William Keith Administration

Deputy Governor, 1718-1726

Penn's Will and His Children — For a number of years before the death of William Penn he had been in no condition to attend to business, and his wife Hannah took this [job] upon herself. A sensible and capable woman, she was well adapted to this task.

Under his will she was left executrix and trustee of his estate, and at once undertook to manage the affairs of the province of Pennsylvania. He had left his English and Irish estates to William and Letitia, the surviving children of his first wife, and his American estates to his widow and her children, John, Thomas, Margaret, Richard and Dennis. His son William, who had acted so badly in Philadelphia, tried to gain control, but failed in the attempt.

Pennsylvania in 1718 — At the time of Penn's death the province of Pennsylvania, was thirty-six years old and was in a very prosperous condition. So far it had not been troubled by wars with the Indians and had taken no part in the wars with France which had hindered the growth of some of the other colonies.

The Quaker belief in the ways of peace had kept it free from war and its evils. The people, and there were now many of them, found enough to keep them busy in building houses and barns, in sowing and reaping the crops of the fields, and in adding by steady industry to their wealth. This state of affairs brought numbers of immigrants and Pennsylvania grew faster in population than any of the colonies to the south or the north.

Settlers came from all parts of western Europe except Spain and Portugal, and trade grew until the Delaware [River] presented a busy scene, vessels passing to and fro and the wharves bustling with active labor.

The streets throbbed with new life, business was active, land cheap, and a steady tide of home seekers left the city for the forest lands surrounding.

Along the rough roads rolled the carts of settlers, laden with their household goods; through the woodland paths went others on foot, carrying their small effects on their backs. They had come into a land of promise, where war had never yet been seen, where no one had been forced to do military duty, where anyone might accept what religion he pleased, where taxes were light and the land rich and fertile. It was a country that seemed to have a great future before it.

A Successful AdministrationSir William Keith, the new [Lieutenant] governor, showed himself a very different man from Governor Gookin, who had fought his way at every step. Keith had a smooth, flattering manner, with clear business ideas, and did his best to be friendly with everybody. His politeness paid, for the Assembly at once voted him four hundred and fifty pounds and afterwards gave him an ample salary.

Everything went on well, the expenses of the government were kept low, and were fully met by the taxes; the fields yielded largely and there was much to send abroad, the inspection laws giving a good reputation to the flour and salted meats [exports] of the province.

In his dealings with the Indians Governor Keith was very successful, disputes that seemed likely to end in bloodshed were settled by him quietly, and when an Indian was killed by one of the whites in a brutal way Keith so softened the anger of the tribe that the chief asked him not to put the murderer to death, saying: "One life is enough to be lost; there should not two die."

The Flood of Immigrants — While well-to-do immigrants were welcome, there were so many of a different kind that the government sought to stop these.

The citizens of Philadelphia found themselves troubled with the poor and worthless and some of those who settled on the frontier treated the Indians in a way likely to cause a disturbance.

There was not enough labor for those who came over as servants and "redemptioners." The latter were men who sold their services to masters in the colony for the payment of their passage money. Also many convicts were sent out from England. To stop this a law was passed, laying a tax of five pounds on each convict, and obliging the importer to give bonds in twenty pounds for the good behavior of each for one year.

Paper Money Issued — The worst trouble the colony had to contend with was the scarcity of money. We have already spoken of how grain, meat and other farm products were made to take the place of money.

Not only debts, but even taxes, were paid in this way, corn, beef and pork being accepted at fixed prices.

The rents due Penn and his family were often paid in wheat.

This difficulty extended through all the colonies, and Massachusetts was the first to try and meet it by the issue of paper money. South Carolina did the same, and the paper money of these colonies began to appear in Pennsylvania. Its people found paper promises to pay much more convenient as currency than wheat, pork or tobacco, and began to demand paper money of their own. Keith was ready to help them and in 1723 succeeded in having a paper-money bill passed by the Assembly, though many opposed it, thinking this money would in time become worthless.

