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JUSTICE IN WILLIAM PENN’S FUNDAMENTAL CONSTITUTIONS: A SURVEY

OF PENN’S EARLY BELIEFS ON JUSTICE, AND VIGNETTES OF JUSTICE


IN THE EARLY PENNSYLVANIA COLONY

CHTH 564: HISTORY AND POLITY OF THE QUAKER MOVEMENT

DR. DICK SARTWELL & DR. CAROLE SPENCER

BY BRIAN RAPP

BOX# 7068
Introduction

William Penn, through a series of events, had been granted the charter to create a colony

in the wilderness of the American continent. He envisioned a ‘holy experiment’ where God

would be honored and humanity freed to pursue a reasonable happiness.1 Many people have

attempted such utopian projects and they always fail in varying degrees to measure up to the

expectations of the original vision of the founder. Penn’s utopian colony was no exception to this

rule.2 It had failed to live up to Penn’s dreams in many ways, yet it probably succeeded more

than William Penn could ever have dreamed of. When the framers of the American Constitution

set about codifying their core beliefs on good government, they looked to Thomas Jefferson to

write the document, and found significant guidance in the writings of political theorist Charles de

Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.3

It is in these two men that a great respect for Penn’s law making project has been noted.

Mary Geiter points us to Montesquieu’s comments regarding William Penn where he “compared

Penn in his capacity as proprietor of Pennsylvania with Lycurgus, the ancient Greek lawgiver

who allegedly devised a constitution for Sparta.”4 Such estimations of William Penn’s stature as

1
Edwin B. Bronner, William Penn's Holy Experiment: The Founding of Pennsylvania (New York: Temple
University Publications, 1962), 1. Bronner discusses the William Penn's "holy experiment"; Jean R. Soderlund and
others, eds., William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, 1680-1684: A Documentary History (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press & Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1983), 55. William Penn’s letter "To the
Inhabitants of Pennsylvania."
2
Bronner, 2.
3
Shackleton, Robert, “Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de,” in
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007. [database on-line]; available from http://0search.eb.com.catalog.
georgefox.edu/eb/article-4977.
4
Mary K. Geiter, William Penn ( New York: Longman, 2000), 120. Geiter on p. 167 points to the
following statement by Montesquieu regarding Penn: “A character so extraordinary in the institutions of Greece has
shown itself lately in the dregs and corruptions of modern times.[7] A very honest legislator has formed a people to
whom probity seems as natural as bravery to the Spartans. Mr. Penn is a real Lycurgus: and though the former made
peace his principal aim, as the latter did war, yet they resemble one another in the singular way of living to which
they reduced their people, in the ascendant they had over free men, in the prejudices they overcame, and in the
passions which they subdued.” THE SPIRIT OF LAWS By Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu Translated
a lawgiver do not end with Montesquieu. Thomas Jefferson referred to William Penn as “‘the

greatest lawgiver the world has produced; the first, either in ancient or modern times, who has

laid the foundation of government in the pure and unadulterated principles of peace, of reason

and right.’”5 William Penn’s laws for the Pennsylvania colony appear to have left a large

impression on these men of such great influence.

The full implications of Penn’s contribution to American democracy, that Jefferson’s

comment hints at, are far beyond the range of this paper but would be an interesting topic for

further research.6 The purpose of this study is to discuss the early ways that Penn envisioned

justice functioning in his Quaker ‘holy experiment,’ and some of the real world applications of

his thought in the early Pennsylvania colony. This will be assessed through a brief discussion of

his political theories, the applicable sections concerning justice in Penn’s Fundamental

Constitutions, and some examples of how justice was implemented in the early Pennsylvania

colony.

