Reviewed by Beverly Tomek (University of Houston-Victoria.)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Jeanine Mazak-Kahne (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)
This comprehensive collection of essays about the life and times of William Penn builds upon the 1986 classic, The World of William Penn, edited by Richard S. and Mary Maples Dunn, to reassess Penn’s significance and legacy on the tricentennial of his death. Born of a 2015 conference on William Penn supported by Rutgers’ British Studies Center and Department of Political Science, in conjunction with the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the collection brings together scholars of literature, art history, material culture, history, cartography, and political theory. The essays, about half of which began as papers for the conference, are divided into six sections: “Materials, History, Memory”; “Irish Worlds”; “Restoration Worlds”; “American Worlds”; “Quaker Worlds”; and “Imperial Worlds.” Collectively they fulfill the editors’ goal of offering “an opportunity to think more broadly about the early modern contexts that gave rise to liberty of conscience, none of the foundational concepts in modern political thought and practice” (p. 3). By focusing on the various contexts of Penn’s life and times, from the intellectual climate in Great Britain to the imperial situations in Ireland and North America to the various social and cultural contexts of all of Penn’s worlds, the collection shows that Penn’s legacy extended far beyond religious toleration, for better or worse.
The editors begin by promising to illuminate Penn’s life and times in four ways. First, they claim that the essays “enlarge what we know about Penn the man, an individual enmeshed in a range of personal and professional relationships that enabled him to play an outsized role in the affairs of his time” (p. 7). Second, they illustrate “the importance of Ireland in Penn’s formation.” They also “provide a deeper understanding of the era in which Penn grew up and lived” (p. 8). And, finally, they offer Penn as a “case study for broader examinations of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history and culture” (p. 9). While the chapters tend to “downplay Penn’s uniqueness” they do so only to “highlight the complexity of both his life and his times.” With these goals in mind, the editors could have arranged the collection in several different ways, but they managed to find a way that allows the collection to succeed admirably in tracing these key themes throughout the six sections.
The first section of the book focuses on material history and memory and offers some of the most fascinating essays in the collection. Elizabeth Milroy’s examination of “The Elusive Body of William Penn” concerns two key moments in the development of a celebratory history of the man, both of which were linked to the construction of Philadelphia City Hall: the attempt to have Penn’s remains moved from England to Philadelphia and the creation of the Penn statue that sits atop the building. According to Milroy, Philadelphians in the late 1800s set out to ensure that Penn would be “sufficiently appreciated,” by deploying his body “literally as well as figuratively” in one of the public spaces he had originally envisioned for his capital city (p. 14). The Quaker community, including Penn’s lineal descendants, prevented the repatriation of his remains, but the statue was designed and put in place to serve as “a tangible example of the honest and decent leader at a time when the city and country were beset by political corruption” (p. 42).
Like Milroy, Catharine Dann Roeber uses the history of material objects to illustrate the lasting impact of Penn’s legacy. Penn’s mobility during his lifetime makes it difficult to investigate his material world, but Roeber manages to draw some significant conclusions, primarily regarding Penn’s “applied ideology” that allowed him to adapt and adjust his behavior and clothing to gain political and social advantage (p. 50). Roeber warns that “to posit Penn’s interests in Pennsylvania as ‘Quaker’ or even as ‘English,’ is reductionist and simplifies the processes of creative reinvention that occur in the provincial setting” and she adds that his descendants extended the construction of his identity beyond his death, creating an image that would “suit their familial, political, and monetary interests” (pp. 54, 60).
Emily Mann rounds out the section with a study on the first map of Pennsylvania and its relation to exploitation and empire. Though, as Roeber points out, we know little about Penn’s possessions, what is certain is that among the things he owned and featured in his various residences was a collection of at least seventeen maps. These maps were central to his identity as a proprietor and authority figure, and they allow us to explore his American colony in its wider context. The map Mann focuses on in the chapter, John Thornton and John Seller’s 1681 Map of Some of the South and Eastbounds of Pennsylvania in America, was used as a recruiting tool and served as the equivalent of a “flashy brochure or eyecatching full-page poster ad” to portray Pennsylvania as a “land of possibility” (p. 78).
After examining the objects of Penn’s material culture, the editors shift focus to Penn’s life and work in Ireland with essays that collectively reveal the many ways in which Penn’s experiences there influenced his later work in the New World. Marcus Gallo’s “William Penn, William Petty, and Surveying” fits well with Mann’s cartographic study by examining how Penn’s experiences in Ireland led him to use geometric surveys for private property assessment. According to Gallo, the 1659 Down Survey, which redistributed Irish lands among English landlords, set a precedent that helped shape Penn’s understanding of “how a state could properly direct landownership for the benefit of the landholding class” (p. 109). In assessing land quality as well as measurement, it also led proprietors like Penn to see America as a laboratory to test scientific land management’s ability to yield profits for the benefit of English landholders as well as the empire.
