Faith & Freedom

Benjamin Hart

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A Holy Experiment in Laissez-Faire

William Penn's dream was to build a Quaker "City of Brotherly Love." King Charles II owed Penn's father, Admiral William, who was not a Quaker, 16,000 pounds in loans and back salary. Finding it an easy way to get out from under his debt, Charles, in 1681, gladly granted William Penn the younger-who had inherited a small fortune from his father-proprietary ownership of the land west of the Delaware River and north of Maryland. This would be the site of the Quakers' "Holy Experiment" in government.

The Quakers were an extreme Puritan sect founded in 1650 by George Fox, so extreme, in fact, that they almost ceased to be related to other Protestants. They rejected priests, rituals, and the sacraments. A de-emphasis on church hierarchy and the idea that no mediator was needed for the individual to talk to God were principles held by all Puritans. But the Quakers rejected even baptism and communion, which are mandated by Scripture. They also believed in the "inner light," God's direct revelation to each individual, and thought that through the "inner light" everyone had the ability to overcome sin, whether they had heard the Gospel or not. In stark contrast to most Puritans, the Quakers thought human nature naturally virtuous. Thus, in their view, there was really no need for formal religious institutions of any kind.

The "Friends" took pride in their drab appearance, believing outward adornment to be a frivolous distraction from the pursuit of virtuous deeds. Some of the more extreme Quakers chose to live in the nude, a sight especially distasteful to Puritans (and most other people). One Quaker woman entered the church in Newbury, Massachusetts, stark naked and strolled down the aisle shouting insults at the minister. After her arrest, she explained that she was trying to illustrate the nakedness of Puritan religious practices.

William Penn's political philosophy was almost as radical as his Quaker religious views. With the "inner light" guiding people's behavior, not only were churches not needed, government was not needed either. Laissez-faire in faith, politics, and economics pretty well described the governing principles of his colony, Pennsylvania, founded in 1681. Penn hoped to lead by example rather than force. Pennsylvania had virtually no government at all until 1756, when the Quakers finally relinquished control, or rather non-control, over the colony. Because of his faith in the inherent virtue of human nature, he believed that people, if presented with reasoned arguments, and if treated fairly, would lead good lives. In the Quaker view, force and compulsion were never options. The pursuit of this principle to its extreme led both to the success and demise of William Penn's Holy Experiment. Where the Quakers were successful, they had a profound influence on American political thought; but they failed ultimately to confront the reality of man's character, irreparably flawed and at times vicious. And this accounts for their virtual elimination as a religious, political, or cultural force in America.

Penn immediately began advertising the colony to his fellow Quakers, not only in England, but in other parts of Europe as well. In 1682, he issued a pamphlet, entitled Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania, outlining the benefits of emigrating to his colony. He offered complete religious liberty and easy access to land. A 5,000-acre country estate, with a city lot in Philadelphia tossed in, would cost 100 pounds. If you could not afford that, you could rent a 200-acre farm from Penn for a penny an acre.

Also in 1682, Penn wrote his famous constitution for the colony, called the Charter of Liberties, guaranteeing more freedoms than any previous constitution in history. Penn was actually reluctant to prescribe any political form at all, but he was convinced that "any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where the laws rule."

Although the Quakers comprised the official religion of the colony, Penn stressed that no religion would be compulsory. Settlers poured into the colony, not only from England, but from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Germany. Five hundred Dutch and Swedes already lived in Philadelphia when Penn arrived. But their settlement, formerly New Sweden, had disintegrated under Indian attack and the rigors of the frontier. Penn's colony wel- comed foreign immigrants-thus institutionalizing an important American tradition. Led by Francis Daniel, the German Quakers settled Germantown. Lutherans, Huguenots, Mennonites, and Catholics also made the pilgrimage to Penn's colony on the promise of religious liberty. In the first year 3,000 settlers arrived, and by 1684 there were 2,500 living in Philadelphia. By 1689, Pennsylvania's population had swollen to 12,000. According to Andrew Hamilton, a Pennsylvania lawyer writing in 1739, the remarkable prosperity of the colony, far out-pacing its neighbors, could be attributed to "the constitution of Mr. Penn," which Mr. Penn himself described as "not so governmentish."

