The Story Behind the Document that Created Pennsylvania
HARRISBURG, Pa. (WENY) - This past weekend, Pennsylvania celebrated its 342nd birthday with the display of William Penn's Charter. The charter tells the story of Pennsylvania's origins and how it fell into the hands of an upper-class aristocrat who left everything behind in pursuit of religious freedom.
“Penn's Charter is really Pennsylvania's birth certificate. It is the document that created Pennsylvania,” said Pennsylvania State Archivist David Carmicheal.
Each year, Carmicheal shares the story of Pennsylvania in front of the document where it all began over 340 years ago.
“William Penn's father was Admiral Sir William Penn. He was very high up in the elite of England and his son, I think, was a great disappointment to him because he didn't want any of that. He gave himself to his Quaker faith and he went to jail for it and was persecuted,” said Carmicheal.
After his father passed, Penn was owed £16,000 as a result of a loan his father gave to King Charles II. However, the king was broke.
“He could not pay even that amount to Penn,” said Carmicheal.
Penn saw the king's outstanding debt to his father as an opportunity in the new world for he and his fellow believers.
“A life for a Quaker at that time was a tough row to hoe,” said Carmicheal, adding that Penn opted for the land instead of the money. “And so, he gave him millions of acres of land instead. The interesting thing was that unlike many other colonies, this land was actually owned by Penn and his family. He owned the property and he could sell it to people, so it was a little different. He was a proprietor. He was not a governor,” Carmicheal added.
The charter, which contains the first official use of the word Pennsylvania, was signed by King Charles II on March 4, 1681. Contrary to what many believe, Pennsylvania is not actually named after Penn, himself.
“The colony was not named for William Penn, as we all tend to believe. It was named for his father,” said Carmicheal.
Being the humble Quaker he was, Penn was opposed to the king's idea that the new colony be named after his father, worrying it would seem arrogant.
“Penn, himself, did not want that to happen, because he assumed people would think it had been named for him. And as a Quaker, that was just too arrogant. Of course, the king got his way, it was named for Penn’s father, and of course Penn was right, we all think it was named for him,” said Carmicheal.
In the charter, King Charles II did not grant the people in Pennsylvania freedom of worship. Though it was better than persecution in Europe, Penn wasn’t content.
“The one thing that Penn did not get in the charter that he wanted, was the king to declare in the charter that people who lived in Pennsylvania would have freedom of worship,” said Carmicheal. “He didn't get that in the charter. He did keep them from establishing the Church of England as the established religion in Pennsylvania, which was an accomplishment in itself,” he added.
Penn still fought for the freedom to worship. He ultimately succeeded and used it to attract more settlers.
“In 1682, the Great Law was passed, which was the first assemblage of laws in Pennsylvania. And the very first article in the Great Law guaranteed freedom of worship to people,” said Carmicheal. “He used it as a recruiting tool for people who were persecuted in England in particular and in other parts of Europe to get people to come and settle here,” he added.
Penn’s Charter is on display once each year for a limited time at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. The 342-year-old charter is written on parchment using iron gall ink and is preserved in a high-security vault, shielding it from strong light and environmental fluctuations.