William Penn: A Life by Andrew R Murphy

Oxford University Press, £25.00

Pennsylvania, the colony founded by William Penn in the late seventeenth century, has long been revered as a bastion of religious freedom, as a safe harbour for dissenters, and, as the famous saying goes, a “holy experiment.” And quite right, too: the extent of religious toleration afforded to the populace was, while far from absolute, unprecedented in colonial American history. But we should not become too dewy-eyed when contemplating Pennsylvania’s history. As Andrew Murphy explains, it was also a place riddled, from the outset, by factionalism. Penn described the colony as the “seed of a nation”: but there were weeds in the garden, too.

Perhaps this is fitting since Penn was likewise a character defined by contradictions. No one could deny his piety or religious passion and his unshakeable belief in an expansive understanding of liberty of conscience. But this was also a man who easily made enemies and was adept at holding grudges. Nor should we forget that while the colony was devised as a haven for Penn’s fellow Quakers, and those of many other faiths, economic and political motives were also conspicuous.

Penn was winningly candid on this score: “I desire to extend religious freedom, yet I want some recompense for my trouble.” The second half of that ambitious project did not go quite according to plan. Penn had found himself incarcerated for matters of conscience on an alarming number of occasions during his life, but he did his last prison stretch, in the Fleet, because he was so deeply in debt. Radical thinkers are often lousy businessmen and, by the end, the colony Penn founded had become, in his own sad phrase, “the cause of grief, trouble and poverty.”

It all adds up to a challenging and instructive story and we have been waiting a long time for a rounded portrait of Penn.

Murphy has provided one and it is an outstanding achievement. The usual caricatures of Penn are banished and we are offered as much biographical detail as anyone could desire. The reader will learn all about the well-heeled youth with a naval hero for a father who got into trouble at Oxford for his flirtations with unorthodox religious beliefs. Next, it was off to the continent since a rather angry dad thought some grand-touring was in order. For a little while, Penn soaked up Parisian pleasures but, before too long, he was drawn into the orbit of outspoken advocates of religious tolerance. A short spell at the Inns of Court was next on the agenda, but this fell flat and it was off to the family’s Irish estates and then something momentous occurred. Penn was won over to the Quaker cause.

These were tough times for the Quakers. Their conventicles were made illegal and a stream of diatribes attacked their allegedly subversive ideas: their disdain for social rank (doffing hats and the rest), the rectitude of taking oaths, the need for mighty church buildings, and their many controversial theological positions. Murphy does a wonderful job of recounting Penn’s efforts, in print and on the podium, to champion the Quaker cause. But we all know what we are waiting for: that epochal moment when he managed to secure the right to establish a colony across the Atlantic. It all looked so promising but it turned out to be a quagmire.

Penn proved to be an excellent publicist, luring potential settlers with sweet words: “the soil [was] good, the springs many and delightful. The fruits, roots, corn and flesh as good as I have commonly eaten in Europe.” In many ways, this worked a treat and the colony had a population of roughly 18,000 settlers by 1699.

Regrettably, deep divisions also emerged within the Quaker community, and Penn’s attempt to govern the place in absentia for long spells – at one stage he was back in England for fifteen years – hardly helped the cause. At times he essentially lost control, his lack of financial nous became ever more apparent, and squabbles with neighbouring colonies were a constant problem.

Oddly, though, the fact that Penn was no kind of saint makes his heartfelt commitment to his beliefs more significant and believable.

He was not some innocent idealist. He had “an inordinate capacity for self-pity,” Murphy writes, and he was entirely capable of attacking his enemies: the idea of Pennsylvania as a paradise of toleration can easily be pushed too far. Penn also possessed “a conventional, even austere notion of personal morality.” As he put it, “there can be no pretense of conscience to be drunk, to whore, to be voluptuous, to game, swear, curse blaspheme and profane.” Philadelphia was certainly not a party town.

For all that, Penn was a giant. He advocated an idea of religious freedom that moved beyond the easy business of believing what you chose, to acting and worshipping as you saw fit. He realised that coercion in matters of faith was pointless: it only led to cowards and hypocrites. He has found a fine biographer in Andrew Murphy, who realises that Penn could be both wonderful and more than a little annoying. In the end, the self-righteousness and the selfless devotion collide. During one spell in prison Penn declared that “my prison shall be my grave before I budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.” Such words were a little boastful, but you still want to applaud them and admit that Penn deserves his 37-foot bronze statue atop Philadelphia City Hall.