July 30

1718 The death of William Penns

William Penn, born in London in 1644, was the son of a prominent English admiral. He became a convert to Quakerism, a sect which in the 17th century was infamous for its threats to conventional society and theology. Chambers’ Book of Days gives an account of his life and accomplishments.

His father had bequeathed him a claim on the government of £16,000 for arrears of pay and cash advanced to the navy. Penn very well knew that such a sum was irrecoverable from Charles II; he had long dreamed of founding a colony where peace and righteousness might dwell together; and he decided to compound his debt for a tract of country in North America. The block of land he selected lay to the north of the Catholic province of Maryland, owned by Lord Baltimore; its length was nearly 300 miles, its width about 160, and its area little less than the whole of England. Objections were raised; but Charles was only too glad to get rid of a debt on such easy terms. At the council, where the charter was granted, Penn stood in the royal presence, it is said, with his hat on. The king thereupon took off his; at which Penn observed, ‘Friend Charles, why dost thou not keep on thy hat?’ to which his majesty replied, laughing: ‘It is the custom of this place for only one person to remain covered at a time.’ The name which Penn had fixed on for his province was New Wales; but Secretary Blathwayte, a Welshman, objected to have the Quaker-country called after his land. He then proposed Sylvania, and to this the king added Penn, in honour of the admiral.

The fine country thus secured became the resort of large numbers of Quakers, who, to their desire for the free profession of their faith, united a spirit of enterprise; and very quickly Pennsylvania rose to high importance among the American plantations. Its political constitution was drawn up by Penn, aided by Algernon Sidney, on extreme democratic principles. Perfect toleration to all sects was accorded. ‘Whoever is right,’ Penn used to say, ‘the persecutor must be wrong.’ The world thought him a visionary; but his resolution to treat the Indians as friends, and not as vermin to be extirpated, seemed that of a madman. So far as he could prevent, no instrument of war was allowed to appear in Pennsylvania. He met the Indians, spoke kindly to them, promised to pay a fair price for whatever land he and his friends might occupy, and assured them of his good-will. If offences should unhappily arise, a jury of six Indians and six Englishmen should decide upon them.

The Indians met Penn in his own spirit. No oaths, no seals, no official mummeries were used; the treaty was ratified on both sides with a yea, yea—the only one, says Voltaire, “that the world has known, never sworn to, and never broken.” A strong evidence of Penn’s sagacity is the fact, that not one drop of Quaker blood was ever shed by an Indian; and forty years elapsed from the date of the treaty, ere a red man was slain by a white in Pennsylvania. The murder was an atrocious one, but the Indians themselves prayed that the murderer’s life might be spared. It was spared; but he died in a very short time, and they then said, the Great Spirit had avenged their brother.

It will be thought that Penn made a capital bargain, in the purchase of Pennsylvania for £16,000; but in his lifetime, he drew little but trouble from his investment. The settlers withheld his dues, disobeyed his orders, and invaded his rights; and he was kept in constant disquiet by intrigues for the nullification of his charter. Distracted by these cares, he left his English property to the care of a steward, who plundered him mercilessly; and his later years were saddened with severe pecuniary distress. He was twice married, and in both cases to admirable women. His eldest son, a promising youth, he lost just as he verged on manhood; and a second son, by riotous living, brought himself to an early grave, trying Penn’s fatherly heart with many sorrows. Multiplied afflictions did not, however, sour his noble nature, nor weaken his settled faith in truth and goodness.

Penn’s intimacy with James II exposed him, in his own day, to much suspicion, which yet survives. It ought to be remembered, that Admiral Penn and James were friends; that the admiral, at death, consigned his son William to his guardianship; and that between James and his ward there sprung up feelings apparently amounting to affection. While James was king, Penn sometimes visited him daily, and persuaded him to acts of clemency, otherwise unattainable. Penn scorned as a Quaker, James hated as a Catholic, could sympathise as brothers in adversity. Penn, by nature, was kindly, and abounding in that charity which thinketh no evil; and taking the worst view of James’s character, it is in nowise surprising that Penn should have been the victim of his duplicity. It is well known that rogues could do little mischief, if it were not so easy to make good men their tools.

There was very little of that asceticism about Penn which is thought to belong to—at least early —Quakerism. The furniture of his houses was equal in ornament and comfort to that of any gentleman of his time. His table abounded in every real luxury. He was fond of fine horses, and had a passion for boating. The ladies of his household dressed like gentlewomen—wore caps and buckles, silk gowns and golden ornaments. Penn had no less than four wigs in America, all purchased the same year, at a cost of nearly £20. To innocent dances and country fairs he not only made no objection, but patronised them with his own and his family’s presence.

William Penn, after a lingering illness of three or four years, in which his mind suffered, but not painfully, died at Ruscombe on the 30th July 1718, and was buried at the secluded village of Jordans, in Buckinghamshire. No stone marks the spot, although many a pilgrim visits the grave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *