10/26/10 - william penn

In today's excerpt - William Penn's utopian vision enabled him to establish one of the most successful colonies in the New World, but he died deep in debt and a broken man, despite having received a generous charter which made him the world's largest private (non-royal) landowner with over 45,000 square miles of land. He left his estate in such shambles that it took thirteen years to untangle, but his heirs and his personal representative, James Logan, did far better financially after his demise:

"[Late in his life], Penn was arrested for debt [incurred in developing Pennsylvania] and confined from January to October 1708 in debtors' prison. Ultimately, he and [his lender] settled out of court for a payment of £7,600, a sum that Penn borrowed (of course) from nine wealthy Friends, including his father-in-law. Lacking any other asset, the proprietor mortgaged the province to them as security for the loan.

"Early in 1709, Penn, now sixty-four years old, ... [attempted] the sale of Pennsylvania's government to the crown for £20,000. The province had become, in Penn's view, no more than the cause of 'a Sorrow, that if not Supported by a Superior hand, might have overwhelm'd me long agoe': a place that for its inhabitants had 'prov'd a Land of Freedom & flourishing,' but which for him was 'the cause of Grief Trouble & Poverty.'

"Penn was in the midst of negotiations with the crown in April 1712 when he suffered the first of a series of strokes. The one that finally incapacitated him came in October while he was writing to James Logan, pleading for him to send money and 'deliver me from my present thralldom ... for it is my excessive expenses upon Pennsylvania that sunk me so low, & nothing else, my expenses yearly in England ever fal[l]ing short of my yearly income.' ... He lived on in increasingly frail health for another five years, losing first the ability to write, then the capacity to speak intelligibly, then the ability to walk unaided, and finally the ability to recognize friends and relatives. He died in his sleep on July 30, 1718.

"Although his efforts had given him little but years of frustration and ultimately left him a broken man, William Penn died as the most successful agent of imperial expansion that England had yet produced. In 1700, Philadelphia's customhouse annually yielded revenues to the Exchequer that exceeded £8,000; yet the expenses of provincial administration and Indian diplomacy were still borne almost entirely by [Penn himself]. ...

"[Upon Penn's death his estate,] tangled beyond recognition, was consigned to the Court of Chancery, where it disappeared under a mountain of pleadings and counterpleadings. The case remained unresolved for another seven years. [His second wife] Hannah herself did not live to see the case settled; she died, worn out with grief and worry, in the spring of 1727.

"The chancery decision, rendered in July of that year, assigned the entire proprietorship to the sons of [his second wife] Hannah Penn, but that judgment, in the time-honored way of actions in chancery, did not resolve the issue. It was not until 1731, thirteen years after the death of William Penn and nearly twenty after he had lost the capacity to exercise his proprietary powers competently, that the children (and grandchildren) from the first marriage renounced their claim to the proprietorship in return for a cash payment from the children of the second marriage. Without this out-of-court settlement, another set of suits would in all likelihood have kept the ownership of the province tied up in chancery for at least another decade. ...

"When Richard, John, and Thomas Penn took over the administration of their father's province, Pennsylvania finally became a consistent producer of revenue for the family. James Logan disliked their grasping ways but never failed to facilitate them: whereas the Penn family had realized an average of £400 annually from land sales between 1701 and 1730, they earned an average of £7,150 a year between 1731 and 1760, an eighteen fold increase. Logan was hardly in a position to despise them for their greed. He had himself done magnificently and had never been excessively scrupulous about how he made his fortune."


Fred Anderson and Andrew Clayton


The Dominion of War: Empire And Liberty in North America 1500-2000


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 by Fred Anderson and Andrew Clayton


83, 95, 102 Tags: America, States
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