Born in England, William Penn grew up in wealth and privilege. His father, Admiral William Penn, afforded him a university education, several large estates, and important connections to England’s elite. In 1667, Penn became a member of the Society of Friends, a religion founded 20 years earlier by George Fox.
The Friends, called Quakers by their detractors, abandoned formal religious services and sought the “Inner Light” by which God revealed himself to each individual. The Quakers suffered persecution in England, but after his conversion, Penn began to use his wealth and influence to advocate the tolerance of all Protestants in England.
In 1676, Penn looked to America to put his ideas of religious liberty into action when he and several other Quakers became trustees of West New Jersey. However, problems with the charter and the large number of trustees thwarted Penn’s hopes to create a religious refuge. Accordingly, Penn petitioned King Charles II for a land grant of his own.
To cancel the debt of £16,000 that he owed to Penn’s father, the king granted Penn 45,000 square miles of land west of the Delaware River, to be named Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods). According to the 1681 charter, Penn was made sole proprietor, meaning he could organize Pennsylvania as he wanted so long as it did not violate English law.
Penn dispatched the first settlers in October 1681. This party asserted Penn’s authority over the European colonists and Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indians already living in the region. They also established the colony’s capital of Philadelphia. Penn arrived in late 1682.
From the start, Penn encouraged a variety of Protestants and Europeans to settle in the colony. At his behest, the nascent Pennsylvania legislature in December 1682 issued a law granting full rights of citizenship to all freemen who declared “Jesus Christ to be the son of God” and “saviour of the world.”
Penn also insisted that his colony have no tax-supported religious establishment, not even for Quakers. This and the economic opportunities available in Pennsylvania caused the population to reach 11,000 in 1690.
Despite Penn’s success at religious toleration, his tenure as proprietor was unsteady. He returned to England in 1684, leaving behind incapable governors, and in 1693, a schism led by George Keith divided the colony’s Quakers. The Crown suspended his charter from 1692 to 1695 “by reason of the great neglects and miscarriages” caused by Penn’s absence.
Penn returned in 1699 but found his colonists contentious and uninterested in paying him quitrents on their lands. Frustrated, Penn left two years later but not before issuing the Charter of Privileges, which granted the colonists considerable latitude in crafting their own laws.
The unprofitability of Pennsylvania and Penn’s penchant for extravagance landed him in debtor’s prison in 1707. In 1712, he suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving his wife, Hannah Callowhill, to manage the colony in his stead. After Penn’s death in 1718, the proprietorship passed to his sons.