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Exploring the legacy of William Penn, one of early America’s important figures

A VCU professor has edited a new book on Penn’s political writings, offering readers a glimpse into the mind of Pennsylvania’s founder and an early leader in the movement for religious liberty.
william penn

Right: An oil-on-canvas portrait of William Penn at age 22 in 1666, possibly painted by Sir Peter Lely. (Library of Congress, Historical Society of Pennsylvania via Wikimedia Commons)

William Penn, the Quaker activist and founder of the British North American colony that became Pennsylvania, played an important role in the movement for religious liberty on both sides of the Atlantic.

A new book, “William Penn: Political Writings,” edited by Andrew R. Murphy, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, presents, for the first time, a fully annotated scholarly edition of Penn's political writings over the course of his long public career.

Murphy recently discussed the book, published by Cambridge University Press, with VCU News.

What is it about Penn's political writings that led you to want to present this collection?

Despite the fact that most people have heard of William Penn (1644-1718), and know that he founded Pennsylvania, beyond that they generally know very little about him. So for the past decade or so I have been working on Penn’s life and political thought, a project that produced several books, including a biography published in 2019(“William Penn: A Life”).

This particular volume addresses the fact that Penn’s political works have long been out of print or available mainly in historical society archives or through specialized databases; and that it can be difficult to just sit down and read 17th-century texts without some kind of apparatus to help the reader [such as] explanatory footnotes, historical context and so on.

book cover for 'william penn political writings' by andrew murphy
“William Penn: Political Writings”

For those who may not be familiar with William Penn — beyond perhaps knowing that he founded Pennsylvania — what makes him an important figure in early America?

Well, even those who know that Penn founded Pennsylvania might be surprised to learn that, after receiving the colonial charter in 1681, he spent only four of his remaining 37 years in America! (The rest were spent in England, where he remained an important figure in the kingdom’s politics as well as in the Quaker movement.) But even though he was only physically present sporadically (two visits, 1682-84 and 1699-1701), Penn’s influence as founder and drafter of his colony’s founding documents gave him an enduring influence in the early history of the Middle Atlantic colonies.

Even with his absence, Pennsylvania’s extensive religious liberty provided a destination for many Europeans facing religious and economic hardships, holding out the prospect of a religiously pluralistic society in which people were free to pursue their obligations to God as they best understood them. Also, without overlooking the fact that native populations were increasingly sidelined by Pennsylvania’s early growth, as they were all up and down the eastern seaboard, Penn attempted to avoid the kind of genocidal conflict that had characterized the early history of, say, Massachusetts, by purchasing lands from the Lenape residing in the area (his Quaker pacifism helped in this regard).

How would you describe Penn's legacy? In what ways are his ideas still relevant today?

Penn was part of a large and increasingly prominent movement for religious toleration during the second half of the 17th century, wherein claims for liberty of conscience became increasingly sophisticated (theologically, philosophically, politically and pragmatically). Penn’s thought on these matters (contained in the selections in Parts I and II of the volume) show this development, and the way that Penn’s thinking matured during the 1670s, the decade before he founded Pennsylvania. By the time he founded Pennsylvania he had already worked out his own thinking on religion and politics, on what makes a legitimate government, on the importance of representative political institutions, and above all on the importance of safeguarding liberty of conscience.

In all these respects, his thought (and his colonial undertaking) remains important to understanding early America. More generally, the idea of a society in which people with widely varying religious commitments (or none at all) can nonetheless come together to pursue their common good remains an as-yet-unfulfilled aspiration, even in our own time.

Andrew Murphy
Andrew R. Murphy, Ph.D.

What do you hope this collection adds to our understanding of American political history?

Given the obvious importance of Virginia and Massachusetts during the founding era (the first six presidents hailed from those states), there has been a tendency at times to overlook the important role played by individuals and groups from other areas of the nation during its formative years. Recent years have seen renewed interest in understanding the importance of other areas of the country.

I hope that this collection contributes to a greater understanding of the important role played by the “middle colonies” (Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware), where religious pluralism and demographic diversity was the rule rather than the exception. Even though he himself was physically absent for much of the time, I’d say that as a result of the structures and institutions he put in place, Pennsylvania became a vibrant and thriving colony, a real hub of intellectual, economic, religious and political activity in the colonial era. And, of course, it served as the location for the Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, and was the United States’ first capital (1790-1800).

How does this book fit into your larger body of research?

I’ve been studying the relationship between politics and religion, and between political theory and political practice, for my entire career. Penn got a chapter in my doctoral dissertation back in the 1990s, but about 10 years ago I realized that although many people know his name, few (including both the general public and scholars of history, politics and religion) know much more than a few basic facts (or more likely, myths) about him.

I was convinced that Penn was as significant a political thinker as his more famous contemporary, John Locke, and that a better understanding of his role in the events of his time, on both sides of the Atlantic, could be part of a much richer understanding of the history of religious liberty. So I set out on a multipronged project, which has yielded a number of results over the past five years:

  • an academic study of Penn’s political thought (“Liberty, Conscience & Toleration: The Political Thought of William Penn,” 2016)
  • a biography aimed at a more general audience (“William Penn: A Life,” 2019)
  • a co-edited volume of essays on Penn’s multifaceted career (“The Worlds of William Penn,” ed. Andrew R. Murphy and John Smolenski, 2019)
  • this volume (“William Penn: Political Writings,” 2021), which will help readers, I hope, by providing helpful annotations and explanatory footnotes to Penn’s original texts. These texts can be challenging since they are peppered with Scriptural citations and references to English and European historical developments that most readers don’t have at their fingertips.

Anything else you would like to add?

My interest in William Penn goes way back: I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and lived my first 18 years there (as well as a few more in the late 1990s!).

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