William Penn on Good Government


Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them are ruined too: wherefore governments rather depend on men, than men upon governments . Let men be good, and the government can’t be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But if men be bad, let the government be never so good; they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.

I know some say, let us have good laws, and no matter for the men that execute them. But let them consider, that though good laws do well, good men do better…

The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania in America, 1682

HT: John Daly of Santa Barbara, California via “The Commons” section of the June 2020 issue of The Atlantic.

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 5

Rare Books 1

Princeton rare books librarian Eric White breaks out a first-edition collection of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and the teachers transform into the paparazzi

It was another busy day at the Gilder-Lehrman Institute‘s “Colonial Era” teacher seminar at Princeton University.  We covered a lot of ground yesterday and traveled through three different regions of British colonial America:

  1. We started the day discussing women and dissent in colonial New England.  We talked about Anne Hutchinson and the “Good Wives” made famous by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
  2.  We had a great day in Philadelphia on Wednesday.  On Thursday we discussed Philadelphia in the larger context of the Middle Colonies with a specific focus on Pennsylvania as a Quaker and liberal colony.
  3.  After lunch we discussed the emergence of slave culture in the rice fields of colonial South Carolina.

We ended the day in the Firestone Library’s Rare Books Department where curator Eric White showed the teachers a host of first editions from the 17th and 18th centuries.  We got to see a copy of John Eliot’s Algonquian Bible and works by William Penn, Cotton Mather, John Locke, George Whitefield, Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Stern, Addison and Steele, and others.  It is always fun to watch the teachers’ eyes light-up as they are exposed to these books.

One more day left!

Rare Books 2

Notes were taken


Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 6


Philadelphia from the Jersey side of the Delaware River, late 18th c.

For earlier installments in this series click here.

It is now time to turn to the text of the Constitution.  What does it say about religion?

The preamble of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 states:

We, the representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, in general convention met, for the express purpose of framing such a government, confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain, by perfecting the arts of government) in permitting the people of this State, by common consent, and without violence, deliberately to form for themselves such just rules as they shall think best, for governing their future society, and being fully convinced, that it is our indispensable duty to establish such original principles of government, as will best promote the general happiness of the people of this State, and their posterity, and provide for future improvements, without partiality for, or prejudice against any particular class, sect, or denomination of men whatever, do, by virtue of the authority vested in use by our constituents, ordain, declare, and establish, the following Declaration of Rights and Frame of Government, to be the CONSTITUTION of this commonwealth, and to remain in force therein for ever, unaltered, except in such articles as shall hereafter on experience be found to require improvement, and which shall by the same authority of the people, fairly delegated as this frame of government directs, be amended or improved for the more effectual obtaining and securing the great end and design of all government, herein before mentioned.

If you have been following along with this series, you should not be surprised by this reference to “the great Governor of the universe.”  This is similar to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable Rights or the similar reference to “Nature’s God.”  These are traditional eighteenth-century references to a providential God who rules over the earth and the universe and presides over human governments.  I don’t think we should read anything more into this statement.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 begins with a “Declaration of Rights.”  Article 1 states “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which was written a couple of months earlier and affirmed in the same building–the Pennsylvania State House–the Pennsylvania Constitution does not state that the rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness come from a “Creator.”  (But perhaps the framers believed that this was already covered in the preamble).

Article 2 of the Declaration of Rights focuses specifically on religion:

That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

This is pretty boilerplate stuff for Pennsylvania.  Religious freedom is afforded to everyone who “acknowledges the being of a God.”  Of course it is worth noting that religious freedom is NOT afforded to people who do not believe in God.  Most likely the framers could not imagine a scenario in which someone who did not believe in God would have a need for religious freedom.

Compare this statement with the two previous (pre-American Revolution) Pennsylvania governments.

William Penn’s 1682 Frame of Government was loaded with religious language, but on the issue of religious freedom the proprietor wrote:

That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.

This statement says a bit more about God than the 1776 Constitution. Religious freedom is afforded to those who believe in a providential creator-God.

The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, which served as the source of government from 1701 and 1776, states:

BECAUSE no People can be truly happy, though under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences, as to their Religious Profession and Worship: And Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship, who only doth enlighten the Minds, and persuade and convince the Understandings of People, I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

In this statement Penn says a little bit more about God, but the religious freedom protection is basically the same as the 1682 Frame of Government and the 1776 Constitution.  Religious freedom is afforded to those “who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World….”

