William Penn (14 October 1644 – 30 July 1718) was the first great hero of American liberty. Penn made major contributions to liberty in both England and America. Before he conceived the idea of Pennsylvania, he became a powerful defender of religious freedom in England. He was imprisoned six times for speaking out courageously. While in prison, he wrote one pamphlet after another on religious freedom.
He alone proved capable of challenging oppressive government policies in court–one of his cases helped secure the right to trial by jury. Penn used his diplomatic skills and family connections to get large numbers of Quakers out of jail. He saved many from the gallows. Penn became convinced that religious toleration couldn’t be achieved in England, so he went to the King and asked for a charter enabling him to establish an American colony.
On March 4, 1681, Charles II signed a charter for territory west of the Delaware River and north of Maryland, approximately the present size of Pennsylvania, where about a thousand Germans, Dutch and Indians lived without any particular government. The King proposed the name “Pennsylvania” which meant “Forests of Penn”–honoring Penn’s late father, the Admiral. Penn would be proprietor, owning all the land, accountable directly to the King.
Penn named major streets including Broad, Chestnut, Pine, and Spruce, but Penn was most concerned about developing a legal basis for a free society.
In his First Frame of Government, which Penn and initial land purchasers had adopted on April 25, 1682, he expressed ideals anticipating the Declaration of Independence: “Men being born with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature … no one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political view of another, without his consent.”
Penn provided that there would be a governor–initially, himself–whose powers were limited. He would work with a Council (72 members) which proposed legislation and a General Assembly (up to 500 members) which either approved or defeated it. Each year, about a third of members would be elected for three-year terms. As governor, Penn would retain a veto over proposed legislation.
Liberty brought so many immigrants that by the American Revolution Pennsylvania had grown to some 300,000 people and became one of the largest colonies. Pennsylvania was America’s first great melting pot.
With an atmosphere of liberty, Philadelphia emerged as an intellectual center. Between 1740 and 1776, Philadelphia presses issued an estimated 11,000 works including pamphlets, almanacs, and books. In 1776, there were seven newspapers reflecting a wide range of opinions. No wonder Penn’s “city of brotherly love” became the most sacred site for American liberty, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and delegates drafted the Constitution.