Pennsylvania Politics and the Growth of Democracy: 1740- 1776

By Theodore Thayer | Go to book overview

PREFACE

B Y ROYAL CHARTER William Penn became the governor and proprietor of Pennsylvania. William Penn, in turn, gave the people of Pennsylvania their Charter of Liberties by which, in 1701, a unicameral legislature was established with powers greater than were found in any Royal or proprietary colony in America.

William Penn, however, soon discovered that his generosity was quite unappreciated. Pennsylvania Quakers looked upon his concessions as no more than their natural rights as freeborn Englishmen. Still more surprising was the fact that many of them saw fit to criticize him for not relinquishing more of his governing powers to the colony. Thus the stage was set at an early date for Pennsylvania's struggle to undermine the Proprietors and to throw all the powers of government into the hands of the legislative Assembly.

Although the struggle for political power in England between the Crown and the dominant groups in the House of Commons had already been won by the latter, similar contests at the dawn of the Eighteenth Century in the American colonies were in but their initial stages. The contests in America, however, were as inevitable as the one that had shaken England. There the landowners, nobility and gentry, had clashed with the absolutist, divine right tendencies of the monarchy, and had triumphed. In America, the struggle took the character of a union of town merchant and freehold farmer or planter pitted against proprietors or Crown governors and their satellites.

The controversy between the legislative Assembly and the Proprietors in Pennsylvania moved into high gear after 1740, when Thomas Penn, a grasping, stubborn and determined man, became the principal proprietor. The long struggle which ensued was made exceptionally intense by the fact that Thomas Penn, unlike the Crown, was free to devote his undivided attention to the problem of governing a single colony. Obsessed by the fear that any concession to the province might jeopardize the proprietary interests, he laid his deputy governors under the strictest instructions, thus allowing the Assembly no choice but to bow to his will or forego legislation of the greatest importance. But in the final stages of the struggle the determination of Thomas Penn to be the master of his colony was more than matched by the resourcefulness of Benjamin Franklin, who as leader of the Quaker or Popular party had, by 1764, completely broken the power of the Penns.

-iii-

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