William Penn Biography

Penn Portrait

William Penn (October 14, 1644–July 30, 1718) founded the Province of Pennsylvania, the British North American colony that became the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. The democratic principles that he set forth served as an inspiration for the United States Constitution. Ahead of his time, Penn also published a plan for a United States of Europe, “European Dyet, Parliament or Estates.”

Religious beliefs

Although born into a distinguished Anglican family and the son of Admiral Sir William Penn, Penn joined the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers at the age of 22. The Quakers obeyed their “inner light”, which they believed to come directly from God, refused to bow or take off their hats to any man, and refused to take up arms. Penn was a close friend of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. These were times of turmoil, just after Cromwell’s death, and the Quakers were suspect, because of their principles which differed from the state imposed religion and because of their refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Cromwell or the King (Quakers obeyed the command of Christ to not swear, Matthew 5:34).

Penn’s religious views were extremely distressing to his father, Admiral Sir William Penn, who had through naval service earned an estate in Ireland and hoped that Penn’s charisma and intelligence would be able to win him favor at the court of Charles II. In 1668 he was imprisoned for writing a tract (The Sandy Foundation Shaken) which attacked the doctrine of the trinity.

Penn was a frequent companion of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, travelling in Europe and England with him in their ministry. He also wrote a comprehensive, detailed explanation of Quakerism along with a testimony to the character of George Fox, in his Introductionto the autobiographical Journal of George Fox.


Penn was educated at Chigwell School, Essex where he had his earliest religious experience. Thereafter, young Penn’s religious views effectively exiled him from English society — he was sent down (expelled) from Christ Church, Oxford for being a Quaker, and was arrested several times. Among the most famous of these was the trial following his arrest with William Meade for preaching before a Quaker gathering. Penn pleaded for his right to see a copy of the charges laid against him and the laws he had supposedly broken, but the judge, the Lord Mayor of London, refused — even though this right was guaranteed by the law. Despite heavy pressure from the Lord Mayor to convict the men, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty”. The Lord Mayor then not only had Penn sent to jail again (on a charge of contempt of court), but also the full jury. The members of the jury, fighting their case from prison, managed to win the right for all English juries to be free from the control of judges. (See jury nullification.)The persecution of Quakers became so fierce that Penn decided that it would be better to try to found a new, free, Quaker settlement in North America. Some Quakers had already moved to North America, but the New England Puritans, especially, were as negative towards Quakers as the people back home, and some of them had been banished to the Caribbean.

The founding of Pennsylvania

In 1677, Penn’s chance came, as a group of prominent Quakers, among them Penn, received the colonial province of West New Jersey (half of the current state of New Jersey). That same year, two hundred settlers from the towns of Chorleywood and Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire and other towns in nearby Buckinghamshire arrived, and founded the town of Burlington. Penn, who was involved in the project but himself remained in England, drafted a charter of liberties for the settlement. He guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections.

King Charles II of England had a large loan with Penn’s father, after whose death, King Charles settled by granting Penn a large area west and south of New Jersey on March 4, 1681. Penn called the area Sylvania (Latin for woods), which Charles changed to Pennsylvania in honor of the elder Penn. Perhaps the king was glad to have a place where religious and political outsiders (like the Quakers, or the Whigs, who wanted more influence for the people’s representatives) could have their own place, far away from England. One of the first counties of Pennsylvania was called Bucks County, named after Buckinghamshire (Bucks) in England, where the Penn’s family seat was, and from whence many of the first settlers came.

Although Penn’s authority over the colony was officially subject only to that of the king, through his Frame of Government he implemented a democratic system with full freedom of religion, fair trials, elected representatives of the people in power, and a separation of powers — again ideas that would later form the basis of the American constitution. The freedom of religion in Pennsylvania (complete freedom of religion for everybody who believed in God) brought not only English, Welsh, German and Dutch Quakers to the colony, but also Huguenots (French Protestants), Mennonites, Amish, and Lutherans from Catholic German states.

Penn had hoped that Pennsylvania would be a profitable venture for himself and his family. Penn marketed the colony throughout Europe in various languages and, as a result, settlers flocked to Pennsylvania. Despite Pennsylvania’s rapid growth and diversity, the colony never turned a profit for Penn or his family. In fact, Penn would later be imprisoned in England for debt and, at the time of his death in 1718, he was penniless.