His Irish experiences also affected Penn’s views on toleration beyond religion, leading him to believe in moderate treatment of indigenous groups. According to Audrey Horning, Penn’s Irish connections shaped his treatment of the people he would later encounter in Pennsylvania and also led him to believe in the importance of assimilation, especially after seeing the results of the English policy of transplanting displaced Irish to the West Indies. His own experiences also left Penn content to retain Irish tenants and workers, and to continue a number of Irish economic practices. Penn’s experiences and the influence of Irish associates left him with an understanding of the value of “pragmatic accommodation,” an idea that became the “underpinning for Penn’s ideas on toleration” (p. 135).
Andrew R. Murphy follows Horning’s assessment with a deeper look at how Penn’s experiences in Ireland led to his views on religious toleration. He points out that it was in Cork where Penn became convinced of Quaker ideals, and it was in a Cork jail where he wrote his first public defense of religious liberty. During a second trip to Ireland Penn wrote The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience, a work which lays out his sophisticated and far-reaching case for religious toleration and presents the bedrock of the ideology he would maintain the rest of his life. According to Murphy, Penn was unique among toleration advocates because he was willing to spread toleration to Catholics. His time in Ireland transformed Penn from someone who defended Quakers to someone with a “much broader vision as a proponent of religious toleration as a political approach to religious difference” (p. 149).
From Ireland, the collection shifts focus to the Restoration and Penn’s place the European and American religious environments. Elizabeth Sauer begins this section with a literary analysis of the works of John Milton, Paul Bunyan, and William Penn as post-1660 English tolerationists focused on holy experiments. Her goal is to set these authors in the intellectual and cultural climates and literary milieu of their time by following their “errands into the wilderness as architects of new worlds founded on liberty of conscience” (p. 156). Her examination of these works explores the connections between English and American national literatures.
Scott Sowerby takes the reader back to England to examine how Penn’s political and philosophical views shaped his relationship with James II, arguing that Penn’s friendship with James was the “most visible outcome of his preference for religious liberty over popular sovereignty” (p. 175). Penn did not go so far as to propose disestablishing the Church of England, but he did call for the Test Acts and their related penal laws to be replaced with a “Magna Charta for Liberty of Conscience” that would protect all religions and prevent any group from infringing on the rights of others. While many in England feared James II’s potential use of royal prerogative to reinstate Catholicism, Penn was more interested in how he might use it to provide religious toleration by fiat. Like Murphy, Sowerby points out that Penn did not view Catholics as a threat, but he attributes this to Penn having learned from James II that he shared their interest in disavowing persecution. Sowerby does agree with Murphy that by abandoning an anti-Catholic thought process Penn was able to come to a “more expansive and full-throated rationale for toleration” and create a religious magna carta that “anticipated modern theories of constitutionalism and liberal democracy” (p. 183).
Patrick M. Erben concludes the section with an examination of William Penn’s relationship with the German Pietists, a study that is particularly timely given a renewed interest in German Pietist Francis Daniel Pastorius. Penn made connections with this group during visits to Germany in 1671 and 1677. He showed a cultural awareness of the Reformation in Holland and Germany that “increased his popularity and credentials among German-speaking dissenters” and allowed him to create “international and interdenominational communication networks between dissenters in England and Europe” (p. 194). He was able to use those networks to promote settlement in Pennsylvania and to attract Pastorius to that settlement. German Pietists then used the friendship between Penn and Pastorius to further promote the colony, especially to those averse to forced military service. One of these settlers, Christoph Sauer, used his position as a German-language printer to keep Penn’s legacy alive as “the guarantor of religious liberty” (p. 208).
Erben’s essay offers a nice transition from the Restoration to the New World and is followed by three chapters that focus on Penn in his colony. This section opens logically with Michael Goode exploring peacemaking among the Lenape before William Penn’s arrival. He describes their peacemaking efforts as a “strategic choice” that would allow the Lenape to survive and generate wealth both before and after the Europeans arrived and, to the extent possible, to “adapt to and resist colonization” (p. 218). This essay pairs particularly well with Horning’s assessment of Penn’s attitude toward assimilation and toleration, but, even more importantly, it offers readers a glimpse into indigenous life in the region. According to Goode, while we often focus on Penn’s treatment of the native Americans as comparatively enlightened, it is important to keep in mind that “Penn’s peace was a colonizing peace” and that the arrival of peaceful Quakers “could, from an indigenous point of view, be just as destructive as cannon fire and musket” (pp. 227, 228). With this observation, Goode offers one of the strongest points in the volume in support of the argument that Penn was less unique than we often realize.
