William Penn, Founder of the English colony of Pennsylvania, had an enlightened attitude for his time in regards to religious tolerance and in his dealings with Native Americans.
Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress.
In 1681, William Penn transformed his debt from the English crown into a colonial charter for what would become the colony of Pennsylvania. A recently converted Quaker, Penn established the colony as a haven for members of this religious sect. What had started out as a refuge for Quakers, however, soon became a settlement for a diverse group seeking opportunity and tolerance in a new world. In addition to the lure of land and the promise of religious freedom, Penn had to find other inducements to populate his new colony. He wrote several letters back to friends in Europe, some of which ended up being published. These letters served as promotions for his new colony in America. This lesson examines one of these promotional tracts, “Letter to the Free Society of Traders.”
Shortly after his arrival in Pennsylvania in 1683, Penn met Francis Daniel Pastorius. Pastorius was a German who emigrated in 1683. He was commissioned by the Frankfort Land Company and a group of merchants from Crefeld, Germany, to form a settlement in America. The merchants purchased fifteen thousand acres in Pennsylvania, and Germantown was born. After meeting William Penn, Pastorius converted to Quakerism. By juxtaposing the different promotional tracts of Penn and Pastorius, your students understand the ethnic diversity of Pennsylvania along with the “pull” factors of migration in the seventeenth century English colonies.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
England’s first six colonies were founded before 1640; the next six were founded or became English possessions during the Restoration era (1660-1688) when the Stuart monarchy was restored after the English Revolution. Georgia, the last of the thirteen colonies, was settled in the 1730s. All of the Restoration colonies were proprietary colonies where Crown favorites or “proprietors” were rewarded with large tracts of land to develop. Most of the proprietors had large visions but limited resources. William Penn was the exception. He had grown up in privilege and knew King James II well.
Penn had converted to the Society of Friends or Quakers, a religious group who rejected worldly and spiritual hierarchies, believing that all men and women share an “inner light... He turned an old debt (from the king due to his father) into a charter for the proprietary colony called “Pennsylvania” (all the land between New Jersey and Maryland) his “holy experiment” in brotherly love, a contrast to the Puritan concept of a “City on a Hill”. Penn took great pains in setting up his colony; twenty drafts survive of his First Frame of Government, the colony’s 1682 constitution. Penn was determined to deal fairly and maintain friendly relations with the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians. He carefully planned the city of Philadelphia as well as organized other settlements and established the Free Society of Traders to control commerce with England. He sent back glowing accounts of the colony to his English friends and patrons. This Letter to the Free Society of Traders (found on EDSITEment reviewed History Matters) , published in 1683, has been recognized as the most effective of his promotional tracts. And it proved successful.
Penn organized the speediest and most efficient of the seventeenth-century efforts at English colonization. In 1682 twenty three ships from England reached the Delaware River with about two thousand colonists and their possessions. By 1700 Pennsylvania’s population reached 21,000. Pennsylvania’s fertile soils, temperate climate, and policy of religious freedom attracted many migrants beyond England. Germans from the Rhine Valley increasingly left their homelands because of its limited rural economy and religious intolerance; also, good news from Pennsylvania drew many discontented Germans across the Atlantic. Francis Daniel Pastorius arrived in Pennsylvania in 1683, commissioned by the Frankfort Land Company and a group of German merchants to obtain 15,000 acres of land for a settlement in the new colony of Pennsylvania. Pastorius, well educated in European universities, reported back to his friends in Germany. After he negotiated with Penn, Pastorius became a Quaker. His report was later published as Positive Information From America, concerning the Country of Pennsylvania by a German who Traveled There (1684), a promotional tract to encourage other Germans to immigrate. Pastorius found the journey to be difficult but the prospects attractive. He remarked notably upon the ethnic and religious complexity of the colony. Pastorius went on to lead settlement at Germantown of Mennonites and Quakers from the Rhineland.