As a result of Penn's live-and-let-live approach to colonial rule, the tax burden in Pennsylvania was extremely light. It included a minimal duty on liquor, an export duty on furs, and a small sales tax. Moreover, on the few occasions when Penn proposed a tax increase, he was inevitably voted down by the Quaker-dominated council. When Penn returned to England in 1684 to promote his colony, he turned over full responsibility of government to the council. In keeping with the Quaker approach, a meeting of the council was not called from October 1684 to the end of March 1685. There were no meetings between November of 1686 and March 1687, and virtually none again for another year and a half. Pennsylvania during this four-year period had virtually no government at all.

The minimal taxes that existed were rarely collected. When William Dyer arrived from England in 1685 to collect the King's customs, he was ignored for the most part, and was shocked to find that no one paid any attention to the Royal Navigation Acts. Back in England, William Penn began to worry that his proprietary charter might be revoked by the Crown if his colonists did not comply with British law. He appointed as deputy governor of Pennsylvania John Blackwell, a tough English bureaucrat, who was Anglican and not Quaker, a vital qualification for any government administrator. Blackwell's travails with the Quakers in Pennsylvania have been recounted in amusing fashion by libertarian historian Murray Rothbard in his history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty, the high-points of which I include here.

When Blackwell arrived in December of 1688, he had difficulty finding the offices of the government, and found the council room empty, littered with unread documents, and covered with dust. Instead of an escort greeting him upon his arrival in Pennsylvania, Blackwell was jeered at by the neighborhood children.

Council President Thomas Lloyd, a Quaker, passively resisted Blackwell's administration. Lloyd announced that Blackwell's orders could not be carried out unless they were officially stamped by the Council's Great Seal, which Lloyd kept solely for his own use. Lloyd then refused to stamp any of Blackwell's documents. Hence, government remained at a grinding standstill, to Blackwell's increased frustration. Blackwell found the state treasury so bankrupt that he was unable to hire a messenger for the purpose of calling a council meeting. Of 12 Blackwell justice of the peace appointments, four flatly refused to serve.

On April 2, 1689, Blackwell began impeachment proceedings against Council President Thomas Lloyd, charging him with about a dozen crimes and misdemeanors. Blackwell argued that because William Penn was the proprietary owner of the territory, Penn's commands were absolute; and therefore, as Penn's agent, Blackwell's orders were absolute as well. Blackwell's harangue did not impress the council.

In a heated rage at Quaker insolence, Blackwell at one point waved his sword in the air and threatened to run through anyone who protested his decrees. He then began summarily dismissing particularly uncooperative councilmen, at which point the remaining members also headed for home. It became clear to Blackwell that he had no hope of bringing order to the colony of Pennsylvania, and he resigned. "I now only wait for the hour of my deliverance," he wrote to Penn in 1689. "These people have not the principles of government amongst them."

While empathizing with poor Blackwell, Penn ultimately sided with the council, reappointing the entire board. He apologized for his mistake in selecting Blackwell as his administrator. He reminded them, though, that Thomas Lloyd had been offered the position, but refused to serve, and that he could not find a single "Friend" who wanted the post. "I have thought fit," wrote Penn, "to throw all into your hands, that you may all see the confidence I have in you."

It was back to business as usual in Pennsylvania. The council rarely met, and the colony enjoyed tremendous prosperity. During the 30-year period between 1680 and 1710, for example, the population of Pennsylvania increased by some 24-fold, actually surpassing the number of New York inhabitants. New York's population during this same period only doubled, a poor showing in comparison to other colonies. New York's less auspicious economic development can be traced to the manorial system implemented by the initial Dutch settlements. The feudal land holding structure remained in New York even after the British pushed the Dutch out of the Hudson River territory, and this greatly impeded the progress of the colony.

