Frame of Government of Pennsylvania Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men, than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.”

Summary Overview

As a member of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who were widely persecuted in seventeenth-century England, William Penn sought to secure a place where Quakers and those of other persecuted faiths could live with religious and civil freedom. When granted the colony that was to become Pennsylvania, Penn attempted to establish a government that would be in line with his religious views and his belief in “the divine right of government.” Penn’s Frame of Government of Pennsylvania was the means he used to give those who settled in the colony freedoms in line with his beliefs. Although reserving the executive powers for himself, this document is seen as the first charter of democratic freedom in any of the American colonies. Although full political rights were reserved only for men who owned land, everyone was accorded basic rights, such as a trial by jury. The Frame of Government established a method for the fair election of a “provincial Council, or General Assembly.”

Defining Moment

England faced many challenges in the seventeenth century, much of which was dominated by religious and political strife. The successful settlement of the American colonies, meanwhile, introduced new economic and social opportunities. As a member of a group that faced religious persecution in its home country, and having seen his father experience the uncertainties of political change, William Penn wished to establish a place where religious freedom and political stability were based on democratic ideals. Having been given land west of New Jersey, he drew up this Frame of Government through which to implement his ideals. This document was not only for the colonists, but also a means by which Penn sought to recruit people to settle in his colony.

Penn attempted to develop a democracy that would allow people to live their lives in accordance with their own beliefs. (It was assumed that colonists would be from a Judeo-Christian faith, although this was not explicitly stated.) Most historians consider this document a forerunner of the United States Constitution and a strong move toward the establishment of democracy throughout the colonies. It was definitely the first colonial document that espoused freedom of religion for everyone, not just for a select group of people. In addition, the guarantee of a trial by jury for all was a major step forward. In England, persecuted groups such as the Quakers were often arrested and imprisoned without a trial. Penn did not want it to be possible for the government to disregard the desires and needs of the people and therefore placed limits on the power of the government. These ideals are clearly reflected in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

For Penn, this was more than just a political exercise. As stated in the preface to his Framework, he believed that government was a part of God’s plan for people. He wrote, “Government seems to me a part of religion itself.” Thus, for Penn, to create the best possible system of government was to carry out God’s mandate for people to be stewards of the world. Penn believed in the Fall of Man, when Adam defied God and ate the forbidden fruit, condemning all humankind to live their lives separated from God. Despite the problems associated with governments, Penn believed that government was the best way to guide a people in the ways of God. Government was a means to foster Christian ideals in society.

Author Biography

William Penn was born on October 14, 1644, in London, England, to Sir William Penn and Margaret Vanderschuren Penn. His father was a career naval officer who supported first Oliver Cromwell, and later the restoration of the monarchy, becoming friends with the Duke of York (later King James II). His family owned estates in Ireland, where Penn spent a part of his childhood. While in Ireland during his early teens, Penn was first exposed to Quaker beliefs by a Quaker preacher who visited his home. Later, writing about this time in his life, he said that he had a vision from God. Attending Oxford University, he became more supportive of Quaker views; this, combined with his advocacy of freedom of academic thought, led to his expulsion in 1662.

Penn’s father sent him on a tour of continental Europe and to Saumur, France, to finish his studies and encourage him to give up his Quaker ideas. This failed, and when Penn returned, he studied law for a brief period before he was sent to manage the family estates in Ireland. In 1666, Penn began attending Quaker services and joined the church at age twenty-two. Penn was an outspoken leader of the church and was often arrested for his views. Although protected somewhat by his father’s position, Penn was arrested several times for his preaching and his religious tracts.

With the persecution of Quakers becoming more commonplace in England, Penn joined with a group of Quakers to purchase the western part of New Jersey, which at the time was called West Jersey. This area did not prove to be entirely satisfactory. Then, in 1681, Penn negotiated the purchase of what is now Pennsylvania from King Charles II and the Duke of York in exchange for forgiving a debt owed to his father and for one-fifth of any precious minerals mined in the new colony. It was for this new colony that Penn wrote this Frame of Government. He believed that the colony was a solution to the problem of religious persecution and that it was a good business investment. It never made much money for Penn, but it was a landmark for religious freedom. Penn visited the colony twice and hoped to move there permanently. However, when he returned to England in 1701, he discovered his business manager had spent all his money. He struggled with legal matters and then suffered a debilitating stroke in 1712. He died on July 30, 1718.