William Penn’s Political Theories

What were the underlying beliefs which led to the creation of law for the Pennsylvania

colony that would earn such praise? Arthur Pound point to the Quaker influences on Penn:

by Thomas Nugent, revised by J. V. Prichard Based on an public domain edition published in 1914 by G. Bell &
Sons, Ltd., London Rendered into HTML and text by Jon Roland of the Constitution Society
http://www.constitution.org/cm/sol.txt
5
Edwin B. Bronner, "William Penn: Prophet of the Future," in Quest for Faith, Quest for Freedom:
Aspects of Pennsylvania's Religious Experience, ed. Otto Reimherr (Selinsgrove Pa.: Susquehanna Univ. Press,
1987), 29. Bronner found his quotation of Thomas Jefferson in William I. Hull’s William Penn, A Topical
Biography (London, 1937), at p. 336. See Appendix 1 for a draft version of this letter from Thomas Jefferson
concerning Penn and his law making.
6
These are many of the in depth studies which have been conducted on William Penn and his colony.
Albert Sidney Bolles, Pennsylvania, Province and State: A History from 1609 to 1790 (Philadelphia: J. Wanamaker,
1899); Bronner, William Penn's Holy Experiment: The Founding of Pennsylvania,; Geiter, William Penn ; Gary B.
Nash, Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania, 1681-1726, New. ed. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993);
Arthur Pound, The Penns of Pennsylvania and England (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932); Isaac
Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment in Government; History of Quaker Government in Pennsylvania, 1682-1783,
Popular ed. (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1902); Soderlund, The Founding of Pennsylvania.
Penn’s theory of government runs down the Quaker groove. The outward law is
needed because men will not always obey the Inner Light. Since men transgress, they
must be restrained, but Penn was not contented with the ‘shall nots’ of government.
Instead he went far beyond his times to place upon government these duties—to
encourage the well-disposed, to shield virtue, to reward merit, to foster art, to promote
learning.7

His utopian ‘holy experiment’ for the Pennsylvania colony contained an optimistic anticipation

of a better world, where government would be minimal:

A true Quaker, Penn looked upon the state as an evil and wanted no more government
than the ill behavior of worldly citizens made necessary. His ideal society was one in
which men governed themselves and their affairs so well and justly that formal
government would have little or nothing to do…8

The ‘holy experiment’ never reached this stage of corporate holiness.

This brings us to The Fundamental Constitutions, which were never enacted, but possibly

Penn’s most idealistic constitutional draft. Penn’s preface to this early document demonstrates a

person who is quite comfortable with the idea of humanity as fallen and in need of the law for

external control of that fallen state:

But when he [man] leant his ear to another voice, and followed his lust, and did the thing
he was forbidden of God, the law was added. That is, the external law came to awe and
terrify such as would not do the thing that was just according to the righteous law within
themselves. Thus transgression introduced and occasioned the outward law, and that
[introduced] government, and both [introduced] magistracy, [so] that those that would not
answer the righteous law within, might be compelled by an impartial execution of the
righteous law without.9

To Penn, humanity had failed to obey its inner “righteous law” and brought the consequences of

law and its punishments upon themselves as necessary corrections.

7
Pound, 180.
8
Ibid., 175.
9
Soderlund and others, eds., The Founding of Pennsylvania, 97.
Penn seems to have viewed law and order as essential to the right ordering of society, in a

fallen world. Mary Geiter writes that “Penn’s view was that the style of government was of less

moment than that government rested on a firm basis of law.”10 It seems that Penn viewed the

success of government as derived from the righteousness of its citizens. According to Arthur

Pound, “Penn knew that good government depended far more on good men than on the wisest

laws; but so far as good laws could stimulate and develop those who lived under them, they

should feel the invigorating power.”11 To stimulate that righteousness which good laws leading

to a just society could assist in, “‘he proposed to establish a popular government, based on the

principle of exact justice to all, red and white, regardless of religious beliefs; there was to be trial

by jury; murder and treason were to be the only capital crimes; and punishment for other

offences was to have reformation, not retaliation, in view.’”12 William Comfort viewed these

attempts to create laws that fostered justice as successful when he wrote that “what he [Penn]

now provided for the protection of the defendant has become the inalienable right of those

caught in the toils of the law in the American procedure.”13

The Place of Penn’s Fundamental Constitutions in His Constitutional


Project and Its Views Concerning Justice

William Penn did not single handedly arrive at the plan to maintain justice in the

