Brief History of William Penn

William Penn (1644-1718) founded the Province of Pennsylvania. The democratic principles he set forth served as an inspiration for the U.S. Constitution.

Born into a distinguished Anglican family, Penn joined the Quakers at the age of 22. The Quakers obeyed their “inner light,” which they believed to come directly from God. They refused to bow or take off their hats to any man, and refused to take up arms.

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 in 1681. The area would later be named Pennsylvania. Perhaps the king was glad to have a place where religious and political outsiders (like the Quakers, or the Whigs) could have their own place, far away from England.

Penn’s authority over the colony was officially second only to that of the king. Penn implemented a democratic system of government with full freedom of religion, fair trials, elected representatives of the people in power, and a separation of powers.

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

After the building plan for Philadelphia had been completed and Penn’s political ideas had been put into a workable form, Penn explored the interior. He befriended the local Indians and ensured that they were paid fairly for their lands.

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 nearly lost Pennsylvania. 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 Berkshire and was buried in England. His family retained ownership of the colony of Pennsylvania until the American Revolution.

Source: Brief History of William Penn
Copyright © 1999-2017 by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as ushistory.org. On the Internet since July 4, 1995.

Back to top