Chronicles of America 

The Troubles Of Penn And His Sons

The material prosperity of Penn's Holy Experiment kept on proving itself over and over again every month of the year. But meantime great events were taking place in England. The period of fifteen years from Penn's return to England in 1684, until his return to Pennsylvania at the close of the year of 1699, was an eventful time in English history. It was long for a proprietor to be away from his province, and Penn would have left a better reputation if he had passed those fifteen years in his colony, for in England during that period he took what most Americans believe to have been the wrong side in the Revolution of 1688.

Penn was closely tied by both interest and friendship to Charles II and the Stuart family. When Charles II died in 1685 and his brother, the Duke of York, ascended the throne as James II, Penn was equally bound to him, because among other things the Duke of York had obtained Penn's release in 1669 from imprisonment for his religious opinions. He became still more bound when one of the first acts of the new King's reign was the release of a great number of people who had been imprisoned for their religion, among them thirteen hundred Quakers. In addition to preaching to the Quakers and protecting them, Penn used his influence with James to secure the return of several political offenders from exile. His friendship with James raised him, indeed, to a position of no little importance at Court. He was constantly consulted by the King, in whose political policy he gradually became more and more involved.

James was a Roman Catholic and soon perfected his plans for making both Church and State a papal appendage and securing for the Crown the right to suspend acts of Parliament. Penn at first protested, but finally supported the King in the belief that he would in the end establish liberty. In his earlier years, however, Penn had written pamphlets arguing strenuously against the same sort of despotic schemes that James was now undertaking; and this contradiction of his former position seriously injured his reputation even among his own people.

Part of the policy of James was to grant many favors to the Quakers and to all other dissenting bodies in England, to release them from prison, to give them perfect freedom of worship, and to remove the test laws which prevented them from holding office. He thus hoped to unite them with the Roman Catholics in extirpating the Church of England and establishing the Papacy in its place. But the dissenters and nonconformists, though promised relief from sufferings severer than it is possible perhaps now to appreciate, refused almost to a man this tempting bait. Even the Quakers, who had suffered probably more than the others, rejected the offer with indignation and mourned the fatal mistake of their leader Penn. All Protestant England united in condemning him, accused him of being a secret Papist and a Jesuit in disguise, and believed him guilty of acts and intentions of which he was probably entirely innocent. This extreme feeling against Penn is reflected in Macaulay's "History of England," which strongly espouses the Whig side; and in those vivid pages Penn is represented, and very unfairly, as nothing less than a scoundrel.

In spite of the attempts which James made to secure his position, the dissenters, the Church of England, and Penn's own Quakers all joined heart and soul in the Revolution of 1688, which quickly dethroned the King, drove him from England, and placed the Prince of Orange on the throne as William III. Penn was now for many years in a very unfortunate, if not dangerous, position, and was continually suspected of plotting to restore James. For three years he was in hiding to escape arrest or worse, and he largely lost the good will and affection of the Quakers.

Meantime, since his departure from Pennsylvania in the summer of 1684, that province went on increasing in population and in pioneer prosperity. But Penn's quitrents and money from sales of land were far in arrears, and he had been and still was at great expense in starting the colony and in keeping up the plantation and country seat he had established on the Delaware River above Philadelphia. Troublesome political disputes also arose. The Council of eighteen members which he had authorized to act as governor in his absence neglected to send the new laws to him, slighted his letters, and published laws in their own name without mentioning him or the King. These irregularities were much exaggerated by enemies of the Quakers in England. The Council was not a popular body and was frequently at odds with the Assembly.

