William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was the son of Sir William Penn, a distinguished English admiral. His boyhood was marked by a combination of pietism with a strong interest in athletics, and he was expelled from Oxford for nonconformity. After leaving the university, he traveled on the continent, served in the British navy, and studied law. In 1667 he became a Quaker, and in the next year he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his nonconformist religious beliefs. During this time, he wrote his well-known treatise on self-sacrifice, No Cross, No Crown; after his release, he suffered, from time to time, renewed imprisonments. His experiences convinced him that the time was not ripe in England for religious toleration, and he turned his attention to the New World as a possible refuge for the persecuted religious believers.
In 1682 he obtained a charter from King Charles II, which established Penn as proprietor and governor of territory in the American colonies west of the Delaware River and north of Maryland. After drawing up a constitution for the colony on the basis of religious toleration, Penn sailed for his new province on the ship Welcome. After two years, during which the population of the colony grew rapidly through emigration from Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, and Great Britain, Penn returned to England, where his consultations with James II, whom he believed to be sincere in his professions of toleration, led to much misunderstanding of his motives and character. During the Revolution of 1688 he was treated as a Jacobite, but finally obtained the goodwill of William III, and resumed his preaching and writing. In 1699 he again came to America, this time with the intention of remaining, but two years later he went home to oppose the proposal to convert his province into a crown colony. Queen Anne received him favorably, and he remained in England until his death in 1718.
“William Penn was the first great hero of American liberty,” writes one commentator. “He gave Pennsylvania a written constitution that limited the power of government, provided a humane penal code, and guaranteed many fundamental liberties.” Among these liberties were private property, free enterprise, a free press, trial by jury, and religious toleration. In so doing, Penn’s “Holy Experiment” prefigured and influenced the American experiment in ordered liberty.