Logo of the letter Q with a dove inside.

Quakers & the Political Process

An exhibit, July to Dec. 2000

Quakers & the Political Process
Overview & Introduction
Who are the Quakers?
History, Beliefs & Testimonies
Quaker West New Jersey
Democracy in 1677
Penn's Holy Experiment
Seed of a Nation
Quaker Political Contribution
From Governance to Advocacy
Quaker Presidents
Hoover & Nixon

Links Pages

Exhibit 2000 Working Group
Support and Outreach Committee

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
1515 Cherry Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102-1479
URL: http://www.pym.org/
tel: 215-241-7000
fax: 215-567-2096

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Penn's Holy Experiment:
The Seed of a Nation

Printable copy

... That an example may be set up to the nations as ... a holy experiment.

  - William Penn

Penn, more than any other individual founder or colonist, proved to be the chosen vessel through which the stream of demand for respect for individual rights was to flow so richly into our American reservoir of precious ideals.

William Wistar Comfort,
American Quaker, 1947

"William Penn: Man of Vision, Courage, Action" - N. C. Wyeth

King Charles signing the Charter of Pennsylvania, 1681, mural, Governor's Reception Room, State Capital, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. - Violet Oakley

Facsimile of The Original Charter of Charles II to William Penn, for Pennsylvania, 1681. - The Lakeside Press

WILLIAM Penn (1644-1718) was granted full proprietary rights to Pennsylvania, which then included Delaware, in 1681. This was one of the largest land grants given to an individual in the history of the world, and with it came enormous political power.

Penn's life reflects the changes his Quaker beliefs made in his attitudes towards society and government. He was an Admiral's son who became a pacifist, a lawyer who came to advocate binding arbitration, a man given autocratic power who promoted representative government, a landed gentleman who spent his life working on behalf of the poor and the prisoner. He developed a concept of reciprocal liberty, available to everyone of any gender, race or religion.

In creating his colony's government, Penn expanded upon the experiences of Friends in West New Jersey and Rhode Island in a comprehensive Frame of Government, Great Law, and Charter of Privileges which many historians believe formed the pattern for most of the state and the federal constitutions. Penn invented a new layer of government - the County Commission - as elected officials to keep order and peace, now the model system for most of America's local government. When he suffered a series of strokes, he gladly appointed his second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn, acting proprietor in his stead. She served from 1712 until her death in 1726, actively promoting commerce and peaceful settlement of the colony's western lands.

William Penn - Francis Place

Hannah Callowhill Penn.
Friends Historical Library,
Swarthmore College

For you are now fixed at the mercy of no governor that comes to make his fortune great; you shall be governed by laws of your own making and live a free, and if you will, a sober and industrious life. I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person. God has furnished me with a better resolution and has given me his grace to keep it.

  - William Penn, 1681, letter to those already residing in Pennsylvania

"Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia", 1682. - Thomas Holme
Thomas Holme, 1624-1695: Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, Irma Corcoran

PENN has been called the first city planner in the New World. He designed Philadelphia and other towns with a grid pattern of streets, buildings and public squares to promote health and fire safety, in reaction to London's various disasters. By 1765 Philadelphia had become the largest city in the thirteen colonies.

William Penn Charter School, the oldest Quaker school in the world, was chartered by Penn in 1689.
  • Penn's "greene countrie townes" reflected the Quaker respect for nature and environmental diversity.
  • He made occupations in agriculture, crafts and trade so attainable that his colony became renowned as "the best poor man's country."
  • Penn provided public, practical education to all children.
  • His imprisonment for his beliefs inspired him to substitute workhouses for dungeons.
  • While contemporary English law assigned the death penalty for over 200 crimes, Penn limited it only to murder and treason in his colonies.
  • His penal system was designed to reform, not just to punish.
  • He also provided in 1681 that "All prisoners shall be bailable by sufficient sureties, unless for capital offences, where the proof is evident or the presumption great...All prisons shall be free, as to fees, food and lodging."

IN 1693, Penn wrote a plan for the "Present and Future Peace of Europe," which included settling disputes between nations by arbitration instead of war. This plan is considered a prototype of the United Nations, which acknowledges this legacy by celebrating UN Day on Penn's birthday (October 24).

He suggested a similar union of the American colonies as early as 1696, writing proposals which Benjamin Franklin and others incorporated into the U.S. Constitution a hundred years later. Congress met in Philadelphia for more than 20 years, allowing the representatives to see the effective, daily working of Penn's laws in a multicultural, urban setting.

When in 1733 St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church was founded... it was the only place in the entire English speaking world where public celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was permitted by law.

In 1734 the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania defending the liberty of worship granted by William Penn to this colony successfully withstood the demand of the Governor of the Province that this church be outlawed and such liberty be suppressed. Thus was established permanently in our nation the principle of religious freedom which was later embodied into the Constitution of the United States of America.

Plaque, Old St. Joseph's Shrine, Philadelphia

PENN'S guarantee of religious freedom and the rights of conscience attracted other dissenting groups such as the Moravians, Mennonites and Dunkards to Pennsylvania. For much of the 18th century, Penn's colony was the only place under British rule where Catholics could legally worship in public.

All men have a natural and infeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or modes of worship.

  - William Penn, Declaration of Rights

PENN respected Native American personal, religious and property rights and made every effort to insure justice towards them. Peace existed between the Pennsylvania government and local tribes for 70 years - as long as the Friends controlled the colony's government.

"Penn's Treaty with the Indians", The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. - Benjamin West

There is one great God and power that hath made the world and all things therein, to whom you, and I, and all people owe their being and well-being, and to whom you and I must one day give an account for all that we have done in the world... . Now this great God has been pleased to make me concerned in your part of the world; ... but I desire to enjoy it with your love and consent, that we may always live together as neighbors and friends... . I have great love and regard to [sic] you and desire to win and gain your love and friendship by a kind, just, and peaceable life; and the people I send are of the same mind, and shall in all things behave themselves accordingly... .

William Penn's letter to the Lenape Nation, 1681

Facsimile of Penn's handwritten letter to the Indians, 1681

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