Quaker Government in Pennsylvania


"The principles upon which the settlers of Pennsylvania sought to base their government were, —

1. Perfect democracy. This hardly needs qualification. For while the governor was non-elective and to some extent thwarted the will of the people, this was probably not the original intention, but rather an unexpected development of proprietary rights as construed by unsympathetic heirs of William Penn.

2. Perfect religious liberty. There was no restriction on the free worship of any orderly sect, and originally no religious test for office except a profession of belief in Jesus Christ. It is not unlikely that this limitation was imposed by English authority or from fear of English veto.

3. Perfect justice and fairness in dealing with aborigines and neighbors. 'Without concerning themselves to define the Indian rights in the soil, whatever existed were purchased, and all complaints were met by an evident desire to recognize in others the same personal privileges they claimed for themselves.

4. The absence of all military and naval provision for attack and defense. They recognized the necessity for force through police and other agencies in internal disturbance. They would never need any force for attack, because they would never be the aggressors. In the matter of defense there were differences of opinion, and the public acts of the Quaker Assembly may be fairly construed as in some instances inconsistent with their principles. But a careful study of the records of the meetings of [Society of] Friends, as well as the public records of the government, will probably convince an unprejudiced person that a belief in the impropriety of an armed force was indeed one of their strongly held convictions.

5. The abolition of Oaths. This did not necessarily introduce any difficult principle of government. It afforded, however, an excellent opportunity for English and provincial enemies to harass those in official life, either by requiring them to take oaths themselves or to administer them to others.

All of these principles had been many times expounded, and some of them practiced, before 1682. But the collection had not before been tried. It was the legitimate fruit of the religious principles of the Society of Friends, and of the best thought and experience of William Penn. But it was only a 'Holy Experiment,' — the responsibility was very great, the many chances for failure must have been at least partly foreseen, and the spectacle of these pioneers mustering their confidence in 'the Truth,' risking their happiness, their fortunes, and the reputation of their religious Society, is one of the exalted scenes of history. The measure of success they achieved deserves, probably, more recognition than it has received. Had they been independent of English control, the experiment would have been more conclusive. The frame of government was examined and perhaps modified by the Crown, and the Royal power was appealed to not infrequently to threaten forfeiture of charter and abridgment of liberty in cases of disagreement. All laws enacted were subject to English veto. English quarrels with France, reproduced in the New World, strained the pacific principles of the Pennsylvania Quakers repeatedly, and finally broke their control of government. The consent of the governed retained these principles in power for a half century after the sect which embodied them most conspicuously was in a minority, and would have retained them we know not how much longer, could that consent alone have determined the question. It was the power of the English government exercised in response to the demands of the minority in the Province which forced the alternative of sacrifice of power or sacrifice of principle on the part of the popularly-elected Quaker Assembly. It was the same power which by enforcing the necessity of administering oaths, drove from office many of the most reliable exponents of the Founder's policy.

William Penn and his friends, after three decades of suffering such as has seldom fallen to the lot of Englishmen to endure, found resting upon them the direct responsibilities of government. Hitherto the State had been to them not a beneficent agency, but a cruel oppressor. They suffered passively, for deeply engraved in their belief was the Biblical sentiment, 'The powers that be are ordained of God.' But they felt also that the maintenance of certain sacred principles was a duty which transcended all obligations to human government. Here in Pennsylvania was the chance to make the Divine Law and the human law one. They embraced the opportunity, and the responsibility of success or failure was upon them. They had to prove that their beliefs were not, as their enemies claimed, chimerical and unworkable. So fearful seemed the consequences of failure, not to themselves, but to 'Truth,' that the retention of power was a duty, not a privilege. The English Crown, by a stroke of the pen, could subvert their liberties, destroy the fruits of their labors, and establish the triumph of that which in their eyes was the error from which they felt they had been delivered. It is not surprising that they went to the verge of consistency, and perhaps at times a little beyond, in order to tide over difficulties which it was hoped were only temporary. The alternative was a forfeiture of charter, perhaps fines and jails for conscience' sake, the destruction of all that which they had left their English homes to build up. They hoped to maintain a consistent policy until they should survive the experimental stage and establish a successful state. But there were sacrifices of principle they could not make, and after seventy-four years of control, they sadly gave up the contest with the knowledge that the battle had been only partly won.

No one can appreciate the history of Colonial Pennsylvania who does not understand the spirit, the methods, and the beliefs of the Society of Friends. The failure to grasp these firmly, the dependence upon public records exclusively for the materials of history, has been the cause of serious misjudgments in many otherwise admirable narratives of the times."

— A History of Quaker Government in Pennsylvania, Volume I, by Isaac Sharpless, 1900

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