Essex Men Who Built the United States: Part Five - Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Essex Men Who Built the United States: Part Five - Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey

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Essex Men Who Built the United States
Introduction | Virginia | Massachusetts | Connecticut
Rhode Island | Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey
Georgia | The United States

The states of Pennsylvania and Delaware owe their current existence to one man, William Penn. He was also one of the owners of the New Jersey colony.

William Penn (1644 - 1718)

William Penn was the son of Admiral Sir William Penn. Penn was raised in Wanstead, Essex and educated in Chigwell, Essex and at Oxford University. While at Christ College, Oxford he came to know Thomas Loe, a prominent Quaker. After refusing to attend chapel, he was expelled from Oxford. The Admiral sent William on a 'Grand Tour' in accordance with his theory that the travel would cure his son of 'being religious in too original a way'.

William Penn saw service in the 1664 Second Dutch War before being admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1665. In the autumn he went to his father's estate in Ireland and helped suppress the mutiny at Carrickfergus. While in Ireland he attended Quaker meetings with Thomas Loe and converted to Quakerism in 1667.

Penn's religious views brought him serious legal problems and he was arrested and tried for his beliefs a number of times. On one occasion, the judge refused to show Penn the charges and when the jury found him not guilty, proceeded to jail both Penn and the jury: this subsequently led to reforms making English juries free of the control of judges.

In the 1670s, the state we now call New Jersey was split into two halves. In 1674, the Quakers purchased West New Jersey. William Penn was on the board of trustees, and he drew up the legal code for the colony. He proposed freedom of worship, the right to trial by jury and fair process for the purchase of native lands. William Penn stayed in England while the colonists set up in America. In 1680, 12 Quakers including Penn purchased East New Jersey from its owners.

Admiral Penn had loaned King Charles II £16,000. When the admiral died in 1670, his son inherited the claim. Charles paid off the debt by granting William Penn the land north of Maryland and west of the Delaware River. Penn wanted to name his colony 'Sylvania'1, but Charles changed it to 'Pennsylvania' in honour of Admiral Penn. Penn viewed this land as a 'Holy Experiment'.

Penn knew that his new colony needed access to the sea. The colony of Delaware had just had its Dutch settlers expelled by the Duke of York. Although Cæcilius Calvert, second Baron Baltimore, claimed the land as part of Maryland, the Duke leased Delaware to William Penn in 1682. This land became the lower counties of Pennsylvania.

In the same year, Penn produced two documents. The first, entitled Frame of Government, set out a basic constitution. It put forward the idea of an elected assembly of 500 that had the power to accept or reject laws suggested by the governor and his council of 72. The second document, the Charter of Liberties, allowed anybody who believed in God to worship freely and stated that the death penalty should only be applied to those found guilty of murder and treason. Penn decided that the economy of his colony would benefit from encouraging as much enterprise as possible and there were virtually no taxes.

Penn left for America in September of 1682 and arrived at Newcastle on the Delaware River in October. While in America, Penn set out his plans for a 'City of Brotherly Love'. Built on the confluence of the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers and designed to be the foremost example of a city based on a grid street layout, this became the great city of Philadelphia. Penn also set up his own estate at Pennsbury, north of Philadelphia. During his two-year stay, Penn visited the colonies of New Jersey and also agreed a treaty with the Leni-Lenape tribe.

Penn returned to England in 1684. His first task there was to settle the boundaries of Pennsylvania and Maryland with Lord Baltimore. Penn spent the next 15 years encouraging people to head for his colony. The idea of religious freedom attracted Christians from across Europe. Huguenots and Lutherans arrived from Catholic countries as did Quakers from all over the continent. By 1685 there were 9,000 settlers and by the turn of the century there were 18,000. Penn made money by selling off tracts of land to the settlers.

Penn returned to America with his second wife in 1699. There, he strengthened his relationship with the Indians and tried to combat slavery - though Penn still kept his own slaves - and piracy. In 1701 he changed the form of government. He decided that the elected assembly would be the legislature and that the governor would have the power of veto. The members of the assembly also had the power to choose when they sat, rather than sitting only when the governor let them. Penn then went back to England in 1701. Three years later, the Pennsylvania Assembly decided that it wanted to be able to make decisions without involving the lower counties. These lower counties became the colony of Delaware.

It subsequently turned out that Penn's financial adviser, Philip Ford, had swindled him out of most of his estates. William Penn had planned to retire in America, but instead ended up in debtors' prison in England. Penn almost managed to sell the rights to his colony back to the Crown in 1712, but he suffered a stroke and lost his memory and the ability to organise his affairs. He died six years later and was buried in a Quaker burial-ground near Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire.

Penn's legacy is that of an unfortunate pioneer. While his religious ideas initially brought him troubles, they led him to found a colony based on relatively modern concepts of human rights. It is ironic that while Penn himself tried to reduce slavery in his colonies, Delaware was in fact the last state in the United States to ratify the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1901. His name was held in great esteem by the native tribes, who he had tried to protect from the evils of rum and the greed of traders. Ultimately, William Penn was betrayed by his family and those he trusted.

1His very first suggestion had been to call it 'New Wales', but a number of Welsh MPs objected.

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