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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise William Penn (1644-1718)

[1216] William Penn, Plan for the City of Philadelphia, in A Letter from William Penn . . . to the Committee of the Free Society for Traders of That Province, Residing in London (1683 [1881]).

William Penn was an unusual convert to Quakerism. Most Quakers came from relatively humble backgrounds and possessed little formal education, but Penn was Oxford-educated and a member of an elite and wealthy family. His father, an intimate of King Charles II, had served as an admiral in the Royal Navy and held substantial property in Ireland and England. Despite his conventional Anglican upbringing, Penn found himself drawn to the controversial religious ideas of non-conforming Protestants at an early age (he was expelled from Oxford for religious nonconformity). During a visit to Ireland, Penn encountered Quaker preaching, began to attend meetings regularly, and eventually converted to Quakerism in 1667.

Penn was attracted to Quakerism for many of the qualities that made it so controversial: the sect’s belief that divine grace resided within all individuals in the form of an “inner light,” “spirit,” or “Christ within” was powerfully egalitarian and radical in its implications, which Penn found appealing. Emphasizing the importance of unmediated, individual feeling in spiritual enlightenment, Quakers viewed scripture as secondary and rejected entirely the institution of professional clergy. Because they believed that all life was sacred, they refused to engage in violence or enlist in military service. Quakers’ egalitarian spirituality also led to tolerance of people who did not share their beliefs and confidence in women’s spiritual equality. Because these beliefs were threatening to the rigidly hierarchical social order of seventeenth-century England, Quakers were perceived as heretics and, as such, were persecuted.

After his conversion, Penn began preaching Quaker doctrine and lobbying extensively for religious tolerance; these activities resulted in his imprisonment on several occasions. Eventually, a combination of shrewd business acumen and a commitment to finding a safe haven for Quakers led Penn to make plans to found a colony in the New World. In 1681, he convinced Charles II to grant him a large piece of land west of the Delaware River and north of Maryland, to be called “Pennsylvania” in honor of Penn’s father. As the sole proprietor, Penn had the power to sell plots of land, to make laws, and to establish a system of government. Because he believed in a limited monarchy and a system of checks and balances, Penn invested much of the power of the government in the settlers of Pennsylvania, creating a legislative assembly of freely elected representatives. Pennsylvanians enjoyed guaranteed civil rights and religious freedom from the start. Penn’s commitment to civil liberties and cultural pluralism also moved him to make diplomatic relations with Native Americans a priority, a consideration that was unique to Pennsylvania among American colonies. Before setting up his government, Penn addressed a letter to the local Lenni Lenape Indians, acknowledging their right to the land and assuring them of his respect and his intention to always deal fairly with them. Thanks largely to the tone that Penn initially set, Native Americans and European settlers lived peacefully together in Pennsylvania for over half a century.

Despite its fine record of religious and racial tolerance, the colony did not always live up to Penn’s utopian ideals or entrepreneurial vision. Legal entanglements, border conflicts with other colonies, debts, and political intrigue in both England and Pennsylvania caused problems. Penn was forced to move back and forth between England and the New World several times, trying to deal with personal debts and to settle conflicts within the colonial community. He left the colony forever in 1701. His final years were marred by a period of incarceration in debtors’ prison, a debilitating stroke, and disappointment over the profligacy of his son. Although Penn was ultimately unable to transform his utopian vision into a political reality, his legacy lives on in the prolific collection of writings he produced (over 130 books, pamphlets, and letters) and in long-standing American ideals of tolerance, cultural pluralism, and the separation of church and state.