Penn thought he could improve the government by appointing five commissioners to act as governor instead of the whole Council. Thomas Lloyd, an excellent Quaker who had been President of the Council and who had done much to allay hard feeling, was fortunately the president of these commissioners. Penn instructed them to act as if he himself were present, and at the next meeting of the Assembly to annul all the laws and reenact only such as seemed proper. This course reminds us of the absolutism of his friend, King James, and, indeed, the date of these instructions (1686) is that when his intimacy with that bigoted monarch reached its highest point. Penn's theory of his power was that the frame or constitution of government he had given the province was a contract; that, the Council and Assembly having violated some of its provisions, it was annulled and he was free, at least for a time, to govern as he pleased. Fortunately his commissioners never attempted to carry out these instructions. There would have been a rebellion and some very unpleasant history if they had undertaken to enforce such oriental despotism in Pennsylvania. The five commissioners with Thomas Lloyd at their head seem to have governed without seriously troublesome incidents for the short term of two years during which they were in power. But in 1687 Thomas Lloyd, becoming weary of directing them, asked to be relieved and is supposed to have advised Penn to appoint a single executive instead of commissioners. Penn accordingly appointed Captain John Blackwell, formerly an officer in Cromwell's army. Blackwell was not a Quaker but a "grave, sober, wise man," as Penn wrote to a friend, who would "bear down with a visible authority vice and faction." It was hoped that he would vigorously check all irregularities and bring Penn better returns from quitrents and sales of land.

But this new governor clashed almost at once with the Assembly, tried to make them pass a militia law, suggested that the province's trade to foreign countries was illegal, persecuted and arrested members of the Assembly, refused to submit new laws to it, and irritated the people by suggesting the invalidity of their favorite laws. The Quaker Assembly withstood and resisted him until they wore him out. After a year and one month in office he resigned at Penn's request or, according to some accounts, at his own request. At any rate, he expressed himself as delighted to be relieved. As a Puritan soldier he found himself no match for a peaceable Quaker Assembly.

Penn again made the Council the executive with Thomas Lloyd as its President. But to the old causes of unrest a new one was now added. One George Keith, a Quaker, turned heretic and carried a number of Pennsylvania Quakers over to the Church of England, thereby causing great scandal. The "Lower Counties" or Territories, as the present State of Delaware was then called, became mutinous, withdrew their representatives from the Council, and made William Markham their Governor. This action together with the Keithian controversy, the disturbances over Blackwell, and the clamors of Church of England people that Penn was absent and neglecting his province, that the Quakers would make no military defense, and that the province might at any time fall into the hands of France, came to the ears of King William, who was already ill disposed toward Penn and distrusted him as a Jacobite. It seemed hardly advisable to allow a Jacobite to rule a British colony. Accordingly a royal order suspended Penn's governmental authority and placed the province under Benjamin Fletcher, Governor of New York. He undertook to rule in dictatorial fashion, threatening to annex the province to New York, and as a consequence the Assembly had plenty of trouble with him. But two years later, 1694, the province was returned to Penn, who now appointed as Governor William Markham, who had served as lieutenant-governor under Fletcher.

Markham proceeded to be high-handed with the Assembly and to administer the government in the imperialistic style of Fletcher. But the Assembly soon tamed him and in 1696 actually worried out of him a new constitution, which became known as Markham's Frame, proved much more popular than the one Penn had given, and allowed the Assembly much more power. Markham had no conceivable right to assent to it and Penn never agreed to it; but it was lived under for the next four years until Penn returned to the province. While it naturally had opponents, it was largely regarded as entirely valid, and apparently with the understanding that it was to last until Penn objected to it.

Penn had always been longing to return to Pennsylvania and live there for the rest of his life; but the terrible times of the Revolution of 1688 in England and its consequences had held him back. Those difficulties had now passed. Moreover, William III had established free government and religious liberty. No more Quakers were imprisoned and Penn's old occupation of securing their protection and release was gone.

In the autumn of 1699 he sailed for Pennsylvania with his family and, arriving after a tedious three months' voyage, was well received. His political scrapes and mistakes in England seemed to be buried in the past. He was soon at his old enjoyable life again, traveling actively about the country, preaching to the Quakers, and enlarging and beautifying his country seat, Pennsbury, on the Delaware, twenty miles above Philadelphia. As roads and trails were few and bad he usually traveled to and from the town in a barge which was rowed by six oarsmen and which seemed to give him great pride and pleasure.

Two happy years passed away in this manner, during which Penn seems to have settled, not however without difficulty, a great deal of business with his people, the Assembly, and the Indian tribes. Unfortunately he got word from England of a bill in Parliament for the revocation of colonial charters and for the establishment of royal governments in their place. He must needs return to England to fight it. Shortly before he sailed the Assembly presented him with a draft of a new constitution or frame of government which they had been discussing with him and preparing for some time. This he accepted, and it became the constitution under which Pennsylvania lived and prospered for seventy-five years, until the Revolution of 1776.