Document Analysis

To William Penn, the founding of Pennsylvania was a “Holy Experiment.” While partially undertaken as a commercial venture, William Penn also sought to have the colony embody his, as well as the Quaker, ideals of freedom and justice. At the same time he wanted to have solid and secure governmental and economic systems for those living in the colony. He even went so far as to purchase the land for Philadelphia and surrounding towns from the American Indian tribes of the area, rather than settle the land without permission. He was the only founder of a colony to do so. As Pennsylvania was a privately owned colony, Penn could have imposed rigid rules for anyone wishing to settle there. However, through the creation of the Frame of Government, he guaranteed settlers basic civil rights that went beyond those found in any other colony. The restrictions placed upon the colonial government of Pennsylvania were groundbreaking and planted the seeds for the democratic ideals that would later become an integral part of American government. As a leader of the Quaker movement, he was also concerned with reconciling his religious beliefs with the political system. This he clearly demonstrated by the theological and political descriptions of his intentions given in the preface to the Frame of Government. Although not a formal part of the regulations, this was an important statement regarding the foundation for government in the colony.

When Penn purchased the land for the new Pennsylvania colony, it was the largest private purchase of land in England’s American territory. Unlike previous colonies, Pennsylvania did not border the Atlantic Ocean. It was directed toward the interior of the continent and might have developed in greater isolation from England than the other colonies. Although much of the land had been owned by the Duke of York, the Duke’s brother, Charles II, sold the land to Penn in a deal that both men hoped would work to their benefit. Economically, Charles II was able to write off a debt and hoped for income from gold and silver production in the territory. Charles II hoped that Penn’s proposal to open the land to Quakers and other religious groups would rid Charles’s nation of those who were causing problems between him and Parliament. Although Charles II was sympathetic toward Catholics and others who were not Anglican, members of Parliament were not. They pushed back against all of Charles’s attempts to pass religious toleration acts and continued to arrest so-called nonconformists. The king feared that the political turmoil resulting from the religious trials would upset the established order, resulting in less power for the Crown. Creating new colonies for Catholics, Quakers, and other dissidents seemed to solve the king’s problems.

Penn believed the colony would be a profit-making enterprise through the sale of land and the collection of taxes. But more importantly for Penn, the colony was an opportunity for Quakers and those of other faiths to worship as they wished. Penn saw the opportunity presented by the colony as the means to create a religiously based experiment in a new social order with basic civil rights given to all citizens. It was in this context that Penn developed the Frame of Government.

Penn was strongly rooted in his Quaker faith and worked diligently to share its message with others. Thus it is entirely within his character for him to base the foundation of the new colony upon his theology. While the Renaissance raised new questions about the role of God and religion in society, during the seventeenth century many political as well as social decisions were still based on religious ideas or concerns. Thus in many respects, Penn was a man of his times. He accepted the idea put forward in the biblical book of Genesis that humans are the stewards of the earth. Regarding God, he wrote, “it pleased him to chuse man his Deputy to rule it: and to fit him for so great a charge and trust.” He also accepted the theological concept of the inherently sinful nature of people. Because of the tendency of mankind to sin, Penn wrote that there was a need for a mechanism to enforce an external law, and this mechanism was government. To further support his view that governments are derived from God, Penn quotes from the New Testament: “The powers that be are ordained of God.” His conclusion is that “this settles the divine right of government beyond exception.”

The phrase “the divine right of government” mimicked “the divine right of kings,” a commonly used phrase that justified monarchs as rulers chosen by God. In the first three paragraphs of the preface, Penn relates the political to the religious. According to Penn, God created people as the masters among the creatures that inhabit the world. Because of human failings brought about by Adam, the harmony established by God no longer exists. Thus the concept of government was created not only to keep human failings in check but also to support the positive aspects of human nature. Since, in Christian theology, God is the creator of all that is and the source of all power, this means the power of government arises from God. Penn wrote, “So that government seems to me a part of religion itself, a filing sacred in its institution and end.” The “end” toward which government should move is the removal of evil from people’s lives. As such, government should last as long as people are in this world, until the coming of “the blessed Second Adam,” which is the second coming of Jesus. Thus, for Penn, politics and religion are only different sides of human experience, both struggling to make the world a better place by decreasing the hold of evil and increasing “goodness and charity.”