Pennsylvania colony. Robert Davidson notes the influence of “the liberal teachings of John Lock

10
Geiter, 121.
11
Bolles, Pennsyslvania, Province and State, 120.
12
Albert Cook Myers, Immigration of the Irish Quakers into Pennsylvania, 1682-1750: With Their Early
History in Ireland (Swarthmore, Pa.: The author, 1902), 51. Myers is quoting from Reuben Gold Thwaites, The
Colonies, 1492-1750, 6th ed. (New York: Longmans Green, 1894), 215.
13
William Wistar Comfort, Frederick Barnes Tolles, and Edwin B. Bronner, The Quakers: A Brief Account
of Their Influence on Pennsylvania, Rev. and reissued with additions / ed., Pennsylvania History Series; No. 2.
(University Park, PA: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1986), 25.
and Algernon Sydney,” but also the influence of the Pennsylvania residents on the final form of

government adopted:

Penn’s acceptance of the ‘social contract’ theory of government and his grants of
increasing power to the Assembly soon made an independently minded body of them.
Making good use of their Quaker experience in meeting together, they became the most
powerful legislature in the American colonies.14

Before Penn’s plans for justice in the colony ever reached the residents of Pennsylvania, it had

already been through many revisions:

There are twenty known drafts of the Pennsylvania constitution, all of which not only
illuminate William Penn’s motivations but illustrate other influences outside his Quaker
environment….Through draft after draft, the constitution, changing names with new
versions, metamorphosed from a liberal document, the Fundamental Constitutions of
Pennsylvania, in which the government was made up of an upper and lower house and
the lower house had legislative power, to the Frame of Government, in which power was
firmly under the control of the proprietor’s appointee, the governor, and a council chosen
from the wealthier sort.15

The Fundamental Constitutions, which were possibly Penn’s ideal constitution, had been revised

to something very different in regards to law and justice. It appears to illustrate Penn’s views on

government at a point when he was freer to choose its form. Gary Nash points out the needs of

wealthy partners affected Penn in the constitution making process:

Penn was probably far from a free agent in the work of constituting a government.
William Markham, his cousin and a trusted adjutant in the colony for many years,
indicated as much when he wrote later: ‘I knew very well it [the Frame of Government]
was forced upon him by friends who unless they received all that they demanded would
not settle the country.’16

14
Robert L. D. Davidson, War Comes to Quaker Pennsylvania, 1682-1756 (New York: Published for
Temple University Publications by Columbia University Press, 1957), 8. On Locke and Sydney’s influence; Sally
Schwartz, "A Mixed Multitude": The Struggle for Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania (New York: New York
University Press, 1987), 36. She is noting the influence of the Pennsylvania residents; Soderlund, The Founding of
Pennsylvania, 111. Algernon Sydney even "wrote a draft for WP's constitution in 1681."
15
Geiter, 122-123.
16
Nash, 28-29. Nash is quoting from William Markham to Governor Benjamin Fletcher, May 20, 1696,
Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1696-97 (London, 1904), #27xi.; Soderlund
and others eds., The Founding of Pennsylvania, 95. Soderlund confirms this understanding of the situation.
Also, the landowners already in Pennsylvania were to influence the final Frame of Government

adopted in 1683.17 Meeting the needs of stakeholders is the usual business of any day. Soderlund

discusses these constitutional developments towards the interests of the major stakeholders, but

also points to the effectiveness of its self limiting nature through a “carefully controlled

executive,” leading to a situation in which “over the next twenty years, the colony’s leaders

would thoroughly revise WP’s Frame of Government.”18 The Frame of Government had been a

necessary first step for the founding of the colony, but it seems that Penn led, or followed, his

Assembly in a march back to many of the principles of justice and government that he had

articulated in The Fundamental Constitutions.

