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Chapter 55 of Conceived in Liberty, Volume I, 1975, pp. 402-411 (1999)


"The Holy Experiment": The Founding of Pennsylvania, 1681-1690

The example of West Jersey taught William Penn two lessons: it was possible, given sufficient territory, to found a large Quaker settlement in America; and it was best to secure a charter for such a colony directly from the king. In the vast stretches of America, Penn envisaged a truly Quaker colony, "a Holy experiment ... that an example may be set up to the nations."

In his quest for such a charter, Penn was aided by the fact that the Crown had owed his father, Admiral Sir William Penn, the huge sum of 16,000 pounds for loans and back salary. In March 1681 the king agreed to grant young William, the admiral's heir, proprietary ownership of the lands west of the Delaware River and north of the Maryland border in exchange for canceling the old debt. The land was to be called Pennsylvania. Penn was greatly aided in securing the charter by his friendship with the king and other high officials of the court.

The proprietary charter was not quite as absolute as the colonial charters granted earlier in the century. The proprietor could rule only with the advice and consent of an assembly of freemen—a provision quite satisfactory to Penn. The Privy Council could veto Pennsylvania's actions, and the Crown, of course, could hear appeals from litigation in the colony. The Navigation Acts had to be enforced, and there was an ambiguous provision implying that England could impose taxes in Pennsylvania.

As soon as Penn heard news of the charter, he dispatched his cousin William Markham to be deputy governor of Pennsylvania. The latter informed the five hundred or so Swedish and Dutch residents on the west bank of the Delaware of the new charter. In the fall Markham was succeeded by four commissioners, and they were succeeded by Thomas Holme as deputy governor in early 1682.

In May William Penn made the Frame of Government the constitution for the colony. The Frame was amended and streamlined, and became the Second Frame of 1683, also called the Charter of Liberties. The Frame provided, first, for full religious freedom for all theists. No compulsory religion was to be enforced. The Quaker ideal of religious liberty was put into practice. Only Christians, however, were to be eligible for public office; later, at the insistence of the Crown, Catholics were barred from official posts in the colony.

The government, as instituted by the Frame, comprised a governor, the proprietor; an elected Council, which performed executive and supreme judicial functions; and an Assembly, elected by the freeholders. Justices of lower courts were appointed by the governor. But while the Assembly, like those in other colonies, had the only power to levy taxes, its powers were more restricted than those of assemblies elsewhere. Only the Council could initiate laws, and the Assembly was confined to ratifying or vetoing the Council's proposals.

William Penn himself arrived in America in the fall of 1682 to institute the new colony. He announced that the Duke's Laws would be temporarily in force and then called an Assembly for December. The Assembly included representatives not only of three counties of Pennsylvania, but also of the three lower counties of Delaware. For Delaware—or New Castle and the lower counties on the west bank of Delaware Bay—had been secured from the Duke of York in August. While Penn's legal title to exercising governmental functions over Delaware was dubious, he pursued it boldly. William Penn now owned the entire west bank of the Delaware River.

The Assembly confirmed the amended Frame of Government, including the declaration of religious liberty, and this code of laws constituted the "Great Law of Pennsylvania." The three lower Delaware counties were placed under one administration, separate from Pennsylvania proper.

Penn was anxious to promote settlement as rapidly as possible, both for religious (a haven to Quakers) and for economic (income for himself) reasons. Penn advertised the virtues of the new colony far and wide throughout Europe. Although he tried to impose quitrents and extracted selling prices for land, he disposed of the land at easy terms. The prices of land were cheap. Fifty acres were granted to each servant at the end of his term of service. Fifty acres also were given for each servant brought into the colony. Land sales were mainly in moderate-sized parcels. Penn soon found that at the rate of one shilling per hundred acres, quitrents were extremely difficult to collect from the settlers.

Induced by religious liberty and relatively cheap land, settlers poured into Pennsylvania at a remarkably rapid rate, beginning in 1682. Most of the immigrants were Quakers; in addition to English Quakers came Welsh, Irish, and German Quakers. Penn laid out the capital, destined to become the great city of Philadelphia, and changed the name of the old Swedish settlement of Upland to Chester. The German Quakers, led by Francis Daniel Pastorius, founded Germantown. In addition to Quakers, there came other groups attracted by the promise of full religious liberty: German Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and Huguenots. The growth of Pennsylvania was rapid: 3,000 immigrants arrived during this first year; by 1684 the population of Philadelphia was 2,500, and of Pennsylvania, 8,000. There were over 350 dwellings in Philadelphia by the end of 1683. By 1689 there were over 12,000 people in Pennsylvania.