If one reads the preface to the Frame of Government and then reads the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, strong theological and political similarities are apparent. It is clear that many of the theological and political propositions set forth by Penn are echoed in Jefferson’s writing. The “unalienable rights” given by the creator of Jefferson’s time reflect Penn’s view that government is called to “cherish those that do well.” In both documents, through good government people are able to implement God’s will as to the type of society that should exist. Both men derive their understanding of this from the manner in which they understood the world to have been created. Politically, both were identical in affirming that the will of the people, the will of the governed, must be followed. Jefferson wrote that governments obtained “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed,” while Penn affirmed, “Any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion.”

In the latter portion of the preface, Penn poses the question, is there is an ideal form of government that could always keep in check the failings of human nature? His answer is that no form of government automatically works as it should. Whether it is rule by one, a few, or many, the system in and of itself does not ensure an ideal government. Governments run by good people will be good governments, while those administered by bad people will fail to carry out the purpose of government. Because of this reasoning, Penn says it “made it uneasy to me to think of publishing the ensuing frame and conditional laws.” However, given the fact that a government must exist in the colony, Penn put forward a system in which, he believed, good actions would be encouraged and malfeasance by government officials would be hindered. All of this he tried to do “with reverence to God, and good conscience to men.” In Penn’s opinion, what must follow the creation of this form of government is to create a system for the “virtuous education of youth.” This he understood as the role of the state, not of individual families, a widely held belief in the United States that would lead to the creation of a public education system.

In the full original document, between the preface and “Laws Agreed Upon in England, &c.,” there are twenty-four articles delimiting the powers of the governor, the provincial Council, and the General Assembly. All of these were unilaterally developed by Penn. The final section of this document, “Laws Agreed Upon in England, &c.,” was written by Penn and accepted by a number of the original settlers on May 5, 1682. This section might be considered a predecessor of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. Although it goes beyond just the items in the first ten amendments, the forty articles in this section include basic rights regarding who is eligible to vote and hold office, taxation, the rights of those accused of crimes, criminals, marriage, servitude, and a variety of other issues. These rights were very important to Penn, so he stipulated in the laws a provision that they could only be changed by a six-seventh vote of the legislative body and acceptance by the governor.

While many of Penn’s ideas were very progressive for their time, the definition of voting citizens in section two is very much in line with his contemporaries. Only voting citizens were eligible to hold elective office. Those entitled to vote were farmers who met the land-holding and cultivation requirements or city dwellers who had paid their taxes and any special levies. Women, the very poor, indentured servants, and slaves were not entitled to vote. However, this did not mean that these individuals had no rights at all. In this initial document it states, “In all courts all persons of all persuasions may freely appear in their own way.” Thus these individuals had the right to a trial for any alleged offenses. Shortly after the founding of the colony, a special court was created to try indentured servants and slaves. Later this was changed so that indentured servants were tried in regular courts and slaves and freed blacks were segregated to a different court system. While slavery was never common in Pennsylvania, it was legal throughout the colonial period. By the time of the first US census in 1790, free blacks in Pennsylvania outnumbered slaves by a margin of about two to one.

Section three addresses the administration of honest elections. Unlike the case in parts of seventeenth-century England, voters could not be bribed. Any voter found guilty of accepting “reward or gift, in meat, drink, monies, or otherwise” would lose his right to vote, and any candidate giving such things to get support would not be eligible to run for office. As with current elections for members of the United States Senate or House of Representatives, the colonial provincial Council and General Assembly had the final say as to whether a person elected to those bodies had violated the election regulations and should be allowed into the legislative body.

While a government’s right to collect taxes has been long accepted, the manner in which this is done has caused numerous problems throughout history. Penn understood the need for money with which to run a government and to provide the necessary services to the population of the colony. However, he wanted it to be clear what kinds of taxes were acceptable. He included a statement clarifying the nature and purpose of taxes in Pennsylvania. It states that “no money or goods shall be raised . . . by way of public tax, custom or contribution, but by a law, for that purpose made.” This means that taxes could not be imposed except by law—that is, by approval of the people’s representatives in the legislature. In this manner, the citizens, and their representatives, had to be made aware of, and agree to, any proposed taxes.

