of the danger, Penn began to attend Quaker meetings, during which he encountered Thomas Loe once more. When he was arrested for his involvement with the group, Penn publicly declared his devotion to the Quakers and was made a member of the Society of Friends. Penn was recalled to London, where his father refused him his inheritance, but William did not relent and chose instead to live with Quaker families willing to house him. During this time, he became a close friend of Quaker founder George Fox and wrote several religious tracts espousing the latter’s doctrine. The tracts were extremely harsh, and they twice resulted in Penn’s imprisonment for blasphemy. During his second time in jail, he wrote a pamphlet from his cell, complete with citations of sixty-eight authors whose works he had memorized verbatim. After eight months, Penn was freed, but he continued to rant against the intolerance of the Anglican monarchy. His father, although at first disapproving, came to admire his son’s determination, and shortly before his death he organized a compromise with the Duke of York—the future King James II of England—to protect his son from any harm. Following the elder Penn’s death, William was once again arrested, and after his release he decided to approach the English king directly, asking for American land upon which the persecuted Quakers could settle. The king granted his request, and Penn purchased both modern-day New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In 1682, Penn set out with a group of colonists to the region he named “Sylvania,” later changed to Pennsylvania by King Charles in honor of the late admiral. William drew up a Frame of Government promising equality and tolerance for all people, and within six months nearly 300,000 acres had been doled out settling families. Penn established two government houses, and his prisons were used primarily for reform rather than punishment. Much like the Puritans, he outlawed searing, lying, and drunkenness, as well as stage plays and gambling. Only two years into his “Holy Experiment,” Penn returned to visit his family in England and resolve a territorial dispute with Lord Baltimore. Once there, he saw that religious tolerance had been ceased altogether, and hordes of Quakers filled the Bridewell and Newgate A year later, the Duke of York became king, and toleration was somewhat restored, although the new monarch proved a poor leader. Penn, however, was soon faced with another problem; his business manager, Philip Ford, had been embezzling huge sums of money from the colony, and he had even tricked William into signing over the land deed to him. In 1708, the property was officially restored to the Penn family, but for years the colony founder was forced to give him large sums to silence him. Shortly after an agreement was reached between the two men, Penn brought his family to New England, where he found the region greatly changed since his departure years earlier. Penn opened grammar schools to all students, greatly increasing the intelligence of the work force, and Philadelphia soon became a leader in medicine in science, particularly concerning mental illness. Penn also moved in the opposite direction by tightening laws and establishing himself more firmly as leader of the settlement. Yet while Penn enjoyed his time in America, his wife did not, and in 1701 the family returned to England once more.

Back home, Penn immediately faced several difficulties. For one, his eldest son William, Jr. had grown into a gambling addict who largely neglected his family. In addition, the Quakers in America had written a new constitution, and Philip Ford was cheating Penn out of even more money. After Ford’s death in 1702, his wife, now the legal owner of Pennsylvania, threw Penn in debtor’s prison and threatened to sell the territory. Penn sent William, Jr. to settle matters, but he proved entirely unhelpful, and Penn instead attempted to sell the land back to the English crown, which refused his offers. During his second try at reselling the property, Penn suffered two debilitating strokes that rendered him unable to speak of take care of himself. By this time completely poor, William Penn passed away in 1718.

Key events during the life of William Penn:

King Charles II was beheaded during the English Civil War.
Met the Quaker missionary Thomas Loe while living in Ireland.
Death of Oliver Cromwell allowed the Penns to return to England.
Enrolled at Oxford.
Expelled from Oxford.
  Travelled to France at the rquest of his parents.
Returned to England and briefly attended law school before joining his father at sea.
Left for Ireland to secure the family landholdings.
  Publicly joined the Quakers despite the dangers of religious dissention.
Was imprisoned for his harsh religious tracts.
Married Gulielma Springett.
Purchased a charter for present-day New Jersey.
Purchased an addtional charter for present-day Pennsylvania.
Sailed to America.
Returned to England to visit his family.
  Was tricked into transferring ownership of Pennsylvania to his business manager.
Moved back to Pennsylvania.
Returned to England.
Bridget Ford threatened to sell Pennsylvania.
  Failed to sell the colony back to the English crown.
Suffered two strokes that rendered him unable to speak.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Early European Intercourse with the Indians  in  Indian History for Young Folks  by  Francis S. Drake
William Penn and the Indians  in  Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans  by  Edward Eggleston
William Penn  in  America First—100 Stories from Our History  by  Lawton B. Evans
Penn and the Indians  in  Story of the Thirteen Colonies  by  H. A. Guerber
Founding of Pennsylvania  in  This Country of Ours  by  H. E. Marshall
William Penn  in  Heroes of Progress in America  by  Charles Morris
William Penn  in  American History Stories, Volume I  by  Mara L. Pratt
Founder of Pennsylvania  in  The Awakening of Europe  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

William Penn
 in Indian History for Young Folks

Landing of William Penn at Philadelphia
 in Indian History for Young Folks

Penn and the Indians
 in Indian History for Young Folks

William Penn as a young man
 in A First Book in American History

Penn thinks it wrong to take off his hat to his father
 in A First Book in American History

Penn Appeals to the Jury
 in A First Book in American History
Penn and the Indians
Penn and the Indians
 in A First Book in American History

Penn jumping with the Indians
 in Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans

Penn's Treaty
 in Story of the Thirteen Colonies
William Penn
William Penn
 in Back Matter

William Penn's treaty with the indians
 in This Country of Ours

Penn's treaty with the Indians
 in This Country of Ours

Benjamin West's picture of Penn's Treaty
 in Heroes of Progress in America

William Penn
 in Builders of Our Country: Book I

Penn Reading the Treaty to the Indians
 in Builders of Our Country: Book I

Short Biography