Nine Things You Never Knew About William Penn

A new book on "Philadelphia Country Houses" has some fascinating tidbits on the guy.

The miracle of modern mail recently landed an enormous new book, The Philadelphia Country House: Architecture and Landscape in Colonial America, on my desk. Really, the thing must weigh 50 pounds. Co-written by Elizabeth McLean, a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and Mark Reinberger, an architecture professor at the University of Georgia, it’s a lavishly illustrated study of, well, the country houses and gardens of the first European settlers in these parts. Naturally, those included William Penn, the Quaker who was granted 45,000 square miles of land at the mouth of the Delaware River by King Charles II of England. Fascinating fact: That’s more land than any other private person in the world has ever owned. Here are nine more fascinating facts about Penn that I gleaned from the book.

  1. Though King Charles ostensibly granted Penn that land because he owed Penn’s father 16,000 pounds, Penn wasn’t under any illusions as to the real reason for such largesse: “The government at home was glad to be rid of us [Quakers] at so cheap a rate.”
  2. Penn was delighted that the early purchasers of plots in his colony included no lawyers.
  3. Penn found African slaves “more dependable” than white indentured servants. He intended to free the slaves at Pennsbury Manor and establish them as tenant farmers on his land, but never did so, partly because his family objected.
  4. Penn’s second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn, did not entirely take to Quaker notions of plainness and rode in a handsome coach given to her by a relative; Penn didn’t consider it appropriate and didn’t ride in it.
  5. Though the plot of land on which Penn built Pennsbury Manor was huge, most of the land went undeveloped during his lifetime; neighbors squatted on the property, fought with him over boundaries and stole building materials from him.
  6. Like other Colonial settlers who salivated to see wild “fox grapes” growing here in profusion (remember Leif Erikson and “Vinland“?), Penn was dying to make wine. He planted a vineyard in Fairmount and even imported a French vintner to tend it. Alas, fox grapes made terrible wine.
  7. Penn detested cities — he’d lived for a time in Oxford while at university — and believed that “streets, shops, exchanges, plays, parks, coffeehouses, etc.” were diversions that kept people “from all serious examination of themselves.” Super-fun guy.
  8. Before he converted to Quakerism, Penn wore a peruke, that weird ruffled white hairpiece that British barristers are still required to wear in criminal cases. Though Quakers frowned on wigs, Penn continued to wear one — albeit, as his friend and the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, described it, a “very short civil thing” — to keep his head warm, as he had lost all his hair to smallpox in his youth.
  9. Penn never got to spend as much time in his colony as he longed to; business woes called him back to England twice, and he went to debtor’s prison there because of a legal dispute with the heirs of his former agent, Philip Ford. He died, penniless, in England in 1718, aged 73. Hannah ran the colony as governor when he was absent and for eight years following his death, probably a bit more grandly than Penn would have liked.

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