Philadelphia Reflections

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

Related Topics

Pacifist Pennsylvania, Invaded Many Times
Pennsylvania was founded as a pacifist utopia, and currently regards itself as protected by vast oceans. But Pennsylvania has been seriously invaded at least six times.

Military Philadelphia

The Pennamite Wars
The Connecticut farmers believed the King's last word overturned all earlier ones, else why be a king? William Penn's revolutionary idea was that of private property -- the first sale created a new owner, whose new word erased any earlier ones. When you acquire a new continent from aborigines, that's a congenial viewpoint.

The Pennamite Wars: Who Had The Last Word?

King Charles II

Pennsylvania once fought three wars with Connecticut, but nowadays most people in both Connecticut and Pennsylvania have never heard of it. Those who do know, call them the Pennamite Wars. As you might expect, accounts by Connecticut patriots portray the matter as just taking possession of what they owned. Pennsylvania accounts of the wars, on the other hand, describe them as a stout defense against invasion. The matter boils down to the undisputed fact that King Charles II gave what is now the northern third of Pennsylvania to Connecticut in 1662, and in 1681 the same king gave it to William Penn. Eighty years after that, in 1769, Connecticut moved in, and Pennsylvania threw them out. It all happened twice more, and the Continental Congress became distressed that two of the thirteen colonial allies were fighting each other instead of the British. So it had to be resolved in court, and therefore we all have to get a little education in the fine points of real estate law in order to understand why Pennsylvania won the case. In short, Connecticut claimed that Charles II had cruelly and unjustly reversed himself, while the Penn Proprietorship simply maintained they were nonetheless legally entitled to the property.

Let's look at this dumb situation from the lawyers' point of view. If you own some land, but someone says you don't, your first response would be to show that the last owner turned it over to you without strings attached. And then you show that the title passed person-to-person backward in a clear chain of unclouded ownership. As long as this is provable, the critical deciding factor rests on what right the "original" owner had to it, from the Indians, or a King, or government charter. No one can be found to claim ownership earlier than that, so it must be yours.

The critical point is that "the original owner" is, therefore, the first private (non-governmental) owner. We are so used to this legal convention that it can be upsetting to discover that things were exactly opposite when we had a king -- and that our courts still uphold the monarch's decrees. Kings had a right to do absolutely anything, and that divine right, therefore, included the ability to revoke private ownership and take the property back or give it to someone else. Establishing a clear title is now a process of tracing back to the last moment when someone still had an absolute right to do anything he pleased with it. If what he did was cruel and unjust, too bad.

As soon as you trace your title back to a king or other absolute tyrant, the courtroom situation effectively reverses. At that critical turning point, the important issue stops being what a still-earlier owner intended and becomes what the final owner said. The last word of the last monarch extinguishes anything intended by anybody earlier. Even after all this ponderous logic is thoroughly explained, perhaps even repeated, the loser of a case goes away dissatisfied and angry. It ain't right.

It is right, of course, since you can't be an absolute monarch if you can't do what you please. If someone was an absolute monarch in the past, whatever he said was his right, and it would be disruptive to overturn in retrospect what seemed perfectly orderly at the time. The whole progress from Magna Carta to American Revolution was to accept old confiscations as final, as the necessary price of putting an end to having any new ones. After the cutoff point, the right to transfer property became the sole discretion of the current owner. The transfer of sovereignty from governmental to individual ownership was a serious main issue in the Revolutionary War.

Pennsylvania thus fought three Pennamite wars with Connecticut over conflicting land grants by kings, and also got into hot but non-military quarrels with Virginia and Maryland over much the same issues. If Pennsylvania had lost these disputes, the Commonwealth would now be little more than an eighth its present size. Pittsburgh would be in Virginia, Scranton would be in Connecticut, and Philadelphia would be a city in Maryland. Perhaps that wouldn't be so bad -- after all, maybe they don't have a city wage tax in Maryland.

What would be very bad, and therefore is the heart of the matter, is that we probably would have undergone two hundred years of contested titles and maybe even shooting wars, as a result of having property ownership in constant dispute. After a couple of generations, it matters less who was right and who was wrong. What begins to matter more is that things get fairly and finally settled so everyone can get on with his life.

Originally published: Thursday, May 02, 2002; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019

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Posted by: nhd   |   Mar 8, 2009 5:30 PM
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Posted by: nhd   |   Mar 8, 2009 5:29 PM
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Posted by: George Fisher   |   Mar 2, 2009 2:47 PM
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Posted by: JOE   |   Aug 21, 2008 7:42 AM