Heads Up: Willian Penn Followup Coming Soon

Was William Penn Punished Enough? (Partial List)


  •  Cork Ireland, Sept. 1668, for attending meeting.
  •  Tower of London, Nov or Dec-1668 – 8 months; accused (but not tried) of blasphemy, wrote No Cross, No Crown.
  •  Again in August 1670, for preaching, tried with Quaker William Mead in Mead-Bushell case: established the right of juries to reach their own verdict free of judicial pressure.

[NOTE: I’m at work on a substantial post following  up on the case of William Penn; ready soon. Here are some side notes. The earlier post on Penn is here. ]
  •  Feb 1671 arrested again for preaching at meeting, held til August for refusing an oath;
    •  Later 1670s, Penn arrested three more times for religious activity.
    • 1688, Arrested twice for being a friend of James II, now dethroned; Penn acquitted, but takes refuge in the country.
    • 1690, Arrested twice more, on suspicion of conspiring with James; acquitted again.
    • 1708, Arrested, aged 63, for nonpayment of debts; sent to London’s Fleet prison. Held eight months.

– – – – –

Other Items

  • 1670s: writes and argues for toleration in UK, lobbied for release of Quakers in prison; helps establish religious toleration in New Jersey colony
  •  1683, judges the first (& last) Witchcraft trial in Pennsylvania; the accused woman is set free.
  • 1682, in his Frame of Government for PA, Penn includes religious freedom, several democratic processes, endeavored to make his colony of Pennsylvania a “holy experiment” for persecuted Europeans to live together.

Quote: As governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad. If it be ill, they will cure it. But if men be bad, let the government be ever so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.

9 thoughts on “Heads Up: Willian Penn Followup Coming Soon”

  1. Penn, a slaveholder, was in the Commonwealth 1699-1701, and presided over the Pennsylvania Council (all Quakers). Apparently, three times during his presiding, there were proposals that all slaves be freed after a term of service (which Fox had previously proposed.) It was shot down three times.

    BUT, it seems that a group of Friends, including Penn, made private agreements to free their slaves upon their deaths. Penn wrote a will to that effect (but left the Commonwealth for the last time in 1701), and struggled with debts in England for the rest of his life, including being imprisoned for debt for eight months.)

    It seems like it worked. By 1720, there was a free Black community in Philadelphia, that would grow very quickly. This was well before Benjamin Lay and John Woolman, etc. And 11% of Friends freed their slaves in their wills. This was to rise to 29% ten years later. And in the high 40s by 1740.

    We don’t know what role Penn played in these private deliberations. However, it may be true that Penn played a far greater role in abolition than we have given him credit.

    1. I have read the most recent major bio of Penn (by Andrew Murphy), and don’t recall any mention of the abolition proposals. I’d like to hear more about sources for that. I do know that PA was the first of new United States to abolish slavery within its borders, in 1780. Emancipation didn’t happen all at once, but over some years, as enslaved persons reached a certain age. It might not be what we would now demand, but it worked, and clearly it added to the free Black community in the area.And whatever Penn’s failings, and he had some, PA was still the main cradle and nursery of abolitionism (with only Boston as a competitor). Something seemed to work.

      1. There is a whole bunch of Jean Soderland. (She has many books and monographs). I am pretty sure that the figures of the number of Friends who freed slaves in their wills is documented by her.

        Gary Nash wrote Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840.”

        We have no reason to believe that Penn was a leader in this effort. After all, he left in 1701, never to return, and never to be concerned about the colony again (aa he was escaping his creditors). That would be left to his friends, who lived there (we do have their names.) What we have is his will of 1701.

        This is all way before John Woolman, and before Benjamin Lay. (I asked Marcus Rediker if there is any evidence that Benjamin Lay had any contact with what had become a sizeable Black community in Philadelphia. Apparently, not. Nor did Woolman, from what we know. Of course, Benezet did.)

  2. In order to be true to his conscience, John Woolman gave up his comfortable middle class life as a tailor.

    Plus ça change.

  3. Poor Bill!
    I feel he’s suffered enough besides standing up on top of Philadelphia City Hall for years with no chance to sit.

      1. The funds to fix up the non-William Penn House in DC likely came from current slave profits, and if they have an endowment, it is likely also invested in Black African child slaves, also the reason behind the largest war in the world, with seven million dead, in eastern Congo. Quakers have been raped and killed in this war, but we never hear about them.

  4. Because hindsight is 20 20 while foresight is not, it goes against the testimony of integrity to rewrite Quaker [history] with such whitewashing. Penn made so[me] horrific errors and yet he also did a great deal of good. So we drop him to be pure, such purity is of the “scribes and pharisees” and I can not be true to Friends and condone this. Besides every hero I have ever had has had serious errors, but I do not drop them or rewrite history for that reason.

    1. AND he may have done as much or more to actually begin to free slaves than any of the usual Quaker heroes.

      I own Black African child slaves today – through my pension fund, through my retirement funds, through mutual funds. They live under conditions far more brutal than those owned by Penn.

      Do you?

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