In our next installment we will discuss the Pennsylvania Constitution’s religious “test oath.”  Stay tuned.

History is Relevant



As I was preparing for class today I was hit once again with the relevance of the past.

Today in my U.S. History to 1865 survey course I will be lecturing on Bacon’s Rebellion.  In a timely e-mail, my friend Ben Wetzel of Notre Dame reminded me just what Bacon’s Rebellion was all about.  I have been teaching the rebellion for years, but Ben’s e-mail infused my preparation with even more relevance than usual.

Bacon’s Rebellion is the story of a rich, landed white guy named Nathaniel Bacon who gathered a group of disgruntled, poor, white frontier settlers to rebel against Virginia’s colonial government. His rebels burned the Virginia colonial capitol of Jamestown on September 19, 1676.  Bacon’s troops did not appreciate the fact that the colonial government was not protecting them against Indian raids on the Virginia frontier.  They opposed what they believed to be unfair taxes. They were sick and tired of living under a colonial government controlled by a few elites.  (There were a lot of swamps in colonial Virginia, but I am not sure if Bacon wanted to “drain” them).   I should also add that their hatred of Indians was heavily motivated by race.

Later in the day, in my Pennsylvania History course, I will be teaching about William Penn and religious freedom.  Pennsylvania was the second British-American colony (behind Rhode Island) to offer religious freedom to its inhabitants.  Eighteenth-century religious freedom often had its limits, but in Penn’s era it was a radical concept.

I don’t preach politics in my history classes, although I will bring up the subject if something a politician says or does provides an illustration of good or bad historical thinking.  Tomorrow I probably won’t mention Donald Trump, the 21st-century white working class, our present-day race problems, or the vetting of Muslim refugees. But one cannot ignore the fact that history can offer perspective on contemporary events.

It’s always a great time to study history!

The Author’s Corner with Jean Soderlund

Jean Soderlund is Professor of History at Lehigh University. This interview is based on her new book, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn (University of Penn Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn?

JS: My goals in writing the book evolved over time as I researched and thought about the project. The plan initially was to write about the Lenapes in New Jersey because colonial historians focused primarily on Pennsylvania and suggested that all the surviving Lenapes—called Delawares by the Europeans during the eighteenth century—moved west. I knew that a sizable number of Lenapes remained in New Jersey and wanted to tell their story. With research I learned that the Native people had a significant impact on the development of the Delaware Valley, so that became the larger focus of my book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn?

JS: During the seventeenth century, Lenapes controlled the Delaware Valley, limiting settlement and allying with the Susquehannocks, Swedes, Finns, and other Europeans against heavy-handed Dutch and English authority. In the process, the Lenapes and these colonists interacted on the basis of personal liberty, religious freedom, decentralized government, trade, and peaceful resolution of conflict, thus creating the cultural platform on which Delaware Valley society grew.

JF: Why do we need to read Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn?

JS: Colonial scholars typically begin their histories of other colonies such as Virginia and Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century but start the history of Pennsylvania in 1681 with William Penn. My book uncovers the history of the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth century—one that is quite different from the Chesapeake and New England because the Natives retained control. When the Dutch attempted to establish large-scale plantation agriculture at Swanendael in 1631, the Lenapes killed all its residents and demolished the colony, discouraging expansive settlement for more than fifty years.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JS: I always loved history, and wanted to be a teacher and writer since I was a teenager. My career has been varied: I taught high school and community college; served as an associate editor of the Papers of William Penn and as an archivist; and since 1988 have taught colonial American history at the university level. My primary interest has been relations between people of different ethnicity, economic status, and gender. Peace and justice remain central issues in our society: we can understand society today only if we first learn about the past.

JF: What is your next project?

JS: I’ve started a project on West New Jersey, which was divided from East New Jersey until 1702 when the two unified as New Jersey, but has remained separate—it could be argued even to the present—culturally and economically. West New Jersey was Lenape country in the seventeenth century and remained the homeland of many Natives as late as the 1750s. Its decentralized government, ethnic relations, and pinelands created a society and economy quite different from other colonies, even Pennsylvania. I want to write a history of West Jersey that includes the Lenapes as well as the colonists.

JF: Can’t wait to read it, thanks Jean!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Living History with William Kashatus

I first came across the work of William Kashatus when I won a copy of his book Almost a Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the 1980s Phillies in a University of Pennsylvania Press contest.  Kashatus is a great writer and historian, but I hope he will not be offended if I say that I had a hard time reading the book.  I am a Mets fan 🙂

Kashatus, a history professor at Luzerne County (PA) Community College, is not just interested in baseball.  He also does presentations and performances dressed as William Penn for schools, Quakers meetings, and retirement centers. On March 9, 2014 he played Penn at Harrisburg’s Charter Day.

