Our Forgotten Founder

Salena Zito

1/23/2011 12:01:00 AM - Salena Zito

HARRISBURG – A statesman, Harry Truman once remarked, “is a dead politician.”

True, perhaps, for some cases but not for one of Pennsylvania’s political figures.

“William Penn, isn’t he the Quaker Oats guy?” asked Chris Sulpizio, 32, a native of suburban Philadelphia. Sulpizio also not-so-fondly remembered that “the curse of Billy Penn” caused Philly sports teams never to win championship games.

The curse supposedly began when a Philadelphia skyscraper exceeded the height of Penn's statue atop City Hall. It ended in 2007 when ironworkers placed a tiny statue of Penn on the top beam of the Comcast Center, now the city’s tallest building; a year later, the Phillies won the World Series.

Last Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett used Penn's 1698 family Bible when he was sworn-in here as the commonwealth’s 46th governor. State archivist David Haury accompanied the rare artifact to the inaugural.

Haury said he hopes that, starting in March, people will come to appreciate not only the Bible (on loan to the State Museum from the Pennsylvania Historical Society) but also the land grant from England’s King Charles II which gave Penn ownership of the then-colony.

“The entire scheme of the land grant was to sell off big chunks of it and make money,” Haury recalled.

Penn is not the Quaker Oats icon, although he was a Quaker. And he did not cause Philly’s sports teams to lose championships; they achieved that all by themselves.

So who was the man who barely lived in the colony he owned, and why should we care today?

The characters who founded this country, including the Constitution’s framers, were not perfect. They were tenacious, resilient, savvy men who understood human nature and the nature of politics.

Born into moderate wealth, Penn was a bit of an agitator to his father, whom he declined to follow into the British admiralty. He deplored the religious oppression of Quakers and other non-Anglicans, said Robert Maranto, a University of Arkansas political science professor.

“Eventually, against enormous pressure from his family and at great risk, he became a Quaker and, through his father's influence, secured what became Pennsylvania, which he made a relatively peaceful, tolerant colony open to dissenters,” Maranto says.

Way ahead of his time, Penn outlined a social order for his colony that was pretty close to what became the framework of the nation’s founders nearly 80 years later. Power was derived from the people in much the same way as a Quaker meeting was run; two houses of government protected private property and imposed taxes fairly.

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.”