Blair Worden

Mightier Than the Sword

William Penn: A Life

By

Oxford University Press 460pp £25 order from our bookshop

On the top of Philadelphia’s late-19th-century city hall, which was intended to be the world’s tallest building, there rises a bronze statue, thirty-seven feet high, of William Penn (1644–1718), the English Quaker who founded Pennsylvania. His fame has derived not only from his colonial achievement but also from his ideal of religious liberty, which he eloquently and influentially advocated in England and established as a principle of his American territory. Yet the motives behind his colonial venture have been controversial. Admiring Quakers see it as a ‘holy experiment’, a term used about it by Penn himself in a stray remark of uncertain meaning. Sceptics view it as an exercise in real-estate investment. The province, granted to him by Charles II in a charter of 1681, was a hereditary property. Penn, who could never manage his money, looked to it to pay his debts and tried to extricate himself from the project when it deepened them.

After his death, Americans gave Penn bad marks as well as good. In the year of the Declaration of Independence, a Philadelphian pamphleteer thought it disgraceful enough that the ‘tyrant’ Charles had treated the inhabitants of the colony as disposable property, but remarked that Penn himself, ignoring ‘every sacred privilege of freedom’, had ‘carried the principle of tyranny higher than any of the Stuart family ever did’ by leaving Pennsylvania, in his will, to be sold back to the crown or any taker.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Peters was unashamed and evidently unshamable, an impostor who wholly inhabited his fabrications and who indignant… ,
    • ‘At every waking moment Barbara Hepworth was aware of herself as a woman paving the way in a man’s world’ From the… ,
    • The entertaining Howard Jacobson is in conversation with Prof John Mullan at the Queen’s Park Book Festival on Sund… ,
    • 'A modest and retiring man, Thompson spent his life describing apple varieties and recommending the best – Ribston… ,
    • 'Macfarlane is a poet with the instincts of a thriller writer, an autodidact in botany, mycology, geology and palae… ,
    • 'Some scholars attribute Shakespeare’s pre-eminence to four centuries of propaganda and not to the fact that Hamlet… ,
    • RT : We would appreciate any retweets ,