Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Quakers: William Penn
Although Ben Franklin gets more ink lately, William Penn deserves at least equal rank among the most remarkable men who ever lived.

Charter of Pennsylvania, from Charles II to William Penn
William Penn suggested what he wanted, and the Royal bureaucracy suggested suitable modifications of the gift. The resulting charter is a shrewd and fair legal document, but contained a major geographical error.

The Ghost of William Penn

by Thomas R. Smith

It is fair to say that Pennsylvania history was influenced by my parents, by their upbringing, and more particularly by me, by my becoming a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Fair, too, is the statement that Pennsylvanians should be aware of my life in the making, because it was the tick-tock that set into motion so much of what Pennsylvania stood for, and continues to stand for.

I mean: Pennsylvanians claim a keen conscience for religious tolerance and mankind's equality. Although my father would disagree, I affirm, the choices which urged me to became a Quaker were influenced by my early parental up-rearing. In mindset: Father steeped me to think for myself. He was rigid, true, and in many ways inflexible, brave for battle, but a loving parent, whose only parental weakness was a too strong firmness that I not take lightly my birthright social standing. Mother, she kept father straight in her gentle fashion. Starting at age ten I was a handful, but my mother never flagged in her trust that I would turn out right. She later accepted my devotion to Quakerism. I add: Historians have copied each other in one fallacy. Mother was not a Hollander. My mother was reared in Holland, but she was the daughter of an English business agent. I was born in 1644 London. My father was a seafaring man just as his father before him. My grandfather served as an able seaman on small and middling British ships. My father was enabled by his father's sea experience. Father advanced from Small, then to Middling, then to Great, and finally to the top vessels: Royal Ships.

In a rare instance of ability and perseverance my father became by stage re-rankings an Admiral, and through bravery, "Admiral, Sir William Penn." My father was a proud man. I was my father's only son, I bore his name, and he expected much of me.

My father did not marry as a young man. Seafaring and warring on the high seas did not permit it. With career rise, however, he was able meet my mother through her father's business; my grandfather being a resident of Holland, by partnership in a native English merchant firm. Mother had birthright standing; my father earned his. The marriage of my parents thrived and was both loving and agreeable. An only child son, I represented my father's progeny.


Moreover I was birthed to the favored class which my father had earned through bootstrap perseverance. I was privileged. In my teens my father wrote naval dispatches, and these I hand delivered to the Royal Court. My path was being set. In the telling I have skipped ahead.

My first ten years matched the last ten years of my father's sea-duty. In my first ten, my father had only shore leave twice. In his absence, under my mother and grandmother's care, I was an obedient son. With pangs, I recall missing my father. Dutifully, I was instructed in religious teachings. Per lessons I learned: Letter "A: With Adam's fall; we Sinned all." And so on. This lesson impacted the ABC's and facts about God. I was made wide eyed to God. God was made my life Lord companion.

My sudden misbehavior at the age of ten had everything to do with my father's relaxed arrival as a London based seaman; and would-be near parent. Father was rarely home. He was forever at the Admiralty Office. I misbehaved for attention.

My father as soon as manageable gained a residence on "Tower Hill." For aspiring men Tower Hill was the place to live in London. Slim in purse he bought the right location, but his slim purse reflected it. He bought a tall, narrow, confining home. Mother was of necessity pressed to do all the house work. Once she was eyed by a snippy person, who noted with disgust her working in a house dress, more over her stockings had fallen about her ankles. The dreary notice is one of the few insights historians have found relating to my mother, and it distresses me as unfair. She sacrificed so I might be properly educated. Simply, our Tower Hill address dictated a private home education and I was schooled by tutors. My Tower Hill family residence was hard facing to the Tower of London, with goal for lawbreakers. More than a place for social counting, Tower Hill held a reminder to residents that royal obedience was expected. It was dictum: A Royal favor that had been granted could be easily removed. A year residence in the Tower Hill might be followed by year or more in a Tower goal cell. My father was once placed therein, and I gained a cell on two occasions. Here is a truth be told:

It was uncertain when or if I would be released from my second jailing. Strings were pulled, I gained released, with bespoken assurances. I was expected to leave London and go as far away as possible. Expected it was, I would retreat and retire to the Penn family's manor estate in Ireland. Instead, instead I advanced thought in more distant terms. …Across the Atlantic.


For me: the thinly settled land opposite New Jersey took on an attraction. Yes, as a safe haven for Quakers and others persecuted for conscience misbehavior. Yes, also, as a safe haven for myself and my family, Somehow the last fact goes untold. Now I make it a truth-be-told: I skedaddled. It took time, but I skedaddled.

Yes. I did return to England in 1684, but only after Pennsylvania was an entity. Truth told: I exhibited a yellow streak in the going, but this was cleansed by my brave return in 1684. Back in England there were times I hid – I hid to live another day. Please blur what I just wrote, I wish to wind down pleasanter. As I have always wished, I wish Pennsylvanians shall keep up a keen conscience for religious tolerance and mankind's equality.

I affirm what I have told. I do not wish to over burden. I close.

Your Governor thanks you,

William Penn

Written by Thomas R. Smith, William Penn re-enactor

Originally published: Wednesday, December 15, 2010; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019