While the peak of threats against every statue celebrating American history seems to have passed, one recent example stood out to me. The National Park Service announced plans to remove the statue of William Penn in Welcome Park (named for the ship he sailed to America on) in Philadelphia, in the state named for his family.
Those plans have now been withdrawn. But they were particularly poorly chosen, given the sorts of attacks usually made to justify such “statutory” destruction.
Penn was a pacifist who joined the Quakers at age 22, so he could not credibly be called a war monger.
His nonconformist views also made him an outsider in British society, and he was expelled from Oxford, arrested several times, and imprisoned for blasphemy in the Tower of London. Penn was not a power broker whose privilege supposedly harmed others.
Pennsylvania Quakers were also among the earliest fighters against slavery.
Penn did not treat Indians unfairly. He insisted that their lands be purchased through negotiation rather than conquered or stolen. As Peter Lillback put it, “The one American that cannot possibly be accused of any hostility toward the original inhabitants of the land in North America is William Penn.”
Penn’s example was also a powerful influence on rights Americans now treasure.
When he was put on trial for preaching at a Quaker gathering, he invoked his legal right under British law to see the charges brought against him, because “if these ancient and fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property…must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who then can say that he has a right to the coat on his back?”
The judge — the Lord Mayor of London — refused and pressed the jury for a conviction, but the jury exonerated Penn. The Lord Mayor then sent Penn back to jail for contempt of court, and also fined and jailed the jury. From prison, they fought back, resulting in wresting English juries away from judicial control, so that verdicts could not be coerced and juries could not be punished for verdicts the government disliked. Penn called it “the insurance which we have on our lives and property” against government abuse, and his thinking is reflected now in the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.
Penn anticipated John Locke’s ideas on the “unalienable rights” referenced in our Declaration of Independence, as Locke also heavily influenced Jefferson. Locke wrote that “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.”
When Penn was given authority over Pennsylvania (literally, “Penn’s woods”) in 1682, he implemented his Frame of Government, Pennsylvania’s first constitution, which included elected representatives, a separation of powers, religious freedom, and fair trials, all since incorporated into our Constitution.
Penn’s history of abuse at government hands had cemented a fierce commitment to freedom, because “people…may be better managed by wisdom than ruled by force.” Consequently, he wrote, “I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person.”
Ronald Reagan even made Penn an honorary citizen, “whose contributions to its traditions of freedom, justice, and individual rights have accorded them a special place of honor…and to whom all Americans owe a lasting debt.”
Accordingly, historian Jim Powell called William Penn “the first great hero of American liberty,” particularly because “For the first time in modern history, a large society offered equal rights to people of different races and religions…He showed that people who are courageous enough, persistent enough, and resourceful enough can live free,” going beyond noble rhetoric to pioneer “how a free society would actually work.”
In fact, when I think of those words, I am reminded of a little-noted aspect of Penn’s “firsts.” He wrote with a great deal of wisdom about many central constitutional issues before those who are now often given primary credit.
John Locke’s 1790 Second Treatise On Government is probably given the most credit for that inspiration. Richard Henry Lee even charged that Jefferson had essentially plagiarized Locke in the second paragraph in the Declaration of Independence. But Penn’s Frame of Government was implemented in 1682 – eight years earlier.
Cato’s Letters, which argued for Locke’s reasoning and which were so influential that many of our founders’ words echoed it closely, were not published until beginning in 1720. Baron Montesquieu has often been given much of the credit for the idea of separation of powers in his 1748 The Spirit of Laws, but it was already in Penn’s Frame of Government, over half a century earlier.
Those Penn firsts make keeping his statue and honoring him particularly important for historical purposes, though few seem ever to have noticed. But for our present circumstances, the fact that so many of the things Penn, and our founders after him, implemented are being eroded or simply ignored also gives him added importance.
Consider just a few examples. Allegedly unalienable rights seem to be alienated with some frequency, and every branch of our federal government has been involved, no separation of powers required. There is precious little in the way of separation of powers in President Biden’s education loan vote-buying gambits. Former President Trump’s Sixth Amendment rights have been pretty well trampled by the “lawfare” being waged against him in court.
But each of those examples rejects aspects absolutely crucial to America continuing to be what was once acceptable to call “a beacon of hope” for the world. That is why we should remember Penn’s insights. Penn’s commitment to a free society needs our re-commitment.