One of William Penn's most notable achievements was to set a remarkable pattern of peace and justice with the Indians. In November 1682 Penn concluded the first of several treaties of peace and friendship with the Delaware Indians at Shackamaxon, near Philadelphia. The Quaker achievement of maintaining peace with the Indians for well over half a century has been disparaged; some have held that it applied to only the mild Delaware Indians, who were perpetually cowed by the fierce but pro-English Iroquois. But this surely accounts for only part of the story. For the Quakers not only insisted on voluntary purchase of land from the Indians; they also treated the Indians as human beings, as deserving of respect and dignity as anyone else. Hence they deserved to be treated with honesty, friendliness, and evenhanded justice. As a consequence, the Quakers were treated precisely the same way in return. No drop of Quaker blood was ever shed by the Indians. So strong was the mutual trust between the races that Quaker farmers unhesitatingly left their children in the care of the Indians. Originally, too, the law provided that whenever an Indian was involved in a trial, six whites and six Indians would constitute the jury.

Voltaire, rapturous over the Quaker achievement, wittily and perceptively wrote that the Shackamaxon treaty was "the only treaty between Indians and Christians that was never sworn to and that was never broken." Voltaire went on to say that for the Indians "it was truly a new sight to see a sovereign [William Penn] to whom everyone said 'thou' and to whom one spoke with one's hat on one's head; a government without priests, a people without arms, citizens as equal as the magistrate, and neighbors without jealousy." Other features of the Assembly's early laws were Puritanical acts barring dramas, drunkenness, etc. More liberally, oaths were not required and the death penalty applied only to the crime of murder. Punishment was considered for purposes of reform. Feudal primogeniture was abolished. To make justice more efficient and informal, the government undertook to appoint three arbitrators in every precinct, to hand down decisions in disputes. The Quakers, however, unsatisfactorily evaded the problem of what to do about a military force. So as not to violate Quaker principle against bearing arms, the Friends refused to serve in the militia, but they still maintained a militia in the province, and non-Quaker officials were appointed in command. But surely if armies are evil, then voting for taxes and for laws in support of the evil is serving that evil and therefore not to be condoned.

On the question of free speech for criticizing government, laws were, unfortunately, passed prohibiting the writing or uttering of anything malicious, of anything stirring up dislike of the governor, or of anything tending to subvert the government.

The tax burden was extremely light in Pennsylvania. The only tax laws were enacted in 1683; these placed a small duty on liquor and cider, a general duty on goods, and an export duty on hides and furs. But Governor Penn promptly set aside all taxes for a year to encourage settlers. In 1684, however, another bill to raise import and other duties for William Penn's personal use was tabled; instead, a group of leaders of Pennsylvania pointed out that the colony would progress much faster if there were no taxes to cripple trade. These men heroically promised to raise 500 pounds for Penn as a gift, if the tax bill were dropped. The tax bill was dropped, but not all the money raised.

As might have been predicted, the first political conflict in Pennsylvania came as a protest against the curious provisions of the Frame restricting the Assembly to ratifying bills initiated by the Council. In the spring of 1683, several assemblymen urged that the Assembly be granted the power to initiate legislation. Several of Penn's devotees attacked the request as that which seemed "to render him ingratitude for his goodness towards the people." The Assembly balked too at granting the governor veto power over itself. There are indications that the non-Quaker elements in the Assembly were particularly active in criticizing the great powers assumed by the governor and the Council. One of the leaders of the incipient opposition to Penn was the non-Quaker Nicholas More, Speaker of the Assembly in 1684. And Anthony Weston, apparently a non-Quaker, was publicly whipped on three successive days for his "presumption and contempt of this government and authority."

Having founded the new colony and its government, and hearing of renewed persecution of Quakers at home, William Penn returned to England in the fall of 1684. He soon found his expectations of large proprietary profits from the vast royal grant to be in vain. For the people of the struggling young colony of Pennsylvania extended the principles of liberty far beyond what Penn was willing to allow. The free people of Pennsylvania would not vote for taxes, and simply would not pay the quitrents to Penn as feudal overlord. As a result, Penn's deficits in ruling Pennsylvania were large and his fortune dwindled steadily. In late 1685 Penn ordered the officials to use force to protect the monopoly of lime production that he had granted himself, in order to prevent others from opening lime quarries.

