The conventional view of political life in the American colonies prior to the Revolution is one of instability and turmoil, characterized by political infighting and conflicts over who would be dominant. Alan Tully, in his book, William Penn's Legacy, has presented a completely different view of politics in the Province of Pennsylvania. His view, based upon the study of a thirty-year period in Pennsylvania history (1726-1755), is that the political world was one of peace, regularity and order. "This penchant for avoiding contentious politics was something most Pennsylvania politicians shared. They preferred to keep political relationships low keyed and controlled, in a subsidiary relationship to many of their other concerns."
He theorizes that there were a number of institutional safeguards, informal political practices, and behavior standards that helped to resolve conflict before it became violently disruptive. He argues that society did not become divisive, as some have suggested, but rather remained cohesive because of the forces of political convention, economic interdependence and social inbreeding.
William Penn was born on October 14, 1644. He was the founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, the North American colony of Great Britain that became the state of Pennsylvania. The democratic principles that he set forth served as an inspiration for the United States Constitution.
Although born in a well-to-do Anglican family, Penn joined the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, at the age of 25. The Quakers obeyed their "inner light," which they believed to come directly from God, refusing to bow to the authority of the king, and endorsing pacifism. These were times of turmoil, just after Cromwell's death, and the Quakers were suspect, because of their heretical ideas and because of their refusal to pay respect to the king or swear an oath of loyalty to him. Penn's religious views were extremely distressing to his father, Sir William Penn, who had through naval service earned an estate in Ireland, and hoped that Penn's charisma and intelligence would be able to win him favor at the court of Charles II.
Penn was educated at Chigwell School, Essex where he had his earliest religious experience. Thereafter, young Penn's religious views effectively exiled him from English society. He was expelled from Christ Church, Oxford for being a Quaker, and was arrested several times.
The persecution of Quakers became so fierce that Penn decided that it would be better to try to found a new, free, Quaker settlement in North America. Some Quakers had already moved to North America, but the New England Puritans, especially, were as negative towards Quakers as the people back home, and some of them had been banished to the Caribbean.
In 1677, Penn's chance came, as a group of prominent Quakers, among them Penn, received the colonial province of West New Jersey, half of the current state of New Jersey. That same year, two hundred settlers arrived, and founded the town of Burlington. Penn, who was involved in the project but himself remained in England, drafted a charter of liberties for the settlement. He guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections.
King Charles II of England had a large loan with Penn's father, and settled it by granting Penn a large area west and south of New Jersey on March 4, 1681. Penn called the area Sylvania, Latin for woods, which Charles changed to Pennsylvania. Although Penn's authority over the colony was officially subject only to that of the king, he implemented a democratic system with full freedom of religion, fair trials, elected representatives of the people in power, and a separation of powers, ideas that would later form the basis of the American constitution. The freedom of religion in Pennsylvania, complete freedom of religion for everybody who believed in God, brought not only English, German and Dutch Quakers to the colony, but also Huguenots (French Protestants) as well as Lutherans from Catholic German states.
From 1682 to 1684 Penn resided in the Province of Pennsylvania, then returned to England. He visited America once more, in 1699. Penn had wished to settle in Philadelphia himself, but financial problems forced him back to England in 1701. He tried to sell Pennsylvania back to the state, but while the deal was still being discussed, he was hit by a stroke in 1712, after which he was unable to speak or take care of himself. Penn died on July 30, 1718, and was buried next to his wife in the cemetery of the Quaker meetinghouse in Jordans. His will left the bulk of his lands in America to his sons, although the next fourteen years were marked by a series of court challenges to the will. This turmoil over the will carried over into public life in the colony. "Throughout the 1720s, proprietary control of land settlement was at a minimum in Pennsylvania. The reason for this laxity was simple enough; no one knew where authority lay."
After the dispute over the will was settled, his family retained ownership of the colony of Pennsylvania until the American Revolution.
A Quaker party emerged in Pennsylvania during the late 1730s, its development encouraged by the determination of Thomas Penn to exact proprietary dues, and the central tension between the Quaker party and the proprietary interest of the Penn family. The Quaker party dominated the politics of its province during the 1740s and 1750s. "Aside from two incidents of open disagreement -- in Philadelphia in the 1720s and in Bucks County in the 1740s -- when a small number of Friends supported the executive, Pennsylvania's Quakers refused to allow their political differences to become public disputes."
It endured and eventually saw the competing proprietary party reduced to acquiescence. "In the much noticied 1742 Philadelphia election, proprietary managers reverted to the old practice of trying to pace two or three spokesmen in the House, but the results of the elction manifested the futility of any tactics not based on cooperation with the popular Quaker leaders."
Its capacity to endure grew from the ideology of civil Quakerism, which stressed religious tolerance, equal rights, law taxes, and the limitation of military burdens. "The high level of political participation by Quaker religious leaders was not wiothout reason. Despite being disseneters and advocates of separation of church and state, Friends felt that their sect rightly enjoyed a peticular prominance in Pennsylvania and that socity should be directed by closely cooperating centers of religious and civil authority."
The Quaker party's hegemony in the assembly lasted for most of the proprietary period, being only temporarily disturbed by the voluntary secession of the strict pacifists in 1756. By contrast, the proprietary interest was so weak that it scarcely deserved the name of "party." Its weakness made it a failure in the internal political context of the colony. Writing about the election of 1742 and the failure of the proprietary-executive, Tully argues that part of the problem was a false optimism within the ranks of the party. "Prior to the election they had seen evidence of substantial support among Pennsylvania's freeman because they had wanted to see it, not because it had actually existed. Nothing had occurred to the voter's opinion that the proprietary and the governor, rather than the Spanish, posed the greatest threat to individual rights, liberty, and property."
Penn and his sons, who succeeded him as proprietors, spent most of their time in England. They recognized that London, not Philadelphia, was the seat of their power. Although this was a constant factor in colonial politics, there were occasional crises which brought it home to politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. One of these was the continuing dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, which at times turned violent. This was in contrast to the peace and stability that existed within the colony of Pennsylvania.
The late 1600s and early 1700s represented a turbulent time in the religious history of England. Lord Baltimore could not assume an adversarial role toward William Penn due to Lord Baltimore's complex relationships with the Crown of England at that time. The primary dispute was over Lord Baltimore's claim to the northern border of Maryland and William Penn's claim to the southern border of Pennsylvania. This land dispute continued for another fifty years after Penn's death in 1718. The long-lasting saga of this border dispute was another colonial issue that was fought out more in the corridors of power in London than in North America. "By August 1734 Baltimore was back in London, making more trouble for the Penns by petitioning the King to transfer control of Delaware, or the three Lower Counties as it was then known, from the Penns to himself."
Thus, the moves and counter-moves of the Calverts and Penns were often reactions to developments at court rather than in the colonies. In 1733, for instance, the proprietor of Maryland put pressure on the British government to recognize his claim to the lower counties. John Penn responded by exploiting…