Alexander Mazzaferro and Sarah Morgan Smith follow by examining Penn’s work in relation to his New World neighbors in New England. Mazzaferro explores Penn’s similarities to John Winthrop in terms of their views on political science. Both men used an empirical approach to their colonial effort, and they were “united in their inclination toward experiential political knowledge and their attendant openness to certain forms of political change” (p. 235). Mazzaferro concurs with other authors in the collection who point to Penn’s tendency to ground his work in historical observation and his belief in superficial versus fundamental laws to show that, instead of being opposed to change, Penn advocated necessary innovation but hoped to keep it within a sound framework of historical and legal precedent. Smith traces Penn’s influence on Cotton Mather to examine the concept of religious toleration in New England.
Part 5 continues with the focus on religion by examining Penn’s Quaker worlds. Catie Gill focuses on Penn as a historian by exploring the preface he wrote for George Fox’s memoirs, which later became the freestanding A Brief Account of the Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers. This work, which was written to engage with non-Quakers and explain the movement, drew the attention of Anglican writers like Charles Leslie, who wrote his own tracts to discredit Penn. Gill concludes that Penn proved himself in possession of requisite ability to describe the Inner Light but that he “squanders this by engaging in hero-worship” of Fox (p. 277). Adrian Chastain Weimer builds upon the essays that compare Quaker and Puritan efforts in the New World as well as Goode’s essay on peacemaking by describing the efforts of Quakers to prove their loyalty to the English government after a 1661 nonconformist revolt. While some hoped to use the Peace Testimony to argue that they would not fight their government, others feared that would not be enough and turned to the deflection tactic of arguing that they were more loyal than Puritans.
Rachel Love Monroy closes the section with an essay on Quaker conversion in the seventeenth-century Atlantic world. She stresses the similarities between Quakers and Puritans, arguing that Quakerism grew out of Puritanism and most Puritans, unlike those in Massachusetts Bay Colony, were seeking religious liberty rather than theocracy. She describes a situation where Quakers built a missionary enterprise of their own on top of the Atlantic network Puritans had created originally, arguing for a great deal more fluidity between Puritan and Quaker worlds than has been recognized.
The collection ends with a section on Penn as an imperialist. Evan Haefeli opens it by addressing Pennsylvania’s mythical reputation for religious liberty and arguing that it was not extraordinary in this regard. According to Haefeli, toleration in the colony “had distinct limits and preferences,” and other colonies in North American had offered toleration before and after Penn (p. 334). Patrick Cecil then explores Penn’s belief in the Peace Testimony to reveal complexities in that arena as well. In a chapter that fits quite well in dialogue with Goode, he argues that peace was a pragmatic tactic to achieve security as well as a lofty goal. Penn, like the Lenapes, knew that peace was crucial to intergroup security. Finally, Shuichi Wanibuchi completes the collection by placing William Penn in the imperial context of his time and arguing that political economy and natural philosophy played important roles in Penn’s colonial plans and that to understand Penn’s full vision we must consider how it was informed by material and economic, as well as religious, goals. To do this, Wanibuchi traces the formation of imperialism in Penn’s youthful years in Ireland, examines Penn’s “vision of colonization and commerce in the context of the mercantile political economy of Restoration England” (p. 379), and explores Penn’s relationship with Robert Boyle and the Royal Society to understand the role of natural philosophy in his colonization plans.
This collection offers much to consider in the history and historiography of William Penn. The man who emerges from these snapshots was a complex individual with principle who also looked out for his own financial interests. He transcended his times in some ways but in others was a typical example of his upbringing and class station. While the essays show that he was less unique than some accounts have implied, they also reveal the multiple ways in which he remains a key figure in early US history. Most of the essays fit well together and add to a new assessment of the man and the times and spaces he inhabited. All of the chapters are well written and offer something new to think about, and that is hard to achieve in an edited collection, especially one of this length. A couple of the chapters, particularly those that focus on New England, do seem to have been written for a different purpose, with Penn being inserted after the fact, and the collection may have been strengthened by leaving them out, particularly given how long the volume is. However, even those who venture away from Penn manage to offer new and interesting insight into the context of the time. Overall, the collection is a must-have for anyone interested in William Penn and, even more so, in the state of Penn historiography. The inclusion of material history and the Native American perspective offer particular strength to the overall value of the book, which offers new interpretations from a variety of fresh angles. Scholars of Penn, Quakerism, Pennsylvania, religion, and the British Empire will be engaging with this collection and these scholars for years to come.
. Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn, eds., The World of William Penn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).
. Patrick Erben, Alfred Brophy, and Margo Lambert, eds., The Francis Daniel Pastorius Reader: Writings by an Early American Polymath. The Max Kade Research Institute Series. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-pennsylvania.
Beverly Tomek. Review of Murphy, Andrew R.; Smolenski, John, eds., The Worlds of William Penn.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
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