Wampum belt

From 1682 to 1684 Penn was, himself, in the Province of Pennsylvania. After the building plans for Philadelphia (“Brotherly Love”) had been completed, and Penn’s political ideas had been put into a workable form, Penn explored the interior. He befriended the local Indians (primarily of the Leni Lenape (aka Delaware) tribe) , and ensured that they were paid fairly for their lands. Penn even learned several different Indian dialects in order to communicate in negiotiations without interpreters. Penn introduced laws saying that if a European did an Indian wrong, there would be a fair trial, with an equal number of people from both groups deciding the matter. His measures in this matter proved successful: even though later colonists did not treat the Indians as fairly as Penn and his first group of colonists had done, colonists and Indians remained at peace in Pennsylvania much longer than in the other English colonies.

Penn began construction of Pennsbury Manor, his intended country estate in Bucks County on the right bank of the Delaware River, in 1683.

Penn also made a treaty with the Indians at Shackamaxon (near Kensington in Philadelphia) under an elm tree. Penn chose to acquire lands for his colony through business rather than conquest. He paid the Indians 1200 pounds for their land under the treaty, an amount considered fair. Voltaire praised this “Great Treaty” as “the only treaty between those people [Indians and Europeans] that was not ratified by an oath, and that was never infringed.” Many regard the Great Treaty as a myth that sprung up around Penn. However, the story has had enduring power. The event has taken iconic status and is commemorated in a frieze on the United States Capitol.

Penn visited America once more, in 1699. In those years he put forward a plan to make a federation of all English colonies in America. There have been claims that he also fought slavery, but that seems unlikely, as he owned and even traded slaves himself. However, he did promote good treatment for slaves, and other Pennsylvania Quakers were among the earliest fighters against slavery.

Penn had wished to settle in Philadelphia himself, but financial problems forced him back to England in 1701. His financial advisor, Philip Ford, had cheated him out of thousands of pounds, and he had nearly lost Pennsylvania through Ford’s machinations. The next decade of Penn’s life was mainly filled with various court cases against Ford. He tried to sell Pennsylvania back to the state, but while the deal was still being discussed, he was hit by a stroke in 1712, after which he was unable to speak or take care of himself.

Penn died in 1718 at his home in Ruscombe, near Twyford in Berkshire, and was buried next to his first wife in the cemetery of the Jordans Quaker meeting house at Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire in England. His family retained ownership of the colony of Pennsylvania until the American Revolution.

Odds and Ends

Arm chair

On November 28, 1984 Ronald Reagan, upon an Act of Congress by Presidential Proclamation 5284 declared William Penn and his second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn, each to be an Honorary Citizen of the United States.

There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story of an en encounter between Penn and George Fox, in which Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of his station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs.

There is a common misconception that the smiling Quaker found on boxes of Quaker Oats is William Penn. The Quaker Oats Company has stated that this is not true.

Quaker advocate

Appearances, in Penn's case, were misleading. While supervising his father's Irish estates, Penn was drawn into the Quaker world. His conversion to Quakerism was inspired by the simple piety (religious devotion) of their religion and the need to provide relief for victims of persecution. At the age of twenty-two, against his father's wishes, Penn became a Quaker advocate, or supporter. His marriage in 1672 to Gulielma Maria Springett, of a well-known Quaker family, completed his religious commitment.

Penn's background and political connections were important resources for the persecuted Quakers. A major theme of his many writings was the unfairness of persecution. One remarkable achievement during this period was Penn's handling of the "Bushell Case." Penn managed to convince a jury not to imprison a Quaker only for his faith. When the judge demanded that the jury change its verdict (decision), Penn maintained successfully that a jury must not be influenced by the bench. This landmark case established the freedom of English juries.

Marriage and Children

In 1668, staying with the Quaker family of Isaac Penington of Buckinghamshire, Penn was introduced to Penington’s step-daughter, Gulielma Maria Springett, and it was virtually love at first sight. They were wed on April 4, 1672, and she would bear 8 children, only 3 of whom lived to adulthood, Springer, Laetitia, and William.

Gulielma died on February 24, 1664. On March 5, 1696, William Penn was married once more, to Hannah Callowhill, who would bear 6 children.

[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]).

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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