CASE I: Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges
William Penn’s “holy experiment” began in 1681, when the 37 year old Quaker convert received a royal grant of an immense tract of land in North America out of “regard to the memorie and meritts of his late father,” a royalist admiral during the English Civil War.
Penn applied Quakerly principles of equality and tolerance to the governance of his province. Although his record of relations with Indians was somewhat mixed, it stands in sharp contrast to the strife-ridden situations in other colonies. During his lifetime, Penn cultivated peaceful relations and attempted to guarantee that all provincial lands were legally purchased. Penn also sought to ensure that the Swedish, Dutch, and Finnish settlers already of the Delaware River Valley retained their rights of citizenship under the new English government.
On October 28, 1701, during his second and final visit to the colony, Penn signed his Charter of Privileges, formally establishing a stable frame of government that was remarkably liberal for its day. As governor, Penn retained the right of veto for himself but granted the legislature the right to initiate legislation and allowed it to determine its time of adjournment, judge qualifications for membership, select its own Speaker and officers, and to enjoy “all other Powers and Priviledges of an Assembly according the Rights of the Freeborne Subjects of England and as is usuall in any of the King’s Plantations in America.”
Penn famously granted a set of individual rights to the inhabitants of Pennsylvania, codifying the freedom of conscience he had espoused since the establishment of the province’s first plantation. Monotheists willing to “live quietly under the Civill Governement” were never to be “molested or prejudiced” for their religious beliefs or practices, nor were they to be “compelled to frequent or mentaine any Religious Worship place or Ministry contrary to his or theire mind.” Furthermore, Christians of any denomination were permitted to hold any governmental office.
Pennsylvania’s constitution remained the most liberal and best known of all colonial constitutions. Even after the American Revolution, it retained its share of supporters for the broad privileges it conferred.
After an APS committee was delegated to seek out and preserve important historical documents, the Charter was donated to the APS in 1812 by Joseph Anthony through the agency of Benjamin Smith Barton, William Tilghman, Peter Stephen Duponceau, and James Gibson.