Keith's Money Bill — The Act of Assembly called for an issue of fifteen thousand pounds, the bills being from one to twenty shillings in value. Any owner of gold or silver plate or of real estate clear of debt could obtain these notes, paying five per cent, per annum for their use. Their property was given as security, the loans on plate being for one year only, those on real estate for eight years, one-eighth of the sum borrowed to be repaid yearly. All bills paid in were to be destroyed.

So useful to the people was this new form of money that thirty thousand pounds were issued the next year. These later bills, when paid in, were not to be burned, but loaned out again, so as to keep the full sum of paper money afloat. This system was kept up until the Revolution. And while the paper money of some other colonies sank in value by bad management, that of Pennsylvania had such good security in plate and real estate that it kept up to par with gold. Nothing could have been done more useful to the province than this issue of paper money.

The Coming of Benjamin Franklin — It was in 1723, during the administration of Governor Keith, that Benjamin Franklin, then a boy of seventeen, came to Philadelphia, in which city he was for many years to play a leading part. He came in humbly enough, however, with a pack over his shoulder, after a foot tramp across New Jersey. In his interesting autobiography he tells us some things about Governor Keith that were not much to the credit of this official and which are worth repeating.

Franklin and Keith — A letter written by the young newcomer fell into Keith's hands and pleased him so much that he thought such ability ought to be rewarded. He saw Franklin and won his confidence by his smooth and plausible ways, advising him to go to London to improve himself and promising him letters which would aid him to make his way in that great city. They were to be sent on board the ship in which Franklin had taken passage, but the letters failed to appear and Franklin reached London with little cash and no credit.

Franklin's story about Keith has given that gentleman a wider fame than any other provincial governor ever had. Yet it is hard to believe that he set out deliberately to send adrift a young man who was likely to be a great credit to the city under his control. It may have been carelessness or forgetfulness on the part of Keith, or he may have promised more than he was able to perform, but, however it was, Keith certainly did not act like an honorable man in this instance.

The Criminal Law — William Penn has been justly praised for limiting the death penalty to cases of murder and treason, at a time when in Europe [and in Massachusetts] criminals were hanged for robbery, burglary, conspiracy, forgery and many other crimes, some of them of little importance. Governor Keith was in favor of extending the laws of England to the colonies, and through his influence an act was passed by the Assembly making a large number of offenses subject to the death penalty. Thus, the humane law made by Penn expired in the year of his death and was not restored until the end of the Revolutionary War.

Keith and the Council — Keith in the various ways named made himself very popular with the Assembly and the people, but he did not succeed so well with the Council [court system]. He claimed that this body had nothing to do with making the laws, and in 1722 he removed James Logan, the friend and agent of the Penn family, from his posts as Secretary of the Province and Member of the Council. He had done something that offended the governor.

Thus began a quarrel that ended in the dismissal of Keith. Logan at once sailed to England, told Mrs. Penn about what the governor was doing, and came back with letters sustaining all he had done and ordering the governor to replace him in his official posts. Keith was warned that he must pay some attention to the rights of the Penn family if he wanted to remain governor. He was bidden to make no speech, send no message, return no bills, and pass no law without a vote of the council in favor of these acts. Nothing, in fact, that Keith had done satisfied Mrs. Penn, though she was willing to give him a further trial.

The Governor Loses His Place — Logan's act led to quick results. Keith sent Mrs. Penn's letter of instructions to the Assembly and refused to restore Logan to his official places. A sharp controversy between him and Logan now arose. David Lloyd, once so active in making trouble and now Chief Justice of the province, took part and made a sharp attack on Logan. The Assembly also came to the support of the governor and voted him one thousand pounds.

Keith now thought himself strong enough to defy Mrs. Penn, fancying that she would be afraid to act against one who was so popular in the province and had made it so prosperous. But she soon showed him his mistake by quietly removing him from office and appointing a new governor in his place. And the Assembly, which he fancied would support him, dropped him at once and voted him a very small salary for 1726, his last year.

Keith's administration had been a successful one in many ways. He had done much for the good of the people. But he had failed to consider the rights and claims of those who had appointed him.

He stayed in the country two years longer and attempted to make trouble there for his successor. Then he left the country in a hurry to escape his creditors, but seems to have found others in London, for he died there in prison.

— History Of Pennsylvania by Charles Morris (1913)

 

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