The Holy Experiment, in Pennsylvania

Between 1681 and 1683, William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania. He sought to put into practice all his Quaker ideals, and he called it his ‘Holy Experiment’.  He thought that everything would be possible in the New World, unlike in the England of his time.

In 1681, just before he went, he wrote to the settlers already there to say:
For you are now fixed at the mercy of no governor that comes to make his fortune great; you shall be governed by laws of your own making and live a free, and if you will, a sober and industrious life. I shall not usurp the right of any...

This summarises the philosophy underpinning the Holy Experiment. Its key features were:

Fair treatment for Native Americans: King Charles II had given Penn the land. But Penn did not think it was the King’s to give: in his view the land belonged to the Leni Lenape Indians who had been living there long before the colonists arrived. He was determined to buy the land from them, at a fair price. He signed a treaty with them at Shackamaxon in 1682.

No military: the King was amazed when Penn chose not to bring arms and soldiers with him. This was a complete contrast to other colonies, where there were frequent battles with the Native Americans.

A new approach to governance: William Penn was the ’Absolute Proprietor’ of Pennsylvania, under the Royal Charter. That meant he could do as he chose, provided he paid the King an annual rent (2 beaver skins and 20% of any gold or silver).  However, Penn believed that government should be
Free to the people under it, whatever be the frame, where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws

In 1682 Penn set out the first version of Pennsylvania’s Constitution in the ‘Great Law’. In 1683 this was augmented, in the ‘Second Frame of Government’. When he returned to Pennsylvania in 1699 it was revised to become the ‘Charter of Privileges’. This remained in place until the War of Independence, in 1776.

The key features of all these documents were:

Freedom of religion: all could worship freely, as they chose. Pennsylvania would be open to people of all religious persuasions, not only Quakers. At the time, Quakers and many others were still being persecuted in Britain, where the only form of religion allowed was the Church of England. So Pennsylvania was a haven of religious freedom, and many new settlers came.

An enlightened penal code; prison was to reform, not only to punish.  People in prison were to be taught a trade, so that they could be gainfully employed on release, and they were to be treated humanely. The death penalty was to be confined to murder and treason. In Britain at the time many relatively trivial offences incurred the death penalty and prisons were terrible places.

Work for everyone: he made occupations in agriculture, crafts and trade much more accessible than elsewhere. Pennsylvania became known as "the best poor man's country."

Education for everyone: girls and boys were all to be educated. This was a remarkable innovation at a time when most children were illiterate, especially girls. And the education was to be useful, and practical, so that all could find employment. This was characteristic of Quakers in Britain too.

A widened franchise: all men were to be given the vote. Equality did not extend to giving women the vote, but in England only a small proportion of men could vote, namely those owning property. There was no mention of slaves or 'Indians' however.

Town planning for healthy living: he designed Philadelphia on a grid pattern, with wide public squares and parks. He had seen the ravages caused by the Great Plague in London, and the fire that followed, and he was determined that his ‘greene countrie towne‘ would be healthy and safe. This approach to design was later emulated all over America.

Penn only spent 4 years in Pennsylvania, and not everything he did outlasted him. But much did. A great deal of Penn’s thinking about governance can be seen in later constitutional documents. His legacy is considerable.

Further Reading and Credits

The picture shows the statue of William Penn, on top of the City Hall, in Philadelphia.