The right to a fair and speedy trial was made a part of Pennsylvania’s system of justice from the very beginning. Penn had a good understanding of the British legal system, both from his study of law and from his own arrests and convictions. That Penn had once been imprisoned without a trial, had not been allowed to present evidence in his own defense in another, and then had been imprisoned after being found innocent by the jury must have influenced his very clear statements regarding fair and speedy trials. While the juries were all composed of men, they were to be “as near as may be, peers or equals, and of the neighborhood.” This was based on the assumption that these men could better understand the situation of the accused and render a fairer verdict. Since the death penalty was irreversible, a special mandate was created requiring the charge to be determined well founded by at least half the members of what might be called a grand jury. In addition, the twelve-man jury of the criminal trial must unanimously find the defendant guilty.

Although the Frame of Government was amended in 1683 when Penn met with other colony leaders in Philadelphia, the original provisions written by Penn were the basis for government throughout the colonial period. It was the most liberal document of its time for colonial government. Although, as indicated above, Penn did reflect much of what was the norm for his time in the status of women and his acceptance of slavery, he was ahead of his time in many other areas. True freedom of religion, equality in the judicial system, the guarantee of a fair trial, regulations against buying elections, and a clear tax policy made his views radical, when compared to the governmental structures in other colonies or in Britain. Because Pennsylvania became a leading colony during the 1700s, many of Penn’s ideas became known and commonly accepted by leaders of the independence movement. The “Holy Experiment” became an example of liberal thought and ideas, which made a vital contribution to the move toward independence for the American colonies.

Essential Themes

Democracy as the best form of government is one of the primary themes of this document, although, Penn asserts, good government depends upon good people. In the event that those who would misuse their power found their way into Pennsylvania’s government, the civil liberties guaranteed by this frame would restrict their actions. Finally, it is clear that Penn believed that government, as with all aspects of society, is derived from God and should function in accordance its scriptural mandate.

Penn was convinced that government in any form must be in line with the will of the people. This is what he meant by the phrase “and the people are a party to those laws.” Much of the preface deals with the problems created by the sinful nature of humans and the tendency for them to do evil. Penn was convinced that if everyone in a society were good, then virtually any form of government would be fair and just—or even superfluous. However, given the fact that not everyone is good, and that some form of government must be established, he set forth what he believed was the best form of government, a democracy.

The civil liberties described in the sections included in the historical document section are basic for any free society. While other rights are included in the full text, the defining of citizenship, the establishment of an electoral process that does not favor any one group, and the institution of fair and open trials reflect three of the rights that are necessary for a democracy to flourish. The electoral process and of the rights of the accused were often abused by the government in England, which led to much of the dissatisfaction of the Quakers. The implementation of certain aspects of these rights has changed over the centuries. For example, voting rights being limited to landowning males was accepted throughout America during the colonial period, ending only in the early nineteenth century. However, the spirit of these rights is basically the same today.

In line with most religious thought of his day, Penn saw a continuum from the lowest form of life on Earth to the highest being in heaven. Thus the human social order is a part of this continuum and should be structured to encourage people to live in accordance with God’s law as revealed in the Bible. In accordance with this line of thought, in the preface Penn outlined how his structure of government was based upon his understanding of religious obligations. Although political theory is now generally presented in much more secular language than in the seventeenth century, the social ideals set forth by Penn are quite consistent with modern ideals. Encouraging and supporting those desiring to do good, while seeking to check socially destructive forces, are the same.

  • Taylor, Larissa Juliet, and Frank N. Magill, eds. “William Penn.” Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century, 1601–1700. Vol. 2. Pasadena: Salem. 2006. Print.
  • “The Vision of William Penn.” WITF, 2011. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
  • Wakelyn, Jon L., ed. America’s Founding Charters: Primary Documents of Colonial and Revolutionary Era Governance. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Allen, Barbara. Tocqueville, Covenant, and the Democratic Revolution: Harmonizing Earth with Heaven. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2005. Print.
  • Geiter, Mary K. William Penn. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2000. Print.
  • Moretta, John. William Penn and the Quaker Legacy. London: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.
  • Penn, William. The Political Writings of William Penn. Ed. Andrew R. Murphy. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002. Print.

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