This new constitution was quite liberal. The most noticeable feature of it was the absence of any provision for the large elective council or upper house of legislation, which had been very unpopular. The Assembly thus became the one legislative body. There was incidental reference in the document to a governor's council, although there was no formal clause creating it. Penn and his heirs after his death always appointed a small council as an advisory body for the deputy governor. The Assembly was to be chosen annually by the freemen and to be composed of four representatives from each county. It could originate bills, control its own adjournments without interference from the Governor, choose its speaker and other officers, and judge of the qualifications and election of its own members. These were standard Anglo-Saxon popular parliamentary rights developed by long struggles in England and now established in Pennsylvania never to be relaxed. Finally a clause in the constitution permitted the Lower Counties, or Territories, under certain conditions to establish home rule. In 1705 the Territories took advantage of this concession and set up an assembly of their own.

Immediately after signing the constitution, in the last days of October, 1701, Penn sailed for England, expecting soon to return. But he became absorbed in affairs in England and never saw his colony again. This was unfortunate because Pennsylvania soon became a torment to him instead of a great pleasure as it always seems to have been when he lived in it. He was a happy present proprietor, but not a very happy absentee one.

The Church of England people in Pennsylvania entertained great hopes of this proposal to turn the proprietary colonies into royal provinces. Under such a change, while the Quakers might still have an influence in the Legislature, the Crown would probably give the executive offices to Churchmen. They therefore labored hard to discredit the Quakers. They kept harping on the absurdity of a set of fanatics attempting to govern a colony without a militia and without administering oaths of office or using oaths in judicial proceedings. How could any one's life be safe from foreign enemies without soldiers, and what safeguard was there for life, liberty, and property before judges, jurors, and witnesses, none of whom had been sworn? The Churchmen kept up their complaints for along time, but without effect in England. Penn was able to thwart all their plans. The bill to change the province into a royal one was never passed by Parliament. Penn returned to his court life, his preaching, and his theological writing, a rather curious combination and yet one by which he had always succeeded in protecting his people. He was a favorite with Queen Anne, who was now on the throne, and he led an expensive life which, with the cost of his deputy governor's salary in the colony, the slowness of his quitrent collections, and the dishonesty of the steward of his English estates, rapidly brought him into debt. To pay the government expense of a small colonial empire and at the same time to lead the life of a courtier and to travel as a preacher would have exhausted a stronger exchequer than Penn's.

The contests between the different deputy governors, whom Penn or his descendants sent out, and the Quaker Legislature fill the annals of the province for the next seventy years, down to the Revolution. These quarrels, when compared with the larger national political contests of history, seem petty enough and even tedious in detail. But, looked at in another aspect, they are important because they disclose how liberty, self-government, republicanism, and many of the constitutional principles by which Americans now live were gradually developed as the colonies grew towards independence. The keynote to all these early contests was what may be called the fundamental principle of colonial constitutional law or, at any rate, of constitutional practice, namely, that the Governor, whether royal or proprietary, must always be kept poor. His salary or income must never become a fixed or certain sum but must always be dependent on the annual favor and grants of a legislature controlled by the people. This belief was the foundation of American colonial liberty. The Assemblies, not only in Pennsylvania but in other colonies, would withhold the Governor's salary until he consented to their favorite laws. If he vetoed their laws, he received no salary. One of the causes of the Revolution in 1776 was the attempt of the mother country to make the governors and other colonial officials dependent for their salaries on the Government in England instead of on the legislatures in the colonies.

So the squabbles, as we of today are inclined to call them, went on in Pennsylvania--provincial and petty enough, but often very large and important so far as the principle which they involved was concerned. The Legislature of Pennsylvania in those days was a small body composed of only about twenty-five or thirty members, most of them sturdy, thrifty Quakers. They could meet very easily anywhere--at the Governor's house, if in conference with him, or at the treasurer's office or at the loan office, if investigating accounts. Beneath their broad brim hats and grave demeanor they were as Anglo-Saxon at heart as Robin Hood and his merry men, and in their ninety years of political control they built up as goodly a fabric of civil liberty as can be found in any community in the world.