Justice in The Fundamental Constitutions

Penn wrote in his Fundamental Constitution that “good government…is a constitution of

just laws, wisely set together for the well ordering of men in society, to prevent all corruption or

justly to correct it.”19 In this document, Penn set out to delineate what would be justice and its

implementation in a good government, and in particular the Pennsylvania colony.

Penn’s personal experience, as a persecuted Quaker in England, had convicted him of the

need for the freedom to worship God in ones own manner. It was most likely also the source of

his belief in the necessity of impartial justice. The first constitution which he wrote, allowed the

freedom to practice religion unmolested by the authorities and ended with the words in the

margin—“ very good.”20 He had in effect decriminalized the act of worship in Pennsylvania

17
Soderlund and others, eds., The Founding of Pennsylvania, 266.
18
Ibid., 96.
19
Ibid., 97.
20
Ibid., 98-99. The footnote on p. 108 ,by Soderlund, indicates that the comment is “possibly by WP.”
allowing for a much greater flexibility in human freedom. Penn then moved directly to the

conduct of justice in his second constitution. He was insisting that “all those laws which relate to

prevention or correction of vice and injustice be impartially and vigorously executed.”21 To

prevent anticipated corruption of the legislative process, Penn had planned on implementing

secret balloting in the Assembly of his proposed legislature.22 This idea of impartiality was so

important to Penn, that in the sixteenth constitution he advocated for a local judge to hold court

each month in the county so “that justice may be speedily as well as impartially done.”23 Penn

had also prescribed punishments for corrupt officials who “delay or deny justice.”24

To further keep justice accountable and impartial, Penn set out another series of

constitutions. The local governments were to periodically keep records of important transactions

at the local, and regional, level to prevent “lawsuits and animosities among people.”25 Those who

were “housekeepers” and “freemen” would be able to submit candidates for “mayors, bailiffs,

provosts, sheriffs, constables, etc.” to the executive branch for approval.26 When these officials

wanted to imprison a citizen they would have to possess “good evidence,” follow the right of

habeas corpus, and not charge the prisoner for the cost of their incarceration.27

In the courtroom, constitution seventeen described how the administration of justice was

to provide a fair hearing to the defendant. Penn wrote that “all trials and determinations of

causes, and concerning life, liberty, good name, or estate, shall [be] by the verdict and judgment
21
Ibid., 99.
22
Ibid., 102. (Constitution Ten)
23
Ibid., 104.
24
Ibid., 105. (Constitution Eighteen) “Very good” was written next to this, probably by Penn.
25
Ibid., 103. (Constitution Thirteen)
26
Ibid., 102. (Constitution Nine)
27
Ibid., 105-6. (Constitution 20).
of twelve of the neighborhood to the party or parties concerned, and near as may be of the same

degree that they may be equals, lest being poorer they be awed with fear or drawn by rewards to

a corrupt judgment, or by being richer and greater, be careless of their verdict upon an inferior

person whose low condition are not or is not able to call them to question.”28 To keep an eye on

the implementation of justice in the colony, Penn proposed a legislative committee to “supervise

the justice of the province, as to judges, courts, justices, inferior officers of justice, registers, etc.

in the discharge of their duty.”29

His trade commission, listed in the seventh constitution would have sought to prevent

begging through the provision of employment for the poor. By keeping the poor employed, Penn

would have kept them out of debtor prison. But, Penn wanted to do more than keep the poor

working. In his plans for the poor, punishment, and education, Penn was seeking proactive

justice so that the penal measures of society would not be needed, or seldom necessary. He also

proposed that a fourth committee on education be formed in his Council “so youth may be

grounded in the way of virtue and wisdom, and the successive generations secured against

declension and corruption of manners, which draws after it slavery and beggary and, which is

worse, the wrath of God, too.”30 There was to be mandatory education, in a trade, for twelve year

olds to “give the country and people wealth and reputation and [to] keep out of idleness, the

mother of many mischiefs.”31

28
Ibid., 104.
29
Ibid., 101. (Constitution 7)
30
Ibid. (Constitution 7)
31
Ibid., 106. (Constitution 22)
Penn appears to have felt that there was a connection between vice, idleness, and poverty.

