ENGLAND — Deeply indebted to Admiral Sir William Penn, who had fed the British Navy out of his own wealth, the British Crown agreed to an offer presented by his son, William Penn, to establish Pennsylvania by charter on March 4, 1681, in exchange for debt forgiveness.
Admiral Penn supported the monarchy during England’s Civil War, which ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649. England first became a Commonwealth and then a Protectorate, until the monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles I’s eldest son, Charles II.
William Penn questioned the rigid doctrines of the Church of England and converted to Quakerism in late 1667. Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of the Friends of God, were an unpopular and oppressed group but Penn’s social position granted him favor in the king’s court. Even so, Penn was confined in the Tower of London at times, leading to a desire to depart England.
Following Admiral Penn’s death, William Penn wanted to establish a colony in America for persecuted protestant sects, including the Quakers. Penn chose the name of “New Wales” for the colony, but a member of the Privy Council objected. Penn instead settled on the name “Sylvania,” which is Latin for “woods.”
King Charles II deemed the name an insufficient tribute to Penn’s father and amended the charter to name the land “Pennsylvania,” meaning “Penn’s Woods.” Penn tried to bribe two undersecretaries to change the name, as he had not always been on good terms with his father, but in the end he relented.
With the charter signed, the Crown’s debt was erased, and Penn set sail for America to establish what he called “the seed of a nation.” He contacted the Leni Lenape Native Americans and established the “Great Treaty,” which provisioned the founding of Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania was not a royal colony. Rather, Penn became the proprietor of the largest piece of private land in the world, more than 28 million acres. Penn would ultimately spend only a total of four years in America, mostly administering the province from England.
The charter’s specifications for the boundaries of Pennsylvania proved to be open to some interpretation, which was periodically troublesome. It also required that the Penn send annual payments to the king of one-fifth of all gold and silver, along with two beaver skins.
While still in England, Penn wrote and proposed the first constitution for the province. It was amended into the Second Frame of Government, which formed the basis of early Pennsylvania law. All laws were subject to approval by the Privy Council and had to be submitted within five years. They also had to be consistent with the laws of England and its trade practices.
The charter survived numerous challenges prior to the American Revolution. When Penn was disabled by a series of strokes in 1712 (he died in 1718), his second wife Hannah became proprietor. When she died in 1727, Penn’s sons and grandsons carried on their proprietary authority.
Unable to provide adequate protection to settlers on the colony’s frontiers from attacks by the French and Native Americans, the provincial government and the charter were directly challenged by Benjamin Franklin in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The charter was nullified after the war by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which made the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania a state.
Penn’s personal copy of the charter was donated to the commonwealth in 1812 by a family lawyer. It was publicly displayed until 1984, until concerns about the document’s fragility and security necessitated the display being replaced with facsimiles.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission celebrates Pennsylvania’s birthday every year on Charter Day. The original charter is typically exhibited to the public at The State Museum for the week, before being returned to its climate-controlled, high-security vault at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg.
The Charter Day celebration for 2021 will be held virtually.