billypennstatue_October2014_0091
Joan Brady

Billy Penn 101: 10 things you didn’t know about a Founding Father

We couldn’t have named our new news effort without the guy who overlooks Philadelphia from atop city hall. But who exactly is that guy, William Penn? With the help of John Moretta, author of “William Penn and the Quaker Legacy” and a history professor at the University of Houston, here are 10 cool facts that help tell the life story of our namesake and the state’s founding father.

1. William Penn was not the most famous William Penn in his own family

Our Billy actually was the oldest child of Admiral William Penn. On a whim, the Admiral decided in the 17th century to conquer Jamaica for England, taking the colony from Spain. The king of England got pissed at Penn’s improvisation and threw him in jail, later changing his mind after thinking about the spices for trade (plus beaches and weather) and let him go.

2. He was a brainiac

William Penn’s portrait still hangs at Oxford University. He attended college there the same time as Declaration of Independence-influencer John Locke (They weren’t great friends, though. Locke was 12 years older — even Locke needed a few victory laps to finish his degree). Fun mini-fact: Penn never finished that degree; he was tossed out for dissenting Oxford’s brand of Protestantism. That said, he still had enough time to master French, German, Arabic and Latin.

3. He studied abroad in Paris, where he kicked some dude’s ass

His father thought Penn was way too serious and forced him to take a break from Oxford and travel with his bros in Paris. Out one night, Penn was pulled into a fight by a man who claimed the young scion didn’t greet him properly. The stranger drew his sword. Duel time! Penn drew his own blade, and knocked his opponent’s sword out of his hand. The guy dared Billy to finish the job and kill him. But in front of a crowd that had gathered to watch, Penn withdrew and spared him.

young-penn

4. Nobody expected or wanted him to be a Quaker

Penn returned from Paris exactly as his father wanted — long, flowing hair, suit of armor, speaking French (probably how 20-something Main Liners would have looked and acted in the age of aristocracy). To hell with all that, though. The Admiral asked Penn to quash some rebellions in Ireland. Penn went, but threw Dad and the aristocracy a total curve ball and came back a hated Quaker. In Ireland, he had grown tight with George Fox, the founder of the religion, and liked their pacifism and their lack of politics.

5. He dominated prison

Just like 2Pac, some of Penn’s best work came from behind bars. He was jailed for the first time in 1668 for authoring a book about the Quaker religion. He proceeded to write another Quaker book, his famous “No Cross, No Crown,” IN PRISON. Bad. Ass.

No Cross No Crown

6. The king of England owed his family a ton of money — which is how Pennsylvania happened

King Charles II owed Admiral Penn 16,000 pounds, the equivalent of more than $1 million today. Rather than pay up, Charles II handed Billy a big chunk of the New World. It really wasn’t a bad deal. Penn received what was known as a “sea to sea” charter. He technically could have given our state a beachfront property and made the Pacific Ocean the western border of Pennsylvania (had anyone in that era known there was a West Coast).

7. For most of Penn’s life, money was most certainly not an obstacle

Penn spent gobs of money on world travel, servants and exotic foods. His lifestyle made him unpopular with the Quakers (but probably a pretty good host for house parties) because the members of his chosen religion championed a simple life, and most of them barely had money anyway. In addition to making him a black sheep among his own people, his taste for the finer things landed him a stint in debtor’s prison. Penn died broke in 1718 at the age of 73 — he actually could’ve used every one of those 16,000 pounds.

Penn Head

8. Pennsylvania thrived because Penn hated it here

Penn settled Philadelphia to be an experiment for religious and political freedom…. and then he bailed. After building a plush house on the Delaware River and staying for 18 months in 1682 and 1683, Penn didn’t return to Pennsylvania until 1705. His absence helped the colony, though. The settlers acted like high school students whose parents left town for the weekend, doing whatever they wanted — and it worked! By 1720, Pennsylvania was the wealthiest colony and Philly the most cosmopolitan city partially because Penn couldn’t enforce the rules he set or collect the taxes he was owed.

9. He got along with Native Americans

Rather than steal land from the locals, Penn believed in buying and trading with the Native Americans. He was no saint — Penn had slaves and also befriended the Native Americans to gain access to the lucrative fur trade. The colonists of New York had previously owned the trade business with the Indians, and Penn started wrangling profits away from them. That’s right: From the outset, Philadelphians enjoyed pissing off New Yorkers.

Indians Penn

10. Legend has it Penn smiled only once in his life

Outside of those college shenanigans in Paris, Penn remained a serious dude. Only one historical account tells of Penn smiling. Supposedly a friend told him something positive about the Native Americans. Billy Penn smiled.

×