Therefore, alcohol and gambling were to be restricted and violators punished with “hard daily

labor.”32 When punishment for crime was to be necessary, it was to have reformation in mind. In

his fourteenth constitution, Penn created ways for people to avoid the punitive debtor prison,

while still maintaining punishments for those who might try to avoid debt when able to pay.

Regarding debtor prison, Penn had stated that “it is so sad a thing to behold the jails of nations

filled with prisoners for debts that they can never pay, and so their confinement can only be the

effect of an unprofitable revenge.”33 Even in the punishment of thieves, Penn sought reform over

capital punishment. In a kind of three strikes and your out plan, thieves were to have

subsequently worsening punishments with the third as the final harsh stage of servitude to the

party wronged. Penn felt that, for the thief, work was “worse than death itself, and therefore

better to prevent evil.”34

William Penn’s Fundamental Constitutions was never to make it to law, and were

probably never published in his lifetime.35 They do, however, appear to demonstrate his hopes

that lay at the heart of his holy experiment in Pennsylvania, before political realities were placed

upon the process. The more liberal Fundamental Constitutions was to be replaced by the first

Frame of Government coupled with the Laws Agreed Upon in England.36 It was with these two

documents that he arrived on the shores of Pennsylvania. Demonstrating the independence of the

32
Ibid. (Constitution 21)
33
Ibid., 103. (Constitution 14)
34
Ibid., 103-104. This quotation is on p. 104 and the previous sentences on punishments for theft are from
p. 103-104 from Constitution 15. It should be noted that Penn also incorporated ways to alleviate the suffering of the
dependents of those thieves caused by their punishment.
35
Ibid., 97.
36
Ibid., 118-133.
Pennsylvania colonists, the Laws Agreed Upon in England were quickly adapted and enlarged

during the “first Assembly at Chester, formerly Upland, on 4 December 1682.”37 These laws

passed at the first Assembly are referred to as the Great Law.38 The final Frame of Government

was not to be passed until the next Assembly ratified a second version of the first Frame of

Government on April 2nd, 1683.39 As Soderlund noted, this would not be the last time that these

Pennsylvania colonists would claim the right to legislate their own laws.40 Penn seems to have

set a process in motion.

Early Applications of Justice in Penn’s Holy Experiment

Penn had laid his plans for justice in the new colony. Some examples of how his vision of

justice was implemented, might further explain the comments by Jefferson and Montesquieu.

Charles Wetherill points to an important factor of this new colonial experiment’s system of

justice. There was another alternative system of justice operating simultaneously in the lives of

many Quaker colonists:

They still, on principle, avoided the courts of justice, and each community or ‘Meeting’
settled the disputes of their members by the arbitration of a Committee. The Committee
in each Meeting soon assumed great power and authority, and under their leadership the
private lives and concerns of their members were regulated in their most important and
also in their most trivial details, with a strictness which in some particulars may have
been necessary, but which was often exercised in a harsh and undiscriminating manner.41