The dignified, confident message from a deputy governor, full of lofty admonitions of their duty to the Crown, the province, and the proprietor, is often met by a sarcastic, stinging reply of the Assembly. David Lloyd, the Welsh leader of the anti-proprietary party, and Joseph Wilcox, another leader, became very skillful in drafting these profoundly respectful but deeply cutting replies. In after years, Benjamin Franklin attained even greater skill. In fact, it is not unlikely that he developed a large measure of his world famous aptness in the use of language in the process of drafting these replies. The composing of these official communications was important work, for a reply had to be telling and effective not only with the Governor but with the people who learned of its contents at the coffeehouse and spread the report of it among all classes. There was not a little good-fellowship in their contests; and Franklin, for instance, tells us how he used to abuse a certain deputy governor all day in the Assembly and then dine with him in jovial intercourse in the evening.

The Assembly had a very convenient way of accomplishing its purposes in legislation in spite of the opposition of the British Government. Laws when passed and approved by the deputy governor had to be sent to England for approval by the Crown within five years. But meanwhile the people would live under the law for five years, and, if at the end of that time it was disallowed, the Assembly would reenact the measure and live under it again for another period.

The ten years after Penn's return to England in 1701 were full of trouble for him. Money returns from the province were slow, partly because England was involved in war and trade depressed, and partly because the Assembly, exasperated by the deputy governors he appointed, often refused to vote the deputy a salary and left Penn to bear all the expense of government. He was being rapidly overwhelmed with debt. One of his sons was turning out badly. The manager of his estates in England and Ireland, Philip Ford, was enriching himself by the trust, charging compound interest at eight per cent every six months, and finally claiming that Penn owed him 14,000 pounds. Ford had rendered accounts from time to time, but Penn in his careless way had tossed them aside without examination. When Ford pressed for payment, Penn, still without making any investigation, foolishly gave Ford a deed in fee simple of Pennsylvania as security. Afterwards he accepted from Ford a lease of the province, which was another piece of folly, for the lease could, of course, be used as evidence to show that the deed was an absolute conveyance and not intended as a mortgage.

This unfortunate business Ford kept quiet during his lifetime. But on his death his widow and son made everything public, professed to be the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and sued Penn for 2000 pounds rent in arrears. They obtained a judgment for the amount claimed and, as Penn could not pay, they had him arrested and imprisoned for debt. For nine months he was locked up in the debtors' prison, the "Old Bailey," and there he might have remained indefinitely if some of his friends had not raised enough money to compromise with the Fords. Isaac Norris, a prominent Quaker from Pennsylvania, happened at that time to be in England and exerted himself to set Penn free and save the province from further disgrace. After this there was a reaction in Penn's favor. He selected a better deputy governor for Pennsylvania. He wrote a long and touching letter to the people, reminding them how they had flourished and grown rich and free under his liberal laws, while he had been sinking in poverty.

After that conditions improved in the affairs of Penn. The colony was better governed, and the anti-proprietary party almost disappeared. The last six or eight years of Penn's life were free from trouble. He had ceased his active work at court, for everything that could be accomplished for the Quakers in the way of protection and favorable laws had now been done. Penn spent his last years in trying to sell the government of his province to the Crown for a sum that would enable him to pay his debts and to restore his family to prosperity. But he was too particular in stipulating that the great principles of civil and religious liberty on which the colony had been established should not be infringed. He had seen how much evil had resulted to the rights of the people when the proprietors of the Jerseys parted with their right to govern. In consequence he required so many safeguards that the sale of Pennsylvania was delayed and delayed until its founder was stricken with paralysis. Penn lingered for some years, but his intellect was now too much clouded to make a valid sale. The event, however, was fortunate for Pennsylvania, which would probably otherwise have lost many valuable rights and privileges by becoming a Crown colony.

On July 30,1718, Penn died at the age of seventy-four. His widow became proprietor of the province, probably the only woman who ever became feudal proprietor of such an immense domain. She appointed excellent deputy governors and ruled with success for eight years until her death in 1726. In her time the ocean was free from enemy cruisers, and the trade of the colony grew so rapidly that the increasing sales of land and quitrents soon enabled her to pay off the mortgage on the province and all the rest of her husband's debts. It was sad that Penn did not live to see that day, which he had so hoped for in his last years, when, with ocean commerce free from depredations, the increasing money returns from his province would obviate all necessity of selling the government to the Crown.

