Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

William Penn,
the Friend of the Red Men

It made no small stir in English society when young William Penn, whose father was a famous admiral and the friend of the King, joined the poor and despised society known as the Quakers. They called themselves Friends, and tried to be the friends of all the world, but they did not find the world very friendly in return, for they were very badly treated, many of them being sent to jail for daring to have a religion of their own.

It was while William Penn was at college that he took up these new ideas, and he was turned out of college for doing so. When his father heard of this he was furious. He beat the boy and turned him out of doors, and the poor lad would have fared very badly but for his mother, who sent him money. Finding that his severity had no effect on the young rebel, his father let him return home and soon after sent him to France, hoping that in that gay country he would get rid of his foolish notions.

When the young man came back he seemed to be cured of Quakerism, but it was not long before he took it up again, and his father once more turned him into the street. William Penn now had to suffer lire the poorer Quakers. He was arrested for attending their meetings, and was kept for eight months in prison for writing in their favor. But all this had no effect on him, and he continued to write and preach.

Admiral Penn died at length, and his son became the head of the house. He now wished more than ever to help his fellow sufferers. He became one of the owners of New Jersey, in America, and aided some of them to go there. And the idea soon came to him to get a place of his own in the New World that might be a haven of refuge for all men of his faith.

Benjamin West  and William Penn


Charles II., the King, had owed Admiral Penn a large sum of money. This was now due to William Penn, but the king had other uses for his money than to pay his debts, and the young man asked him to settle the claim by granting him a tract of land in America.

King Charles was ready enough to do this. It was very easy for him to give away land which did not belong to him, and he made over to Penn a large tract of territory north of Lord Baltimore's colony. All the right the king kept for himself was a payment of two beaver-skins a year and one-fifth of all the gold and silver found. As there was no gold or silver there, the king had to be content with his beaver-skins.

Charles was well satisfied with this easy way of getting out of debt. He named the country Pennsylvania, or "Penn's Woods." Penn was equally well satisfied. He had got a fine home for his fellow Quakers, and he easily persuaded a number of them to cross the ocean to America. The next year, 1682, he sailed himself with a company of emigrants in a ship well-named the "Welcome," and landed with them on the green banks of the noble Delaware River.

He landed at a place called Upland by the Swedes who lived there at that time, but which he named Chester. Before leaving England he had formed a system of laws for the new colony, and these he now made known. Like Roger Williams, he declared that every man was free to worship God in his own way and that no one should be made to suffer for his religion. The people were also free to make their own laws, but they must obey them when once made. No one should be put to death except for murder or treason, and every prison was to be made a workshop and place of reformation—a new idea in prison management. Such were some of the principal features of Penn's "Great Law."

Another very just thing William Penn did. Although Charles II. had made him a grant of the land in America, he knew very well that the king had no right to give away what did not belong to him. The Indians, the old owners of the soil, thought the same thing. So he and those with him met a large party of the Indians under a great elm tree on the banks of the Delaware and offered to pay them for the land which he wanted for his colony.

They were quite ready to sell it', and a treaty of peace and friendship was made which was to last as long "as the creeks and rivers run and while the sun, moon, and stars endure." No oaths were taken to bind this treaty; it was simply signed by the Indian chiefs and the Quaker leaders; and some one has said of it that it was "the only treaty in history that was never sworn to and never broken."

From that time forward the Friends and the Indians lived in peace. No Friend ever robbed or hurt an Indian, and no Indian ever hurt a Friend. They dwelt together for many years in harmony, the Indians looking upon Penn and his people as friends and brothers. Long afterwards they bore in memory the great "Mignon," as they called Penn, and told their children of his justice and goodness. They had trouble with other people, but not with the peace-loving Quakers.

When William Penn died, years afterwards, the Indians of Pennsylvania sent some beautiful furs to his widow in memory of their great and good brother. These, they said, were to make her a cloak, "to protect her while she was passing without her guide through the thorny wilderness of life."

The elm tree under which this treaty was made stood on the river bank near where Penn founded his city of Philadelphia, or "Brotherly Love." When the British held Philadelphia during the Revolution a sentinel was stationed by this tree to prevent the soldiers from cutting it down for firewood. It blew down in a storm in 1810, and the spot where it stood is now marked by a monument and a small public park.

The land where Philadelphia stands was held by the Swedes, who bought it from the Indians. Penn bought it from them, and laid out there the site of a handsome city, with broad and straight streets, crossing each other at right angles, and many of them named after the trees of the forest. In the centre and in each of the four quarters spaces for public squares were left. Along the river houses were rapidly built, and soon a small city arose.

When everything was in order and all was moving well, and when new settlers were coming rapidly to the new city in the New World, William Penn bade his people good-by and sailed back to England. He was wanted there. The Quakers were being very badly treated. He went to the king and asked him to have these persecutions stopped, and Charles ordered that this should be done.

But there were many people shut up in the prisons on account of their religious belief, which differed from that taught by the ministers of the Church of England. Twelve hundred of these were Quakers, and there were many of other sects. When Charles II. died, which he did soon after Penn's return, his brother James took the throne. He and Penn had always been friends, and when the latter asked the king to have these poor sufferers set free, it was done. The prison doors were opened and they were allowed to go out.

William Penn had done a splendid work for the good of humanity, but he was made to suffer in many ways. James II. proved a bad king and was driven from the throne, and William of Orange took his place. As Penn had been the friend of King James, he was accused of treason and was put in prison. He was soon set free, but then new charges were brought against him, and he had to keep out of the way of his enemies. The government of his province in America was also taken from him, but King William gave it back when he found that Penn had been falsely accused.

Penn went back to America in 1699. He found the colony very prosperous. Philadelphia had got to be quite a flourishing city, and people were settling in many other places. But many of these were not Quakers, and there was bad feeling between the different members of the colony. Other things had gone wrong, and many asked for greater privileges than the charter gave them. William Penn was willing to grant them all the liberty he could, and a new and very liberal constitution was made, which gave much of the power in the government to the people. Another treaty was made with the Indians, their condition and that of the negro slaves in the colony was made better, and then, in 1701, Penn returned to England. He was never to see his colony again.

The good friend of the Indians and the oppressed was growing old now, and his troubles increased. Many of the settlers did not pay their rents, and he got so deeply in debt that he was obliged to mortgage his province. There were new troubles in his colony, there was more persecution of the Quakers at home, his property was badly managed, and when the Pennsylvania Assembly was asked to loan him some money to help him out of his difficulties it refused.

Finally the noble old man was put in prison for debt, and was kept there till some of his friends raised enough money to procure his release. One cannot help thinking that William Penn was a very poor business man, and that, while doing so much for others, he neglected to look out for his own interests. This has been the way with many of the best of men, and it is greatly to their honor.

It was certainly a great sorrow to him that those for whom he had given his work, his time, and his money had proved so ungrateful. Now that he was old and in distress none of those for whom he had done so much came to his aid. Worn out with his troubles, he was about to sell his province to the king when he was stricken with paralysis. He died in 1718, leaving the province to his sons.

We cannot say much in favor of Penn's sons. Their policy was much less just and liberal than his, and their actions caused much irritation and bad feeling in the colony. Disputes continued until after the war of the Revolution, when the State of Pennsylvania bought out the interest of the Penns for the sum of six hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A small price this, but all colonial rights were then at an end and the State might have refused to pay anything.