37
Ibid., 192.
38
Lewis Shippen, "Eliminating Archaic Features of Execution Process in Pennsylvania," University of
Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register 63, no. 7 (1915): 654. The digital document of the Great Law
can be located at http://www.docheritage.state.pa.us/documents/greatlawtrans .asp . It is interesting to note that
Soderlund does not place a copy of the Great Law in his documentary history.
39
Soderlund and others, eds., The Founding of Pennsylvania, 266.
40
Ibid., 96.
41
Charles Wetherill, History of the Religious Society of Friends, Called by Some the Free Quakers, in the
City of Philadelphia (Washington, D.C.: Ross & Perry, 2002), 8.
This Quaker system of personal regulation did not obviate the need to have general laws,

governments, and law officers. In fact, it was difficult to find the many judges needed to

administrate justice across the new colony. Bronner notes that upstanding citizens trained in the

“fine points of justice” were hard to find in the colony.42 Despite these technical difficulties, one

of the shining points of the judicial and legislative actions in Penn’s new colony was found in its

religious tolerance and relationships with the Indians. J. William Frost discusses Penn’s legacy in

regards to religious freedom:

William Penn is commonly ranked among the heroes of American history for his
contribution to religious freedom….In the 1670s Penn’s efforts to transform that struggle
politically and intellectually bore fruit in the Frame of Government and early laws of
Pennsylvania.43

Regarding the good relations with the Indians in the early colony, Bronner writes that “the

decision to treat the Indians of Pennsylvania with justice originated in the ideals of the ‘holy

experiment.’”44

Other laws passed might appear harsh if we view them anachronistically, when in fact the

legislature of the ‘holy experiment’ was producing very progressive legislation for their time.

The discussion by Louis Waddell regarding rape demonstrates this:

The Pennsylvania rape statute of 1700, which was written to cover all males except
African Americans who might ‘commit a rape, or ravish a Maiden or Woman,’ did not
include a death sentence. Perpetrators instead received thirty-one lashes, seven years of
hard labor, and forfeiture of their estate; second offenders were castrated. Disallowed by
the Queen in Council in 1706, the statute was promptly reenacted verbatim by the
Assembly, with the exception of the castration provision.45

42
Bronner, William Penn's Holy Experiment: The Founding of Pennsylvania, 47.
43
J. William Frost, A Perfect Freedom: Religious Liberty in Pennsylvania (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1990), 10.
44
Bronner, William Penn's Holy Experiment: The Founding of Pennsylvania, 258.
45
Louis M. Waddell, "Justice, Retribution, and the Case of John Toby," in Friends and Enemies in Penn's
Woods: Indians, Colonists, and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania, ed. William Pencak and Daniel K. Richter
The Quakers were against capital punishment and only accepted the minimum requirements for

capital punishment that were placed on the Pennsylvania government:

In a period of history when capital punishment was meted out for a great many crimes,
the ‘holy experiment’ envisaged a society where wilful[Bronner’s spelling] murder was
the sole offense punishable by death. This progressive ideal was enacted into law and
capital punishment was nearly nonexistent in the colony until 1718, when the English
criminal code was adopted.46

Penn and is colony’s legislators sought to pass proactive legislation to care for others. In 1705,

the Pennsylvania legislature passed “poor laws” that taxed the populace to help in the assistance

of care for the poor, as well as creating appointees who served a year in monitoring assistance to

the poor.47

The issue of violence is always part of the discussion when one deals with law, and the

protection of people from crime. Sharpless discusses Penn’s thoughts on the matter:

Penn did not hesitate to commend force in civil affairs when necessary. ‘If lenitives
would not do, coercives should be tried; but though men would naturally begin with the
former, yet wisdom had often sanctioned the latter as remedies which, however, were
never to be adopted without regret,’ he wrote in 1700. The whole machinery of courts
and police was intended to be effective in resisting crime and criminals. All prisons were
more or less work-houses, and the reformation idea had larger vogue than in some places,
but there was no hesitation apparent to secure by force the ascendancy of law.48

Quakers were, however, strongly opposed to military action and in principle opposed to violence.