As to quitrents, Penn, to encourage settlement, had granted a moratorium until 1685. The people insisted that payment be postponed another year, and Penn's threatened legal proceedings were without success. Penn was especially aggrieved that his agents in Pennsylvania failed to press his levies upon the people with sufficient zeal. Presumably, the free taxless air of Pennsylvania had contaminated them. As Penn complained in the fall of 1686: "The great fault is, that those who are there lose their authority one way or another in the spirits of the people and then they can do little with their outward powers."

After Penn returned to England in 1684, the Council virtually succeeded him in governing the colony. The Council assumed full executive powers, and, since it was elected rather than appointed, this left Pennsylvania as a virtually self-governing colony. Though Thomas Lloyd, a Welsh Quaker, had by Penn been appointed as president of the Council, the president had virtually no power and could make no decisions on his own. Because the Council met very infrequently, and because no officials had any power to act in the interim, during these intervals Pennsylvania had almost no government at all—and seemed not to suffer from the experience. During the period from late 1684 to late 1688, there were no meetings of the Council from the end of October 1684 to the end of March 1685; none from November 1686 to March 1687; and virtually none from May 1687 to late 1688. The councillors, for one thing, had little to do. And being private citizens rather than bureaucrats, and being unpaid as councillors, they had their own struggling businesses to attend to. There was no inclination under these conditions to dabble in political affairs. The laws had called for a small payment to the councillors, but, typically, it was found to be almost impossible to extract these funds from the populace.

If for most of 1684-88 there was no colonywide government in existence, what of the local officials? Were they not around to provide that evidence of the state's continued existence, which so many people through the ages have deemed vital to man's very survival? The answer is no. The lower courts met only a few days a year, and the county officials were, again, private citizens who devoted very little time to upholding the law. No, the reality must be faced that the new, but rather large, colony of Pennsylvania lived for the greater part of four years in a de facto condition of individual anarchism, and seemed none the worse for the experience. Furthermore, the Assembly passed no laws after 1686, as it was involved in a continual wrangle over attempts to increase its powers and to amend, rather than just reject, legislation.

A bit of government came in 1685, in the person of William Dyer as collector of the king's customs. But despite the frantic urgings of William Penn for cooperation with Dyer, Pennsylvanians persisted in their de facto anarchism by blithely and regularly evading the royal navigation laws.

William Penn had the strong and distinct impression that his "holy experiment" had slipped away from him, had taken a new and bewildering turn. Penn had launched a colony that he thought would be quietly subject to his dictates and yield him a handsome profit. By providing a prosperous haven of refuge for Quakers, he had expected in turn the rewards of wealth and power. Instead, he found himself without either. Unable to collect revenue from the free and independent-minded Pennsylvanians, he saw the colony slipping gracefully into outright anarchism—into a growing and flourishing land of no taxes and virtually no state. Penn frantically determined to force Pennsylvania back into the familiar mold of the old order. Accordingly, he appointed vice commissioners of state in February 1687 "to act in the execution of laws, as if I myself were there present, reserving myself the confirming of what is done, and my peculiar royalties and advantages." Another purpose of the appointments, he added, was "that there may be a more constant residence of the honorary and governing part of the government for the keeping all things in good order." Penn appointed the five commissioners from the colony's leading citizens, Quakers and non-Quakers, and ordered them to enforce the laws.

The colonists were evidently content in their anarchism, and shrewdly engaged in nonviolent resistance against the commission. In fact, they scarcely paid any attention to the commission. A year passed before the commission was even mentioned in the minutes of the Council. News about the commission was delayed until the summer of 1687 and protests against the plan poured in to Penn. The commissioners, and the protesters too, pretended that they had taken up their posts as a continuing executive. Finally, however, Penn grew suspicious and asked why he had received no communication from the supposedly governing body.

Unable to delay matters any longer, the reluctant commissioners of state took office in February 1688, a year after their appointment. Three and one-half years of substantive anarchism were over. The state was back in its heaven; once more all was right with the world. Typically, Penn urged the commissioners to conceal any differences they might have among themselves, so as to deceive and overawe the public: "Show your virtues but conceal your infirmities; this will make you awful and revered with ye people." He further urged them to enforce the king's duties and to levy taxes to support the government.

The commissioners confined themselves to calling the Assembly into session in the spring of 1688, and this time the Assembly did pass some laws, for the first time in three years. The two crucial bills presented by the commissioners and the Council regulated the export of deerskins and once again, levied customs duties on imports so as to obtain funds to finance the government—in short, imposed taxes on a taxless colony. After almost passing the tax bill, the Assembly heroically defied the government once again and rejected the two bills.