Teaching Tips

  • Students may assume that the seventeenth-century Quakers and Puritans were similar to one another since they shared some traits: both groups immigrated to escape persecution and dreamed of creating a utopian society that would purify the Christian religion and serve as a model to the rest of the world. It is crucial that students understand that, despite these similarities, the Quakers and Puritans were fundamentally different from one another and endorsed radically different values. The Puritans’ insistence on rigid hierarchies, religious conformity, and a typological worldview were completely at odds with the Quakers’ commitment to religious and racial tolerance, their pacifism, their support of women’s spiritual equality, and their belief that written scripture was secondary to an individual’s “inner light.” The Puritans were so outraged by Quaker theology that they banished, tortured, and even executed Quakers who attempted to preach in Massachusetts. Ask your students to make a list of the differences between Quakers and Puritans. Have them consider how the values of each group have had a lasting effect on American values, politics, or national character.
  • In his “Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians,” Penn explains his belief that the Indians and the Quakers (and indeed all people) share the same God and are ruled by the same moral laws: “This great God has written his law in our hearts, by which we are taught and commanded to love and help and do good to one another, and not to do harm and mischief one unto another.” This statement helps elucidate the Quakers’ commitment to pacifism and their theological doctrine of the “inner light,” or the manifestation of divine love that dwells inside and thus unites all humans. Ask your students to consider the implications of the idea that God “has written his law” in all people’s hearts. Have them compare this notion to Puritan ideas about spiritual election. How might these different views of spirituality have affected the way Puritans and Quakers chose to deal with Native Americans?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In his “Letter to the Lenni Lenape,” Penn acknowledges that Europeans before him have treated Native Americans with “unkindness and injustice.” What specific problems do you think he is referring to? How does he propose to right these injustices? What is new about his approach? Why do you think he decided to acknowledge this history of European exploitation of Indians in his letter? What effect do you think it would have had on the Native Americans to whom the letter is addressed?
  2. Context: Read the land deed documenting Penn’s purchase of land from Machaloha, a member of the Delaware tribe, included in the archival material. What assumptions underwrite this legal document? Why do you think Penn decided to codify his purchase of Native American land in this way? How does the deed compare to the wampum belt included in the archival materials?
  3. Context: Compare the migration legend of the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indians to the migrations stories told by Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation. How does each speak of the place from which the came and the home they made upon arriving?
  4. Exploration: What role did the Quaker tradition in Pennsylvania have in the development of America as a nation? Do you see any legacies of Quaker thought and practice within our culture today?

Selected Archive Items

[1211] John Sartain, William Penn Portrait (The Armor Portrait) After 1666 Portrait, Penn Aged 22, Only One Taken From Life (n.d.)
courtesy of Pennsylvania State Museum.
This portrait depicts a young William Penn at the age of 22. The original piece was composed four years after his expulsion from Oxford University as a result of his denunciation of the Anglican Church, and sixteen years before Penn’s voyage to America where he established the colony of Pennsylvania. His colony was meant to be a safe haven for Quakers, like himself, and other religious minorities who faced persecution in the other New England colonies. Other famous Quakers include John Woolman who argued on behalf of American slaves in Some Considerations For The Keeping Of Negroes. See also: Relations with Native Americans. Freedom of Religion. Quaker. Francis Daniel Pastorious.”

[1214] Benjamin West, William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1711),
courtesy of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.
The work portrays Penn’s 1682 peace meeting with the Delaware tribe in Shackamaxon (present-day Kensington, Pennsylvania). Although there is no evidence that this meeting between Anglos and Indians actually took place, it has become part of American mythology�in large part because of West’s painting.

[1216] William Penn, Plan for the City of Philadelphia, in A Letter from William Penn… to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of That Province, Residing in London (1683 [1881]).
Penn’s plan reflects Quaker hopes for a colonial utopia of human reason informed by inner divine revelation. The right-angled plan treats the land like a Lockean blank slate and differs sharply from Native American settlement patterns.

[2092] Constantin Brumidi, William Penn and the Indians (ca. 1878),
courtesy of Architect of the Capitol.
This is a representation of Penn with the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indians at the time of the Treaty of Shackamaxon in 1682, designed to ensure the friendship between the Native American group and Penn’s Pennsylvania Colony. William Penn and the Indians is a panel from the Apotheosis of Washington frieze, by Brumidi, which lines the rotunda of the United States Capitol.

[2094] Major, William Penn at the Treaty-Signing in 1682 (1882),
courtesy of Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Lithograph on title page of Bicentennial March: 1682-1882: William Penn’s March by Aug. Loumey (Philadelphia: Lee & Walker, 1882). This depiction of Penn at the signing of the treaty with the Delaware Indians at Shakamaxon shows him wearing a Broadbrim or “Quaker hat,” usually gray or brown and made of felt or beaver.

[4092] William Penn, The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania in America (1682),
courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Rare Book and Special Collections Division [27].Title page from Penn’s charter.

[5214] Iroquois wampum belt,
courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Wampum, usually found in bead form and made from Quahog shells found along the southern New England coast, was an important item for exchange and political dealings among Indians; after European settlement, it came to resemble a type of currency.

[7175] Gary Nash, Interview: “Penn and the Indians in Comparison to the Puritans” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Nash, the award-winning author of First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory and a professor of American history at UCLA, discusses similarities and differences between William Penn and the Puritans, particularly their relations with Native Americans.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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