Sharpless discusses the “logical difficulty” of holding such views while charged with governing:

(University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 135. It is interesting to note that the English
monarchy felt death to be a better option to castration.
46
Bronner, William Penn's Holy Experiment: The Founding of Pennsylvania, 258. It should be noted that
Myers states that treason was also punishable by death; Myers, 43.
47
Pennsylvania. and Philadelphia (Pa.). Guardians for the Relief and Employment of the Poor., A
Compilation of the Poor Laws of the State of Pennsylvania: From the Year 1700 to 1788, Inclusive (New York:
Arno Press, 1971), 3-7.
48
Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment, 188-189. The quote from Penn is from Samuel Macpherson Janney,
The Life of William Penn: With Selections from His Corespondence and Autobiography (Philadelphia: Hogan
Perkins & Co., 1852), 441. I was not able to locate the exact edition utilized by Sharpless.
It was easy to hold peace views as an academic proposition, supported by the spirit and
letter of the New Testament; but when the actual problems of government arose how was
this nonresistant principle to be applied to the protection of society against criminals?
This logical difficulty does not seem to have troubled the early Pennsylvanians. So far as
appears they drew a line between police and military measures, making one effective and
barring out the other. There was to them no contradiction to call for explanation.49

This tension lasted until 1756 when the Quakers were finally forced to choose between

governing a colony at war and removing themselves from government to maintain their stand for

non-violence—they chose the latter.50 Like people of virtue, they followed their principles and

gave up control of Pennsylvania. However, it seems that they did not leave without proving to

the world what could be achieved.

Lessons From Penn and His Holy Experiment

Many points of this discussion on Penn’s Fundamental Constitutions provide areas of

application for today. For instance, one person in the right place can truly make a difference.

Perhaps though, the most important aspect of this discussion that might be applied to today is the

forgotten nature of Penn and his constitutions. In William Penn, stands a man who felt he had a

mission from God to create an experiment in holy government. In many ways this did not proved

successful, yet in many other ways it seems to have provided a significant model for the framers

of the Constitution of the United States. Penn was without doubt influenced by Enlightenment

thinkers, yet he was seeking to create a law based on that of the original creator of law—his

God.51 If we fail to see some of the sources of American democracy in Penn’s constitutional

documents, it appears that we might fail to truly know ourselves. Similarly, if we fail to note the

49
Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment, 186-187. Sharpless does offer a possible reason for such a stance on p.
187.
50
Davidson, 166.
51
Soderlund and others, eds., The Founding of Pennsylvania, 120-121.
lawgiver of the man whom Thomas Jefferson called “the greatest lawgiver,” then perhaps we fail

to know the source of the laws which have led to our peace and prosperity.

Conclusion

William Penn started a ‘holy’ experiment in his Pennsylvania colony through his political

constitution making. The Fundamental Constitutions seem to demonstrate an insight into Penn’s

hope for this experiment. Ultimately though, he settled on Frame of Government which would

set the ground for a more liberal form of government in the future of his colony. The

implications of these constitutional choices for Pennsylvania seem to go far beyond the

boundaries of an early colonial wilderness according to Geiter:

Deborah Logan, writing a century later, was not too far off the mark when she suggested
that ‘perhaps it is not going too far to call the original frame of Government designed by
William Penn for his Province, and the preliminary discourse affixed to it, the fountains
from which have emanated most of those streams of political wisdom which now flow
through every part of United America, defusing civil and religious liberty, and favoring
the expansion of happiness and virtue.’52

If it is true that Penn’s ‘holy’ experiment continued streaming into the ideological river of the

United States, then a question poses itself: Can this American ideological river continue to run

strong when those streams of the ‘holy experiment’ which have fed it are no longer desired in a

secularized river for which democracy is simply an experiment? Only time will tell.

52
Geiter, 167. Geiter is quoting from Deborah Logan (ed.), Penn-Logan Correspondence (1819), II, p. 10.
Appendix 1: Thomas Jefferson’s Draft Letter Nov. 16, 1825
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