The state had reappeared in a flurry of activity in early 1688, but was found wanting, and the colony, still taxless, quickly lapsed back into a state of anarchism. The commissioners somehow failed to meet and the Council met only only once between the spring meeting and December. Pennsylvania was once again content with a supposedly dreadful and impossible state of affairs. And when this idyll came to an end in December 1688 with the arrival of a new deputy governor, appointed by Penn, the deputy governor "had difficulty finding the officers of the government. ... [He] found the Council room deserted and covered with dust and scattered papers. The wheels of government had nearly stopped turning."1

William Penn, seeing that the Pennsylvanians had happily lapsed into an anarchism that precluded taxes, quitrents, and political power for himself, decided to appoint a deputy governor. But the people of Pennsylvania, having tasted the sweets of pure liberty, were almost unanimously reluctant to relinquish that liberty. We have observed that the commissioners of state had failed to assume their posts and had virtually failed to function after it was presumed they accepted. No one wanted to rule others. For this reason, Thomas Lloyd, the president of the Council, refused appointment as deputy governor. At this point, Penn concluded that he could not induce the Quakers of Pennsylvania to institute a state, and so he turned to a tough non-Quaker, an old Puritan soldier and a non-Pennsylvanian, John Blackwell.

Once a state has completely withered away, it is an extremely difficult task to re-create it, as Blackwell quickly discovered. If Blackwell had been under any illusions that the Quakers were a meek and passive people, he was in for a rude surprise. He was to find very quickly that devotion to peace, to liberty, and to individualism in no sense implies passive resignation to tyranny. Quite the contrary.

In announcing Blackwell's appointment in September 1688, Penn made it clear that his primary task was to collect Penn's quitrents and secondarily to reestablish a government. As Penn instructed Blackwell: "Rule the meek meekly, and those that will not be ruled, rule with authority."

John Blackwell's initial reception as deputy governor was an omen of things to come. Sending word ahead for someone to meet him upon his arrival in New York, he landed there only to find no one to receive him. After waiting in vain for three days, Blackwell went alone to New Jersey. When he arrived at Philadelphia on December 17, he found no escort, no parade, no reception committee. We have mentioned that Blackwell couldn't find the Council or any other government officials—and this was after he had ordered the Council to meet upon his arrival. One surly escort appeared and he refused to speak to the new governor. And when Blackwell arrived at the empty Council room, a group of boys from the neighborhood gathered around to hoot and jeer.

The Quakers, led by Thomas Lloyd, now embarked on a shrewd and determined campaign of resistance to the imposition of a state. Thomas Lloyd, as keeper of the great seal, insisted that none of Blackwell's orders or commissions was valid unless stamped with the great seal. Lloyd, the keeper, refused to do the stamping. It is amusing to find Edward Channing and other thorough but not overly imaginative historians deeply puzzled by this resistance: "This portion of Pennsylvania history is unusually difficult to understand. We find, for instance, so strong and intelligent a man as Thomas Lloyd declining to obey what appeared to be reasonable and legal direction on the part of the proprietor. As keeper of the great seal of the province, Lloyd refused point blank to affix that emblem of authenticity to commissions which Blackwell presented to him."2 What Channing failed to understand was that Pennsylvanians were engaged in a true revolutionary situation, that they were all fiercely determined to thwart the reimposition of a burdensome state upon their flourishing stateless society. That is why even the most "reasonable and legal" orders were disobeyed, for Pennsylvanians had for some years been living in a world where no one was giving orders to anyone else.

Lloyd persistently refused to hand over the great seal or to stamp any of Blackwell's documents or appointments with it. Furthermore, David Lloyd, clerk of the court and a distant relative of Thomas, refused absolutely to turn over the documents of cases to Blackwell even if the judges so ordered. For this act of defiance, Blackwell declared David Lloyd unfit to serve as court clerk and dismissed him, but Thomas Lloyd promptly reappointed David by virtue of his alleged power as keeper of the great seal.

As a revolutionary situation grows and intensifies, unanimity can never prevail; the timid and the shortsighted begin to betray the cause. Thus the Council, frightened at the Lloyds' direct acts of rebellion, now sided with Blackwell. The pro-Blackwell clique was headed by Griffith Jones, who had consented to let Blackwell live at his home in Philadelphia. Jones warned that "it is the King's authority that is opposed and looks to me as if it were raising a force to rebel." Of the members of the Council, only Arthur Cook remained loyal to the Lloyds and to the resistance movement. Of a dozen justices of the peace named by Blackwell, four bluntly refused to serve.

