Book Review: William Penn and the Quaker Legacy
William Penn and the Quaker Legacy is a biography authored by John A. Moretta. First published in 2006 by Pearsons, the book consists of 288 pages and details the life of William Penn. Born in 1644, Penn was the son of the famous British hero, Sir William Penn. The younger Penn is most famous for having abandoned the Anglican Church and becoming a Quaker. He also secured a land grant from the king and founded Pennsylvania in 1681, at a young age of 35.
Penn’s life and his choices have been the topic of several biographies. However, Moretta follows a more holistic approach in his. The book begins by tracing Penn’s relationship with his father during his early years of life and his bonding with his parents. It lays adequate emphasis on the Penn’s introduction to Quakerism, a moving sermon delivered by a preacher at Penn’s home in Ireland. While his father wanted to educate his son in the ways of the world, the young Penn has more inclinations towards religious studies. Following the restoration of the monarchy and the crowing of Stuart Kind Charles, the book follows Penn’s coming out of his father’s shadow to found Pennsylvania and, more importantly, sow the seeds of Quakerism in a land staunchly orthodox in its beliefs and their implementation. The book also focuses on Penn’s struggle for the rights of Quakers and the opposition and subjugation he faced or witnessed as a result of his revolutionary religious beliefs.
Moretta attempts to bring an unbiased approach towards analysis Penn’s life. While he lauds Penn for his founding of Pennsylvania, he also points out that he actually spent a mere 4 years living in the land that he had founded. Post the founding, Penn was forced to move to England for over 15 years in order to promote Quakerism as well as participate in boundary disputes. Moretta raises the question whether Penn is even qualified to be considered an American. He also notes that Penn was particularly concerned about maintaining Quaker modesty, which is why he wanted to name the state ‘Sylvania’, agreeing to add the prefix ‘Penn’ on the insistence of Stuart Kind Charles II, who wished to honor his great father.
Moretta brings Penn’s call for religious tolerance, equality of genders and representative democracy under the spot light. His firm belief in ethnic tolerance and respect for all enabled Penn to peacefully coexist with Native Americans in his colony. While Penn played an active role in politics using his revolutionary ideas, he was also the most aristocratic of all the Founders. His diplomacy enabled him to thaw hardened dictators such as Cromwell, bring about acceptance of the Quakers as well as speed up the grant of charters from Charles II. In this manner, Moretta attempts to lay equal focus on Penn’s loyalty to the crown as well as his dedication towards the doctrines of Quakerism.
However, he also shows that Penn may have been caught in an internal battle, inclining more towards maintaining his heritage of loyalty when compared to his dedication towards Quakerism. This is evident in the discontent of his one time supporters, Benjamin Furly and Algernon Sidney, who felt betrayed by Penn when he used the 1681 ‘Frame of Government’ as the constitution of the colony. The document lacked the principles on which the doctrine of Quakerism was based, raising questions about Penn’s sincerity towards his own beliefs. To further add insult to injury, Penn chose to become the foreign representative of James II, forgoing his return to Pennsylvania.
However, towards the end of the book, Moretta seems to take a more biased approach by agreeing with most of Penn’s strategies and choices. These choices included having the constitution of Pennsylvania revised four times. Penn was also saddened by the change of heart among his fellow Quakers, who had resorted commercialism at a time when ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ could have been implemented in the New World. Yet, Penn did not make any attempts at persuasion, raising questions about his own inclinations.
Having said that, Moretta more or less focuses the book around areas of Penn’s life that show him in a positive light. He emphasizes his acts that were most successful and downplays those that were not. The author also makes the mistake of not delving deep enough into the reasons behind Penn’s success in gaining approvals for legislature that would have otherwise faced tremendous opposition by an orthodox monarchy and church as well. As a result, the narrative seems to be filled with loop holes, leaving far too many doubts in the reader’s mind. Moretta clarifies his approach towards Penn by stating “Although Penn and his wealthy Quaker brethren believed in liberty of conscience, and were certainly more tolerant in other areas than most upper-class seventeenth-century Englishmen, they nonetheless did not embrace political democracy in nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century terms” . He reminds the readers that while Penn was a man of revolutionary ideas, he could only implement those changes that would be possible at the time. The future of Quakerism lay with those whom he passed the baton to.
William Penn and the Quaker Legacy by John A. Moretta is recommended to readers who would like to know more about William Penn Junior. However, a thoroughly unbiased view should not be expected.
Moretta, J. D. William Penn and the Quaker Legacy. New York: Pearsons, 2006.