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William Penn

Portrait of William Penn
Author: Unknown

Growing Up

William Penn was born on October 14, 1644 in London, England. His father was an admiral in the English navy and a wealthy landowner. While William was growing up, England went through some very turbulent times. King Charles I was executed in 1649 and parliament took control of the country. In 1660, the monarchy was reestablished when Charles II was crowned king.

As part of a wealthy family, William received an excellent education. He first attended the Chigwell School and later had private tutors. At the age of 16, in 1660, William attended Oxford University.

Religion and the Quakers

The official religion of England at this time was the Church of England. However, some people wanted to join other Christian churches, such as the Puritans and the Quakers. These other churches were considered illegal and people could be put in jail for joining them.

The Quakers believed that there shouldn't be any religious rituals or sacraments. They also refused to fight in any war, believed in religious freedom for all, and were against slavery.

Life as a Quaker

William Penn became a Quaker when he was twenty-two. It was not easy for him. He was arrested for attending Quaker meetings, but was released because of his famous father. However, his father was not happy with him and forced him out of the house. He became homeless and lived with other Quaker families for a while.

Penn became famous for his religious writings in support of the Quaker faith. He was once again put into prison. There he continued to write. Around this time, Penn's father became ill. His father had grown to respect his son's beliefs and courage. He left Penn a large fortune when he died.

Pennsylvania Charter

With the conditions for Quakers getting worse in England, Penn came up with a plan. He went to the king and proposed that the Quakers should leave England and have their own colony in the Americas. The king liked the idea and gave Penn a charter for a large tract of land in North America. At first the land was called Sylvania, which means "woods", but it was later named Pennsylvania in honor of William Penn's father.

A Free Land

William Penn envisioned Pennsylvania to not only be a Quaker land, but also a free land. He wanted freedom for all religions and a safe place for persecuted minorities to live. He also wanted peace with the Native Americans and hoped they could live together as "neighbors and friends."

Pennsylvania adopted a constitution called the Frame of Government. The government had a parliament that consisted of two houses of leaders. These houses were to impose fair taxes and to protect the rights of private property. The constitution guaranteed the freedom of worship. Penn's constitution was considered a historical step towards democracy in America.


In 1682, William Penn and around one hundred Quaker settlers arrived in Pennsylvania. They established the city of Philadelphia. Penn had designed the city which had streets laid out in a grid. The city and the colony was a success. Led by Penn, the new government protected the rights of the citizens and maintained peace with the local Native Americans. By 1684, there were around 4,000 people living in the colony.

Back to England and Later Years

Penn was only in Pennsylvania for two years before he traveled back to England in 1684 to resolve a border dispute with Lord Baltimore between Maryland and Pennsylvania. While back in England, Penn ran into financial issues. At one point he lost the charter to Pennsylvania and was thrown into debtor's prison.

In 1699, fifteen years later, Penn returned to Pennsylvania. He found a thriving colony where people were free to worship their own religion. It wasn't long, however, before Penn once again had to return to England. Unfortunately, he was plagued with business issues for the rest of his life and died penniless.

Death and Legacy

William Penn died on July 30, 1718 in Berkshire, England from the complications of a stroke. Although he died poor, the colony he founded went on to be one of the most successful of the American colonies. The ideas he had for religious freedom, education, civil rights, and government would pave the wave for the democracy and constitution of the United States.

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