By 1700, Philadelphia, less than 20 years in existence, had outstripped New York as a cultural center and was challenging Boston for the top spot. Philadelphia was the second colonial town to have a printing press, and the third to publish a newspaper. It had the best hospitals, following in the Quaker tradition of compassion. Because of the book collection of James Logan, a scientist and classical scholar, Philadelphia's library placed second only to Cotton Mather's in Massachusetts.

Pennsylvania foreshadowed the ideals of the American Revolution. It was the first large state to permit citizens of various nationalities and religious faiths to enjoy equal protection under the laws. The success of Penn's colony greatly interested the classical liberal philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries - Mill, Hume, Adam Smith, Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson.1 It had proved under real life conditions that society could go a long way towards total laissez-faire before conditions began to decay into anarchy. Philadelphia with virtually no government came very close to achieving its ideal as the "City of Brotherly Love." It was a vision of America to be, and would provide a fitting location for the signing of the U.S. Constitution in the fall of 1787.

Despite the fact that Pennsylvania under the non-rule of the Quakers was a great success in terms of its economic progress, number of settlers, and cultural advancement, King William grew peeved at Pennsylvania's state of anarchy, its refusal to abide by the Royal Navigation Acts, and its total uselessness as a fighting force against French incursions in the West. He revoked William Penn's proprietary ownership, and made Pennsylvania a Crown colony over the Quaker leader's bit ter objections.

The King, however, restored Penn's charter in 1694, after Penn promised to levy taxes to support King William's war against the French, raise a militia, and obey the Navigation Acts. James Logan, in a letter to Penn, foresaw that the pacifism of the Quakers was raising serious moral problems, especially when the Indians began routinely slaughtering settlers on Pennsylvania's western frontier:

I always used the best argument I could, and . . . I pleaded that we were a peaceable people, had wholly renounced war, and the spirit of it . . . When I pleaded this, I really spoke my sentiments; but this will not answer the English government, nor the methods of this reign. Their answer is, that should we lose our lives only, it would be little to the Crown, seeing ‘tis our doing, but others are involved with us.

Both France and Spain had huge stakes in North America and were in continuous wars with Britain over control of territory and trade. This meant that they were also at war with Pennsylvania, whether the Quakers wanted to acknowledge this or not. The settlers on the western frontier, mostly nonQuaker Germans, were growing increasingly alarmed at the lack of protection. They thought it the most fundamental duty of the legislator to defend his people, regardless of private religious scruples.

In 1755, the Delaware Indians, urged by the French, initiated a series of bloody massacres. The French hoped to prevent the purchase of territory by the Pennsylvanians from the Six Indian Nations, and convinced the Delawares that their way of life was threatened by the colony's westward expansion. The Quakers were shocked by attacks from a tribe they thought was friendly. At first, according to Daniel Boorstin's account, in his book The Colonial Experience, the council in Philadelphia responded by denying that the attacks had occurred. Once the facts were undeniable, it argued that unfair treatment of the Indians must have provoked the massacres. The survival of the colony was threatened because of the Quakers' false assumptions about the virtue of human nature. Aside from the reality of such motives as greed and a lust for power, sometimes honest disagreements are irreconcilable. Reason, good arguments, and compromise cannot, by themselves, guarantee security.

The Quaker legislators disagreed. They refused to appropriate any funds for defense, even after the horrific bloodbath of 1756. Instead of an armed regiment, the Quaker assembly created a commission to make sure the settlers were treating the Indians fairly. This provided little comfort for the frontiersmen seeing their wives raped and butchered, their children scalped, their crops destroyed, and their homes burned to the ground.