With all debts paid and prosperity increasing, Penn's sons became very rich men. Death had reduced the children to three--John, Thomas, and Richard. Of these, Thomas became what may be called the managing proprietor, and the others were seldom heard of. Thomas lived in the colony nine years--1732 to 1741-- studying its affairs and sitting as a member of the Council. For over forty years he was looked upon as the proprietor. In fact, he directed the great province for almost as long a time as his father had managed it. But he was so totally unlike his father that it is difficult to find the slightest resemblance in feature or in mind. He was not in the least disposed to proclaim or argue about religion. Like the rest of his family, he left the Quakers and joined the Church of England, a natural evolution in the case of many Quakers. He was a prosperous, accomplished, sensible, cool-headed gentleman, by no means without ability, but without any inclination for setting the world on fire. He was a careful, economical man of business, which is more than can be said of his distinguished father. He saw no visions and cared nothing for grand speculations.

Thomas Penn, however, had his troubles and disputes with the Assembly. They thought him narrow and close. Perhaps he was. That was the opinion of him held by Franklin, who led the anti-proprietary party. But at the same time some consideration must be given to the position in which Penn found himself. He had on his hands an empire, rich, fertile, and inhabited by liberty-loving Anglo-Saxons and by passive Germans. He had to collect from their land the purchase money and quitrents rapidly rolling up in value with the increase of population into millions of pounds sterling, for which he was responsible to his relatives. At the same time he had to influence the politics of the province, approve or reject laws in such a way that his family interest would be protected from attack or attempted confiscation, keep the British Crown satisfied, and see that the liberties of the colonists were not impaired and that the people were kept contented.

It was not an easy task even for a clear-headed man like Thomas Penn. He had to arrange for treaties with the Indians and for the purchase of their lands in accordance with the humane ideas of his father and in the face of the Scotch-Irish thirst for Indian blood and the French desire to turn the savages loose upon the Anglo-Saxon settlements. He had to fight through the boundary disputes with Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia, which threatened to reduce his empire to a mere strip of land containing neither Philadelphia nor Pittsburgh. The controversy with Connecticut lasted throughout the colonial period and was not definitely settled till the close of the Revolution. The charter of Connecticut granted by the British Crown extended the colony westward to the Pacific Ocean and cut off the northern half of the tract afterwards granted to William Penn. In pursuance of what they believed to be their rights, the Connecticut people settled in the beautiful valley of Wyoming. They were thereupon ejected by force by the proprietors of Pennsylvania; but they returned, only to be ejected again and again in a petty warfare carried on for many years. In the summer of 1778, the people of the valley were massacred by the Iroquois Indians. The history of this Connecticut boundary dispute fills volumes. So does the boundary dispute with Maryland, which also lasted throughout the colonial period; the dispute with Virginia over the site of Pittsburgh is not so voluminous. All these controversies Thomas Penn conducted with eminent skill, inexhaustible patience, and complete success. For this achievement the State owes him a debt of gratitude.

Thomas Penn was in the extraordinary position of having to govern as a feudal lord what was virtually a modern community. He was exercising feudal powers three hundred years after all the reasons for the feudal system had ceased to exist; and he was exercising those powers and acquiring by them vast wealth from a people in a new and wild country whose convictions, both civil and religious, were entirely opposed to anything like the feudal system. It must certainly be put down as something to his credit that he succeeded so well as to retain control both of the political government and his family's increasing wealth down to the time of the Revolution and that he gave on the whole so little offense to a high-strung people that in the Revolution they allowed his family to retain a large part of their land and paid them liberally for what was confiscated.

The wealth which came to the three brothers they spent after the manner of the time in country life. John and Richard do not appear to have had remarkable country seats. But Thomas purchased in 1760 the fine English estate of Stoke Park, which had belonged to Sir Christopher Hatton of Queen Elizabeth's time, to Lord Coke, and later to the Cobham family. Thomas's son John, grandson of the founder, greatly enlarged and beautified the place and far down into the nineteenth century it was one of the notable country seats of England. This John Penn also built another country place called Pennsylvania Castle, equally picturesque and interesting, on the Isle of Portland, of which he was Governor.

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