Kashatus entertains and inspires his audiences in different ways: for students he often “plans Pennsylvania” with them. He wonders what to bring to his new land and what kind of government he should establish. For adult audiences, Kashatus often discusses Penn’s Quakerism and the proprietor’s hopes for a “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania.

Here is a taste of an article about Kashatus (and Penn) from the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader:

Kashatus does not cut any corners in his portrayal of Penn. The costume is based off the only surviving suit of Penn’s clothing that his housed in the Museum in London. Kashatus even had it made to specification by a colonial costume designer.

Compared to other people he portrays, Kashatus said Penn is not intimidating. He described him as “somewhat aloof because of his intelligence” and an “elitest” due to his background, but he said people seem to like his performance.

The audience can still make a human connection with him, something that Kashatus said was important in producing living history.

I can testify to the influence that these kinds of presentations have on school children.  My oldest daughter developed a passion for history when a staff member from a local historical society came to her elementary school with a chest of Civil War-era clothes and let the students wear them.  She is in high school now, but to this day she talks about the presentation.  She has even thought about starting a small history-related business some day.

(Thanks to Megan Piette for help with this post).

Was William Penn a Self-Made Man?

Jim Cullen continues blogging his series on the rise and fall of the “self-made man” in American culture.  Yesterday’s entry was on William Penn.

Cullen argues that Penn was a bit of paradox.  He was a champion of Quaker equality, but never rid himself of his upbringing in the English aristocracy.  Nevertheless, the success of Pennsylvania, a society based on equality and freedom, was the product of his dogged determination to model the colony on Quaker principles.  The result was a colony that was unique among the provinces of British-America.

Here is a taste:

Part of Penn’s problems stemmed from a seeming contradiction that probably appears a lot more glaring to us than it did him and many of his contemporaries: he was a Quaker aristocrat. Though he embraced many of the egalitarian tenets of his faith, Penn always acted with the serene confidence of a member of a small national elite, and expected others to recognize him as such. Regarding other people as spiritual equals did not necessarily mean you regard them as a social equals, and even if you do regard them as social equals, that doesn’t necessarily mean you regard them as a political or economicones. Quakers were not communists, especially as they grew more prosperous, and while many opposed slavery, for example, it’s also clear that many did not. (Slavery didn’t even begin to become illegal in Pennsylvania until 1780, on a basis of gradual abolition.) Notions of equality are always relative. 

That said, Penn never seemed to realize that a substantial and growing number of his fellow Quakers had a wider and deeper notion of equality than he did. He was surprised and hurt when they did not simply passively accept his leadership – or in many cases actively rejected it, as when they refused to pay taxes to defray the costs of his colonial experiment. Penn’s heirs (he had eight children with two wives over the course of his long life) proved less interested than he was in Quakerism. In the decades before the American Revolution the omnipresent Benjamin Franklin took the lead in resisting what many residents regarded as the family’s high-handedness. 

And yet for all this, Pennsylvania was a fabulous success. Penn’s decision to make his colony a uniquely open place made it the magnet he hoped it would be, and though it was the penultimate of the 13 colonies to be founded (Georgia came along in 1732) it was among the largest in population by the time of the Revolution. He had been dealt a very good card in its access to the Delaware Bay, which he exploited in personally laying out the broad avenues for the city of Philadelphia, which became the biggest city in America by the time of the Revolution, second only in the Anglo world to London. After the Revolution, the state became the linchpin of the nation, a major source of its agricultural productivity and industrial prowess.

 It would be inaccurate to say that William Penn single-handedly brought this about – for one thing, he was the product of a religious culture that profoundly shaped his choices. But few individuals have acted in ways that have had more profound and durable consequences. In an evocative 1983 essay Edmund Morgan summed up his life: “He made his mark because what he wanted and argued for, pleaded for, almost fought for was not quite outside the possible. He left his mark because he knew how he world worked and was prepared, in spite of its denunciations, to work within its terms.” [147] Penn chose an identity, and with it he fashioned a world.

Thursday Night: William Penn’s Legacy in Harrisburg

On Thursday night I was privileged to participate, along with three esteemed historians of Pennsylvania, in a conversation on the religious legacy of William Penn.  The event was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and it took place at the historic Camp Curtin Mitchell Methodist Church in Harrisburg.

