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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Utopian

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William
- Anne
- Sarah Kemble
- Thomas Morton
- Samson Occom
- William Penn
- Mary
- Edward Taylor
- John Winthrop
- John Woolman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: 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 Activities
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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.

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