When Blackwell found out the true state of affairs in Pennsylvania, his state-bound soul was understandably appalled. Here was a thriving trade based on continuing violations of the navigation laws. Here, above all, were no taxes, hence no funds to set up a government. As Bronner puts it: "He [Blackwell] deplored the lack of public funds in the colony which made it impossible to hire a messenger to call the Council, a doorkeeper, and someone to search ships to enforce the laws of England. He believed that some means should be found to collect taxes for the operation of the government."3 His general view, as he wrote to Penn, was the familiar statist cry that the colonists were suffering from excessive liberty: they had eaten more of the "honey of your concessions ... than their stomachs can bear."

Blackwell managed to force the Council to meet every week during the first months of 1689, but his suggestion that every county be forced to maintain a permanent councillor in Philadelphia was protested by the Council. Arthur Cook led the successful resistance, maintaining that the "people were not able to bear the charge of constant attendance."

As Blackwell continued to denounce the Council and Pennsylvania as a whole before his accession, Pennsylvanian opposition to his call for statism was further intensified. On the Council, Arthur Cook was joined in the intransigent camp by Samuel Richardson, who launched the cry that Penn had no power to name a deputy governor. For this open defiance, Richardson was ejected from the Council.

The conflict of views continued to polarize Blackwell and the Pennsylvanians. Finally, the climax came on April 2, 1689 of Thomas Lloyd, charging him with eleven high crimes and misdemeanors. (Blackwell had also refused to seat Lloyd when the latter was elected councillor from Bucks County.) In his impeachment speech, Blackwell trumpeted to his stunned listeners that Penn's and therefore his own powers over the colony were absolute. Penn was a feudal lord who could create manorial courts; furthermore, Penn could not transfer his royally delegated powers to the people, but only to a deputy such as himself. The Council, according to Blackwell's theory, existed in no sense to represent the people, but to be an instrument for William Penn's will. Blackwell concluded this harangue by threatening to unsheathe and wield his sword against his insolent and unruly opponents.

Blackwell's proclamation of absolute rule now truly polarized the conflict. The choice was now narrowed: the old anarchism or the absolute rule by Blackwell. Given this confrontation, those wavering had little choice but to give Thomas Lloyd their full support. Blackwell now summarily dismissed from the Council Thomas Lloyd, Samuel Richardson, and John Eckly. On April 9, while the Council—the supreme judicial arm of the colony—was debating the charge against Lloyd, Blackwell threatened to remove Joseph Growdon. At this point, the Council rebelled and demanded the right to approve its own members. Refusing to meet further without its duly elected members, the Council was then dissolved by Blackwell.

With the Council homeward bound, the disheartened Blackwell sent his resignation to Penn, while seven councillors bitterly protested to Penn against his deputy's attempt to deprive them of their liberties. As for Blackwell, he believed the Quakers to be those agents of the devil foretold in the New Testament, who "despise dominion and speak evil of dignities."

From this point on, the decision was in the hands of Governor Penn, and Penn decided in favor of the Quakers and against Blackwell. For the rest of the year, Blackwell continued formally in office, but lost all concern for making changes or exerting his rule. From April 1689 until early 1690 he was waiting out his term. Blackwell wrote to Penn that "I now only wait for the hour of my deliverance." He summed up his grievance against the Quakers: "These people have not the principles of government amongst them, nor will be informed. ..."

Meanwhile, the Assembly, headed by Arthur Cook, met in May and fell apart on the issue of protesting the arrest of one of its members. Between May and the end of the year, the Council met only twice. Pennsylvania was rapidly slipping back toward its previous state of anarchism. William Penn enlivened this trend by deciding to reestablish the old system with the Council as a whole his deputy governor. Writing to the leading Quakers of Pennsylvania, Penn apologized for his mistake in appointing Blackwell but wistfully reminded them that he had done so because "no Friend would undertake the Governor's place." Now he told them: "I have thought fit ... to throw all into your hands, that you may all see the confidence I have in you." With Blackwell out of office, the Council, back in control, resumed its somnolent ways. Again headed by Thomas Lloyd, it met rarely, did virtually nothing, and told William Penn even less. Anarchism had returned in triumph to Pennsylvania. And when Secretary William Markham, who had been one of the hated Blackwell clique, submitted a petition for levying taxes to provide some financial help for William Penn, the Council completely ignored the request.

  1. Edwin B. Bronner, William Penn's "Holy Experiment" (New York; Temple University Publications, 1962), p. 108. To Professor Bronner belongs the credit for discovering this era of anarchism in Pennsylvania. ↩︎

  2. Edward Channing, A History of the United States, 6 Vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1905-25) 2:125. ↩︎

  3. Bronner, "Holy Experiment," p. 119. ↩︎