William Penn. A Life.

Andrew R. Murphy. Oxford University Press, £25.00

Review by Jonathan Wright

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.