William Penn

23 William Penn pic 2

(1644 – 1718)
by Karl Williams

The record of Philadelphia’s first tax law 30/1/1693: “Put to the vote: as many are of the opinion that a public tax upon the land ought to be raised to defray the public charge, say ‘yea’. – Carried in the affirmative, none dissenting.”

“If all men were so far tenants to the public that the superfluities of gain and expense were applied to the exigencies thereof, it would put an end to taxes, leave not a beggar, and make the greatest bank for national trade in Europe.”

Here’s a remarkable guy who is known for his position as icon in the U.S. Capitol, for his fair and friendly dealings with Native Americans, for his Quakerly religious tolerance and high principles, and for founding of the “City of Brotherly Love”, Philadelphia. As a geoist, however, he’s not known as anything particularly special – certainly not as any pioneering thinker or reformer. This is because Penn lived before the accursed advent of neoclassical economics, when anyone with half a brain assumed that the only way to equitably share the earth was to keep the rent of land for public purposes.

Born in London as the son of a lofty admiral, for much of his young life he knocked about as the privileged class was wont to do in those days, such as by getting expelled from Oxford. So his father consequently sent him to the Continent in the hope that the gaiety of French life would alter the bent of his mind. William did indeed return as a polished man of the world, having broadened his studies as well as seeing brief naval service in the Dutch war. He then studied law at Lincoln’s Inn for a year, and in 1666 his father dispatched him to look after his estates in Cork (yes, he was one of those dreaded absentee landlords).

It was there in Ireland that he first attended meetings of those remarkable peaceniks, the Quakers, and soon after converted to Quakerism. He quickly involved himself in the Quaker cause, landing in prison several times for his radical preaching for personal, property, and religious rights. In 1672 he married and five years later traveled to Holland championing religious tolerance in the company of George Fox himself, that amazing founder of the Quakers.

Meanwhile, as one of the Quaker trustees of the American province of West Jersey, he had drawn up the settlers’ celebrated ‘Concessions and Agreements’ charter. In 1681 he obtained from the crown, in lieu of his father’s claim upon it, a grant of territory in North America, called ‘Pennsilvania’ in honour of the old admiral, with the intention of establishing a home for his co-religionists. Penn with his emigrants sailed for the Delaware in 1682, and in November held his famous friendly interview with the native Delaware tribe. And so Penn and his agents began the process of buying land from its Native holders, paying a total of 1200 pounds for the land, which though a large sum, was probably fair for both sides. Voltaire noted that this treaty was the “first public contract which connected the inhabitants of the Old and New World together” and “the only one that had never been broken”.

Penn planned the city of Philadelphia, and for two years governed the colony wisely and tolerantly. It was to be Penn’s “holy experiment”, idealistic to the point of utopianism. He wanted to establish a society that was godly, virtuous and exemplary for all of humanity – small wonder that it drew on geoist principles to guide its system of public finance. How else could equity be achieved between people whose land holdings varied in value?

This experiment would become, as he confidently predicted, “the seed of a nation” in which Penn imagined a “free. .sober and industrious people” living by their own laws. He also wrote the “Concessions and Agreements” charter for a group of Quaker colonists who were settling in the newly acquired New Jersey. Among its provisions were the right to trial by jury, the freedom from arbitrary imprisonment for debt, and edict against capital punishment. This document has been called “the first clear statement in American history of the supremacy of the fundamental law [universal rights] over any statutes that might be enacted”.

Penn returned to England (1684—99) to exert himself in favour of his persecuted brethren at home. His influence with James VII and II and his belief in his good intentions were curiously strong. Through his exertions, in 1686 all persons imprisoned on account of their religious opinions (including 1200 Quakers) were released. After the accession of William III, Penn was repeatedly accused of treasonable adherence to the deposed king, but was finally acquitted in 1693. In 1699 he paid a second visit to Pennsylvania, where his constitution had proved unworkable, and had to be much altered. He did something to mitigate the evils of slavery, but held black slaves himself. He departed for England in 1701. His last years were embittered by disputes about boundaries and was even thrown into the Fleet Street debtors’ prison for nine months in 1708. Although his greatness was not largely recognised in his day, he legacy is enormous, including a vibrant geoist movement in the state of Pennsylvania itself.

(from his treaty with the Delaware tribe): “I desire to gain your Love and Friendship by a kind, Just and Peaceable Life.”

“No men. . . hath power or authority to rule over men’s consciences in religious matters.”