William Penn

Engraving of William Penn's Treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1681.
Engraving of William Penn's Treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1681. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-2583


October 14, 1644 in London, England


July 30, 1718 in Ruscombe, England

Nationality and Background

Born in London, England, William Penn was the son of a wealthy landowner and admiral. In addition, his father had received his knighthood from King Charles II. The younger Penn attended Christ Church in Oxford, before being kicked out after criticizing the Church of England. He finished his studies in theology at the Protestant Academy in France.

While visiting some of his father's land in Ireland, Penn met some Quakers and soon converted to the faith. In 1668, he published The Sandy Foundation Shaken, a treatise that criticized a number of protestant beliefs. This book resulted in his being jailed for blasphemy. He was released in 1669, and continued his fight against religious persecution for the Quakers. 

Penn married Gulielma Maria Springett in 1672 and together they had three children. She would later die in 1794. He would remarry Hannah Callowhill in 1796 and have seven children. 

He was a good negotiator and leader and soon found himself chosen to be the head of a new Quaker colony to be founded in America. King Charles II granted him a royal charter in America west of the Delaware River in 1681. Penn was named the new colony's governor and the king himself named the territory "Pennsylvania." In 1682, Penn moved to the Pennsylvania colony and began organizing the colony.

He wrote the Letter to the Free Society of Traders detailing his early activities in the colony founding his "holy experiment."  

Pennsylvania grew quickly with an influx of not only Quakers but also other individuals looking for freedom from religious persecution. Penn returned to England in 1684 and stayed there until 1699 when he moved back to the colony.

It had suffered from border disputes and financial difficulties. He spent his time there rewriting the colony's Constitution. He went back to England in 1701 and never returned to the colony. Instead a number of deputy governors and James Logan, his personal secretary, managed the colony in his absence. 

In 1712, Penn suffered from a stroke. However, he continued to be involved with the running of Pennsylvania with the help of his wife Hannah until his death on July 30, 1718. 

Historical Significance of William Penn

William Penn founded Pennsylvania. Eventually, Delaware would break away from it forming its own colony. Penn believed in religious toleration and called Pennsylvania the 'holy experiment'. He created a written constitution for the colony that amazingly limited the power of government. It also called for freedom of the press and the right to own private property. In this way, Pennsylvania had many of the rights and liberties that would later be granted the citizens of the United States through its constitution.