Both primary sources used in the second part of this lesson were written as promotional tracts. While Penn wrote his with an audience of prospective settlers in mind, Pastorius wrote his to friends back in Germany, hoping to convince them to emigrate. While Penn’s letter overall has more detail, Pastorius' report includes a frank account of the journey and the struggle to survive. Both accounts, however, resound with a glowing endorsement of the life that awaits those who dare to venture to the new colony, despite the risks.
Some of the following websites offer the teacher information on William Penn, his vision for the colony, his ideas of religious tolerance, and his relationship with the Native Americans. The first is recommended for all teachers who use the lesson, and the other sites will give a deeper understanding for teachers interested in each particular area:
Download or bookmark William Penn’s “Letter to the Free Society of Traders” and Daniel Pastorius’ “Positive Information from America” both available through a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters.
Throughout this unit, students will read and analyze a variety of primary documents. The following materials from EDSITEment resources may be useful to teachers seeking expert advice on the use of primary documents:
1. Have students read the selections below (see PDF) from the document The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania in America, 1682 on the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon website. The Frame that Penn wrote in 1682 should introduce students to the ideas and ideals behind the founding of Pennsylvania and moreover, his efforts to create a successful colony. Students will then read subsequent promotional tracts that offer contrasting views on how the settlement proceeded. Students should consider the following questions and highlight the sentences that provide evidence for their answer.
For excerpt 1: What elements does William Penn see as necessary for good government?
Excerpt 1—From William Penn’s Preface to The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania in America, 1682.
Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them 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.
I know some say, let us have good laws, and no matter for the men that execute them: but let them consider, that though good laws do well, good men do better: for good laws may want good men, and be abolished or evaded by ill men; but good men will never want good laws nor suffer ill ones …
For excerpt 2: Who does William Penn want in his colony? How does he entice new settlers?
Excerpt 2—Law Thirty-five from Laws Agreed Upon in England in William Penn’s The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania in America, 1682.
XXXV. That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.
1. Students should read an excerpt from Penn’s The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania in America, 1682, and answer the following questions: What does William Penn see as necessary for good government? Who does William Penn want in his colony? How does he entice new settlers?
2. Place students in pairs, and have one student read the William Penn Letter while the other reads Daniel Pastorius’ “Positive Information from America” both linked from EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters.
3. Students should go through the documents highlighting sections and making annotations in response to the following questions:
They can use the comparison charts (in the PDF document) as a way of taking notes before they make their annotations on their document.
4. Students will share information from their notes and annotations on both letters. Then the students should use that evidence for a debate on whether a prospective settler should immigrate to Pennsylvania. Students can consider evidence that either supports immigration or discourages immigration. Students should cite the sources (either Penn or Pastorius) as their evidence in the debate. One suggested format would be to divide the class into three groups: Pro-immigration, anti-immigration, and judges.
Students should use the evidence they have gathered in the interactive activity to write an essay based on the following topic:
Compare and contrast the two letters written in 1683 and 1684 about the colony of Pennsylvania. Also, keep in mind the ideals that Penn expressed in his 1682 Frame of Government. Keep in mind that both letters were written and published and used to encourage further colonization. Consider the following questions as you write your essay:
This essay should be 1-2 pages and include at least seven pieces of evidence from the documents.
1. The Pastorius letter could be linked to more research on the German colonists in Pennsylvania, a significant non-English population group. Students could compare Pastorius’ voyage with that of another well-known account by Gottlieb Mittelberger in his Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750. Two excerpts are on History Matters.
2. Pennsylvania became the home of numerous pietistic and other communal communities. Students could investigate one such community as Bethlehem, Pennyslvania: A Moravian Settlement in Colonial America from the National Park Service website.
3. William Penn envisioned a more positive and respectful relationship with the Indians. Was this vision achieved? Students could research this topic through materials such as Penn and the Indians or the Walking Purchase of 1737 transcript or the background material at ExplorePAHistory lesson and materials.
4. Students could explore the idea of religious tolerance in Pennsylvania and how such ideas were established even before the founding. See Penn’s 1675 statement about the Quaker Ideal of Religious Tolerance on the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History.
2 class periods