Each year the PHMC chooses a theme on which to focus their programming.  This year’s theme was religion in Pennsylvania.  Thursday night’s session, and three others like  it, stemmed from conversations about how to promote this theme throughout the Commonwealth.

My co-presenters for the night were Randall Miller (St. Joseph’s University), Dennis Downey (Millersville University), and Emma Lapansky (Haverford College).  It was good to finally meet them.  I have admired their work for years.  Miller’s co-edited book on religion and the Civil War has long been a staple in my library.  Downey has done some very interesting work on violence in Pennsylvania.  And I first came across the work of Emma Lapansky when I was doing research on Quakers in New Jersey.  I also remember reading about a NEH summer seminar she did at Haverford on American religious history. 

My responsibility for the evening was to “set the stage” for the conversation by discussing the history of Penn’s “Holy Experiment.”  Dennis Downey gave a very interesting talk about the limits of the “Holy Experiment,” particularly as it related to moments of religious violence such as the Paxton Boys, an early twentieth-century lynching in Coatesville, and the Molly McGuires.  Emma Lapansky thought about how Penn’s legacy continues today amid our current religious diversity.  As the moderator, Randall Miller kept us all in line and offered some of his own introductory remarks.  The Q&A that followed was lively. 

I was especially pleased that the room was filled with Messiah College students who made the 15-20 minute trek from Grantham to come to the event.  You can always count of Messiah students to step up to the plate in support of a civic event like this.  After the session, nine of us (including my colleague Cathay Snyder) went out for ice-cream to discuss the event.

Overall, a great night of American history, American religion, and some good intellectual conversation.

Tonight: William Penn’s Religious Legacy

We had a great morning with over thirty Catholic school teachers who teach in the Bronx.  The event took place place at Lehman College and we focused on some of the material in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  The teachers were great! Very intelligent and very engaged.  Many of them were people of faith who were eager to learn more about religion and the founding era.  Some of them taught Catholic history at their respective schools.  It was also good to work again with Anthony Napoli, the director of education at the Gilder-Lehrman Institute.

I am now on the train getting ready for tonight’s event in Harrisburg,

If you live in the central Pennsylvania, I hope you will consider joining us for an evening of Pennsylvania religious history.  The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission will be a hosting an event entitled “William Penn’s Legacy: Does the Holy Experiment Continue?”  Historians Randall Miller, John Fea, Dennis Downey, and Emma Lapansky will be reflecting on Penn’s legacy of religious freedom and whether or not the “Holy Experiment” continues in Pennsylvania today.

The event will take place on Thursday, November 17, 2011 from 7:00-9:00pm at the Camp Curtin Memorial Mitchell United Methodist Church on 2221 N. 6th Street in Harrisburg, PA.   (See the above link for details).  The event is free and open to the public.

Hope to see you there!

William Penn’s Legacy: Does the Holy Experiment Continue?

If you live in the central Pennsylvania, I hope you will consider joining us for an evening of Pennsylvania religious history.  The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission will be a hosting an event entitled “William Penn’s Legacy: Does the Holy Experiment Continue?”  Historians Randall Miller, John Fea, Dennis Downey, and Emma Lapansky will be reflecting on Penn’s legacy of religious freedom and whether or not the “Holy Experiment” continues in Pennsylvania today.

The event will take place on Thursday, November 17, 2011 from 7:00-9:00pm at the Camp Curtin Memorial Mitchell United Methodist Church on 2221 N. 6th Street in Harrisburg, PA.   (See the above link for details).  The event is free and open to the public.

Hope to see you there!

The Curse of Billy Penn is Over

For years there was an unwritten law in Philadelphia that no building in the city could be built higher than the statue of William Penn standing atop City Hall. (left). In 1987, however, this tradition was ignored by the builders of One Liberty Place in Center City. (Liberty Place stands 397 feet taller than the Penn statue). Since then, no Philadelphia sports team has won a major championship. It became known as the “Curse of Billy Penn.”

Well, the Phillies broke the curse tonight with their victory in game five of the World Series. Some say that the curse was broken because the iron workers who built the Comcast Center, the city’s new tallest building. The Comcast Center was completed in 2008, complete with a small figurine (below) of Penn placed on one of the building’s steel girders. The great founder of Pennsylvania’s “Holy Experiment” can once again look down upon his City of Brotherly Love. The curse has been broken.