Salena Zito

Penn saw his role as “absolute proprietor” as limited, making his idea of government a big departure from the elitism of European monarchies.

“William Penn is one of America’s great forgotten founders,” says Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University political scientist. “His policies on religious toleration and political freedom were touted as some of the most welcoming throughout all the colonies.”

In later years, Penn – never too fastidious about his business affairs, and who often signed papers without reading them – was swindled by his business managers. For a time, he even lost his colony.

“In other words, he grew complacent,” says Maranto.

We need to understand this about history: It happens, not as some narrative of good guys versus bad guys, but as a more complex story about trade-offs, possibilities and limitations.

American politics never will be like some movie that has a happy ending. Instead, it is a never-ending story about people trying to learn from their mistakes, to improve their lives and to govern themselves.

History teaches us perspective and patience with our system and with ourselves.

At the beautifully preserved train station near the state capitol last week, an Amish family waited to head back to Shipshewana, Ind., after attending a horse auction at Pennsylvania’s Farm Show complex.

John and his wife Elda (they declined to give their last names) had never ridden on a train before, nor had they ever visited Pennsylvania. They do not own a computer or an iPhone, an iPad or a television. Yet they knew exactly who William Penn was.

“Oh, sure, he was really one of the early founding fathers of this country,” said John, holding his sleeping son. “He laid the groundwork for democracy.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.