by George Trefgarne
Thursday, 5
November 2020
Explainer
10:11

Pennsylvania started life as a battleground state

by George Trefgarne
William Penn Jr

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, once again the central battleground in a closely fought Presidential election, was named after William Penn, the Quaker founder of the state.

Admiral Sir William Penn Sr, his father, was born in Bristol in England and a memorial to him in the American chapel of the splendid St Mary Redcliffe Church there recounts how, like the diarist Samuel Pepys, he was a moderate Roundhead in the Civil War and subsequently switched sides to back the Restoration. As a consequence, Charles II owed him money which he was unable to repay — a debt that has great historical significance.

Pepys didn’t like Penn Sr and his diary is littered with amusing references to him being a rogue and knave. His son, William Penn Jr was baptised at All Hallows by The Tower in the City of London after being born in a house nearby. This kicked off a longstanding link between that church and America — John Quincy Adams, the Sixth President, was married there when he represented the United States as a diplomat in London.

William Penn Jr inherited the debt owed by the Crown to his father and in 1681 was able to convert the obligation into a grant of land around the Delaware River in America. A dissenter who converted to Quakerism, he set off to found a colony with Charles II’s blessing, and based it on the principle of religious toleration, which he believed would encourage economic growth. He wanted to call it New Wales, but this was vetoed by the Welsh faction on the Privy Council, so he settled for a hybrid classical name (sylva means wood in Latin, so “Penn’s woods”).

Pennsylvania was founded in the twilight of English civil war and from the ashes of religious controversy — the identity politics of its day. Yet in the colony, a legal order soon developed based on sound institutions and the rule of law. The original Pennsylvania Charter is an important stepping-stone to the US Constitutional convention, held in Philadelphia 106 years later.

The recent election campaign has exposed deep cultural divisions in the US. Disagreements about values are made worse by inequality, social media and false doctrines perpetuated online and in some educational settings. The surprisingly close election result can be seen as a rebuke to identity politics and a reminder of the danger of losing sight of our common sense, our empathy or our ability to think empirically.

The American legal order that ultimately ensures that Donald Trump’s first term will expire on 20th January 2021, and the system of courts that, if necessary, will decide which of the two men will take an oath of office for a new term, in a small part comes from the Penns of Bristol. They emerged from the convulsions of a Civil War to successfully found a society based on moderation: it’s not the first time that temperate natures have prevailed.

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