There may be room there for such a Holy Experiment,
For the nations want a precedent and my God will make it the Seed of a Nation,
That an example may be set up to the nations,
That we may do the thing that is truly wise and just.
William Penn (1681)
What was that example William Penn wanted the world to see? Was it principles of religious liberty, civil equality, representative government, and justice through law? These were foundational in Penn’s conception of government. Even Thomas Jefferson affirmed Penn, reminding the nation in an 1825 tribute, saying,
“William Penn was the greatest lawgiver the world has produced, being the first, in either ancient or modern times who has laid the foundation of government in the pure and unadulterated principles of peace, reason, and right.”
Penn established his “City of Brotherly Love” a century before the American Revolution, before there was the thought of an independent American nation, and before men like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington took their place in our minds as America’s Founding Fathers. However, in Penn’s mind the success of this nation was much more.
When he said, “the nations want a precedent” he grasped the story of humanity in ancient and modern times where governmental authorities justified abuse and bloodshed in the name of religion order to establish themselves. It was also a time in history where society hadn’t found reason to accommodate difference, much like our times. Penn hoped his experiment in government would reverse this trajectory, where love bring people together. The beauty of his story is how he authenticated his hopes through his relationship with Pennsylvania’s indigenous population.
The Seed of a Nation is this story, its short-lived success, its essential failure and its incredible hope reaching out to us today.
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