The Quakers remained unimpressed, even when desperate German settlers rioted in the streets of Philadelphia demanding action on the part of the assembly. Less concerned with the responsibilities of government than whether the laws they passed violated their religious beliefs, Quaker intransigence grew even more rigid as the evidence continued to mount refuting the notion that the Delawares were a peace-loving tribe.

Penn's colony came under intense political pressure in England. The social respectability that the Quakers in London had achieved had dissipated, as news of the border massacres reached Europe. The London "Friends" urged the Pennsylvania Quakers to give up government so that they could avoid some blame for the bloodletting by the Indians, and the embarrassing military conquests by the French. On June 4, 1756, six leading Quaker assemblymen handed in their resignations.

The political winner in all this was Benjamin Franklin, famous for his common-sense philosophy and practical methods. He had issued a pamphlet in 1747 entitled Plain Truth, providing a platform for a new political party. Franklin made a powerful case against pacifism in government, and so gained the enthusiastic support of the non-Quaker population of Pennsylvania and, perhaps more importantly, the ruling establishment in England. "The enemy, no doubt, have been told, that the people of Pennsylvania are Quakers, and against all defense, from a principle of conscience," he wrote. "To refuse defending one's self, or one's country, is so unusual a thing among mankind, that possibly they may not believe it, till by experience they find they can come higher and higher up our rivers, seize our vessels, land and plunder our plantations and villages, and retire with the booty unmolested."

In 1756, Franklin asserted in more strident terms his concern for the fate of the settlers on the frontier who were "continually butchered," concluding: "I do not believe we shall ever have firm peace with the Indians till we have well drubbed them." With the Quaker departure from government, Franklin and his followers dominated Pennsylvania politics into the American Revolution.

The Quakers were further disgraced when it became apparent that Quaker opposition to violence translated into their refusal to fight for American independence. In addition to being ridiculed as cowards (unfairly), they were subjected to charges of treason. At this point, the Quakers withdrew almost completely from public life, and concentrated their energies inward, towards further purifying their individual consciences. It is a curious fact that as the rigid dogmas of the Puritans of Massachusetts softened during the 18th century to accommodate the world outside their communities, as Boorstin's book notes, the doctrinaire pacifism of the Quakers grew inore intense in unyielding defiance to the realities of daily experience. For this reason, continued Quaker influence in the world has virtually disappeared.

Despite the ultimate impracticality of the Quaker tradition, without it the American Revolution probably would have been quite different. It would have been very difficult to explain exactly what it was Americans were fighting for if the Quakers had not in fact implemented William Penn's political philosophy:

specifically, that government has no right to use force against individuals to serve the purposes of the community. There would have been no experience of such a society to point to without Pennsylvania. Quaker rule provided the needed historical precedent. They were adverse to using force to an extreme. But it was the radical nature of the Quaker conception of government that led to the new political theory that would emerge between 1776 and 1787.

Even with his death in 1718, and the abdication of Quaker rule in 1756, William Penn's philosophy continued to hold sway over the colony. His Charter of Privileges remained until 1776 when, as a state that had declared its independence from England, it formed its own government. The Pennsylvania Constitution was the most democratic of all the colonies, mandating annual elections, and requiring the retirement of legislators after four terms in office, thus subjecting officials to their own laws. The governor, who never had much power anyway, was completely eliminated, giving all authority to the legislature. Moreover, every bill passed by the General Assembly would have to be printed for consideration by the people at large before it could become law in the next legislative session. The Pennsyl vania Constitution completely obliterated privilege, government grants, and chartered monopoly.

In Pennsylvania the most radical ideas about politics and constitutional authority expressed in the Revolution found a voice. The Quakers and their successors in public life questioned assumptions about the principles of government that were taken for granted everywhere else. This colony, more than any other, had first-hand experience of life without monarchy, oligarchy, feudal, or authoritarian rule of any kind. It almost worked. With a few modifications to take into account the unpleasant reality of man's nature, it would work.

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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart