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When Penn left the province in 1684, he expected to return speedily, but he did not see that pleasant land again until 1699. The fifteen intervening years were filled with contention, anxiety, misfortune, and various distresses.

In the winter of 1684-85, Charles ii. died, and the Duke of York, his brother, succeeded him as James ii. And James was the patron and good friend of William Penn. But the king was a Roman Catholic. One of his first acts upon coming to the throne was to go publicly to mass. He was privately resolved upon making the Roman Church supreme in England. Penn was stoutly opposed to the king’s religion. In his “Seasonable Caveat against Popery,” as well as in his other writings, he had expressed his dislike with characteristic frankness. That he had himself been accused of being a Jesuit had naturally impelled him to use the strongest language to belie the accusation. Nevertheless, William Penn stood by the king. He sought and kept the position of favorite and agent of the court. He upheld, and so far as he could, assisted, the projects of a reign which, had it continued, would probably have contradicted his most cherished principles, abolished liberty of conscience, and made an end of Quakers.

This perplexing inconsistency, which is the only serious blot on Penn’s fair fame, appears to have been the result of two convictions.

He was sure, in the first place, of the honesty of the king; he believed in him with all his heart. James had been true to the trust reposed in him by William’s father. He had befriended William, taking him out of prison, increasing his estates, granting his petitions. “Anybody,” said Penn, “that has the least pretense to good-nature, gratitude, or generosity, must needs know how to interpret my access to the king.” With his advance to the crown James’s graciousness had increased. He kept great lords waiting without while he conversed at leisure with the Quaker. He liked Penn, and Penn liked him. In spite of the disparities in their age, rank, and creed, William Penn and James Stuart were fast friends, united by the bond of genuine affection.

It was characteristic of Penn to be blind to the faults of his friends. He brought great troubles both upon himself and upon his colony by his refusal to believe the reports which were made to him against the character of men whom he had appointed to office: he was unwilling to believe evil of any man. He fell into bankruptcy, and even into a debtor’s prison, by his blind, unquestioning confidence in the agent who managed his business. His faith in James was of a piece with his whole character. He appears to have been temperamentally incapable of perceiving the unworthiness of anybody whom he liked.

Together with this conviction as to the king’s honesty, and bound up with it, was a like belief in the wisdom of the king’s plan. The king’s plan was to remove all disabilities arising from religion. He purposed not only to put an end to the laws under which honest men were kept in prison, but to abolish the “tests” which prevented a Roman Catholic from holding office. And, without tarrying for the action of a cautious Parliament, his intention was to do these things at once by a declaration of the royal will. All this was approved by William Penn.

That the laws which disturbed Protestant dissenters should be changed, he argued at length in a pamphlet entitled “A Persuasion to Moderation.” Moderation, as he defined it, meant “liberty of conscience to church dissenters;” a cause which, with all humility, he said, he had undertaken to plead against the prejudices of the times. He maintained that toleration was not only a right inherent in religion, but that it was for the political and commercial good of the nation. Repression and persecution, he said, drive men into conspiracies. The importing of religious distinctions into the affairs of state deprives the country of the services of some of its best men. His father, upon the occasion of the first Dutch war, had submitted to the king a list of the ablest sea officers in the kingdom. The striking of the names of nonconformists from this list had “robbed the king at that time of ten men, whose greater knowledge and valour, than any other ten of that fleet, had, in their room, been able to have saved a battle, or perfected a victory.” As for a declaration of indulgence, Penn deemed it “the sovereign remedy of the English constitution.”

That the “tests” should be removed, he urged on James’s behalf upon William of Orange, to whom he went in Holland on an informal commission from the king. William, by his marriage with James’s daughter, was heir apparent to the throne of England, and his consent was necessary to any serious change of national policy. He insisted on the tests. Theoretically, Penn was right. The ideal state imposes no religious tests; every good citizen, no matter what his private creed may be, is eligible to any office. Practically, Penn was wrong, as William of Orange plainly saw. That prince, as appeared afterwards, was as zealous for religious freedom as was Penn himself; but it was plain to him that as matters stood at that time in England, it was necessary to enforce the tests in order to prevent the rise of an ecclesiastical party whose supremacy would endanger all that Penn desired. Penn, with his stout faith in the king, could not see it. There were times, indeed, when he was perplexed and troubled. “The Lord keep us in this dark day!” he wrote to his steward at Pennsbury. “Be wise, close, respectful to superiors. The king has discharged all Friends by a general pardon, and is courteous, though as to the Church of England, things seem pinching. Several Roman Catholics got much into places in the army, navy, court.” Nevertheless, the king’s plan, as he understood it, gave assurance of liberty of conscience, and the end of persecution for opinion’s sake; and he supported the king.

Under these conditions, misled by friendship, seeing, but not perceiving, Penn persuaded himself that he could excellently serve God and his neighbors by becoming a courtier. He took a house in London, within easy distance of Whitehall, and visited the king daily. A great many people therefore visited Penn daily; sometimes as many as two hundred were waiting to confer with him. They desired that he would do this or that for their good with the king. Most of them were Quakers; many were in need of pardon, or were burdened by some oppression.

For example, Sir Robert Stuart of Coltness had been in exile as a Presbyterian, and on his return found his lands in the possession of the Earl of Arran. He brought his case to Penn. Penn went to Arran. “What is this, friend James, that I hear of thee?” he said. “Thou hast taken possession of Coltness’s castle. Thou knowest that it is not thine.” “That estate,” Arran explained, “I paid a great price for. I received no other reward for my expensive and troublesome embassy to France, except this estate.” “All very well, friend James,” said Penn, “but of this assure thyself, that if thou dost not give me this moment an order on thy chamberlain for two hundred pounds to Coltness to carry him down to his native country, and a hundred a year to subsist on till matters are adjusted, I will make it as many thousands out of thy way with the king.” Arran complied immediately.

Again, one day after dinner, as they were drinking a glass of wine together, one of Penn’s clients said, “I can tell you how you can prolong my life.” “I am no physician,” answered William, “but prithee tell me what thou meanest.” The client replied that a good friend of his, Jack Trenchard, was in exile, and “if you,” he said, “could get him leave to come home with safety and honour, the drinking now and then a bottle with Jack Trenchard would make me so cheerful that it would prolong my life.” Penn smilingly promised to do what he could, and in a month the two friends were drinking his good health.

This was the kind of business which he transacted. He had found a way to be of eminent service to his neighbors, and especially to his Quaker brethren, and he made the most of the opportunity. There is no evidence that he departed from the disinterested life which he had previously lived. He attended the court of King James, as he had undertaken the settlement of Pennsylvania, not for what he could get out of it, but for the good he could do by means of it. What he did, he tells us, was upon a “principle of charity.” “I never accepted any commission,” he says, “but that of a free and common solicitor for sufferers of all sorts and in all parties.” Neither is there any instance of his asking anything to increase his own estate or position.

Indeed, he was losing money; for the expenses of life at court were great. Worse still, he was losing his good name. His Quaker friends found him hard to understand. It was true that he had cast in his lot with them, and had suffered for their cause, he was their great theologian and preacher; but he seemed, nevertheless, to be still a cavalier and a worldly person. They heard though there was no truth in the report that he had set up a military company in Pennsylvania. They saw with their own eyes that he lived in a style which must have seemed to them altogether inconsistent with simplicity, and that he consorted with courtiers. And they did not like it, they said so frankly.

As for enemies, the king’s favorite had many, inevitably. The lords who waited in the antechamber while Penn was closeted with James did not look pleasantly at him when he came out. The stout Protestants, who hated the king’s ways, and suspected the king’s designs, could not easily think well of one who was so closely in his counsels. One of Penn’s friends told him what these people said of him: “Your post is too considerable for a Papist of an ordinary form, and therefore you must be a Jesuit; nay, to confirm that suggestion, it must be accompanied with all the circumstances that may best give it an air of probability, as that you have been bred at St. Omer’s in the Jesuit College; that you have taken orders at Rome, and there obtained a dispensation to marry; and that you have since then frequently officiated as a priest in the celebration of the mass, at Whitehall, St. James’s, and other places.” It seems absurd enough to us, but many intelligent persons, even Archbishop Tillotson of Canterbury, believed it. The detail of St. Omer came, probably, from a confusion of the name with Saumur. The other suspicions grew out of Penn’s place in the favor of the king.

It seemed as if nothing could prejudice the king’s matters in the eyes of Penn. Monmouth’s rebellion came, and the king’s revenge followed. Judge Jeffreys went on his bloody circuit. “About three hundred hanged,” Penn wrote, “in divers towns of the west; about one thousand to be transported. I begged twenty of the king.” It was all bad, and one regrets to find Penn concerned in it. Still, his twenty probably fared better than their neighbors. It is likely that he sent them to be colonists in Pennsylvania.

In the matter of the maids of Taunton, William seems clearly to have had no part. A company of little schoolgirls, led by their teacher, had marched in procession to celebrate the landing of Monmouth. For this offense their parents were heavily fined, and the fines were given to the queen’s maids of honor. These ladies wrote to a “Mr. Penne” to get him to collect them. Macaulay thought that this pardon-broker was William Penn. It is flagrantly inconsistent with his character, and he has been adequately vindicated by various writers. The agent in this case was probably George Penne, a person in that business.

Penn’s course is not so clear in the matter of the presidency of Magdalen College. One of the steps in James’s plan to change the religion of England was to get a foothold for teachers of his faith at the universities. He intended to capture Oxford and Cambridge. He had so far succeeded at Oxford as to get possession of Christ Church and University College, and, the presidency of Magdalen falling vacant, he ordered the fellows to elect a man of his own choice. The fellows refused to obey the order, thereupon Penn, who had at first taken their part with the king, advised them to surrender. “Mr. Penn,” said Dr. Hough, representing the fellows, “in this I will be plain with you. We have our statutes and oaths to justify us in all that we have done hitherto; but, setting this aside, we have a religion to defend, and I suppose yourself would think us knaves if we would tamely give it up. The Papists have already gotten Christ Church and University; the present struggle is for Magdalen; and in a short time they threaten they will have the rest.”

To this Penn replied with vehemence: “That they shall never have, assure yourselves; if once they proceed so far they will quickly find themselves destitute of their present assistance. For my part, I have always declared my opinion that the preferments of the Church should not be put into any other hands but such as they are at present in; but I hope you would not have the two universities such invincible bulwarks for the Church of England, that none but they must be capable of giving their children a learned education. I suppose two or three colleges will content the Papists.” Finally, the king’s men broke down the doors, turned out the professors and students, and gave the king his way. Penn was thus the agent of tyranny; but he was an innocent agent. He made a bad blunder; but he made it honestly and ignorantly. It was in accord with his democratic ideas that the universities should be places of instruction for all the people; he would have liked to see not only the Roman Catholics, but all the great divisions of religion in England represented there. And that fine idea misled him. To hold him guilty, here or elsewhere, of malice or hypocrisy, is to misread his character. He was simply mistaken, mistaken in the king, mistaken in the application of his own principles.

Meanwhile, the nation at large was making no mistake. The people saw James as he was, and detected his designs upon the liberties of England. At last, in April, 1688, he issued a Declaration of Indulgence. He added insult to injury by ordering that it should be read in every church in the realm. The seven bishops who protested were sent to the Tower. Then the end came with speed. William of Orange was invited into England. The nation welcomed him with acclamations. James fled before him into France, where he lived the remainder of an inglorious life.

This was a hard change for William Penn, and he seems to have done nothing to make it easier. There were courtiers who passed with incredible swiftness from one allegiance to the other; he was not among them. Others fled to France, but he stayed. He was arrested. In his examination before the Privy Council he declared that he “had done nothing but what he could answer for before God and all the princes in the world; that he loved his country and the Protestant religion above his life, and had never acted against either; that all he had ever aimed at in his public endeavors was none other than what the king had declared for [religious liberty]; that King James had always been his friend, and his father’s friend, and that in gratitude he himself was the king’s, and did ever, as much as in him lay, influence him to his true interest.” Penn was released.

The new king began his reign with the Toleration Act, which Parliament passed in 1688, and from which dates the establishment of actual and abiding religious liberty in England. Thus Penn’s great purpose was accomplished by one with whom he was not in accord. Sometimes a political party adopts the projects for which its opponents have long labored, and carries them out even more vigorously than they had been planned originally. The initial reformers are glad that their ideals have been realized, but their zeal must be uncommonly impersonal if the success brings them quite so much joy as it logically ought. It is not likely that the Toleration Act filled the soul of William Penn with great jubilation. Indeed, we know that he insisted to the end of his life that James, if he had been let alone, would have done all that William did, and more too, and better.

The years which followed were full of trouble. Macaulay says that in 1689 Penn was plotting against the government; but the evidence does not suffice to establish the fact. The Privy Council, in 1690, confronted Penn with an intercepted letter to him from James, asking for help. But, as Penn said, he could not hinder the king from writing to him. He added, however, with characteristic boldness, that since he had loved King James in his prosperity he should not hate him in his adversity. He was again discharged.

In that same year, however, James invaded Ireland, and the situation of his friends in England was thereby made increasingly difficult. Penn was arrested with others, and in prison awaited trial for several months. The result was as before, he was found in no offense. But before a month had passed, he learned that another warrant was out against his liberty. Officers went to take him at the funeral of George Fox, but arrived too late. By this time he had concluded that the path of prudence was that which led into a wise retirement. He hid himself for the space of three years. He was publicly proclaimed a traitor, and was deprived of the government of his colony. He was “hunted up and down,” he says, “and could never be allowed to live quietly in city or country.”

Finally, the government were persuaded either that Penn was innocent, or that no further danger was to be apprehended from him, and several noblemen, interceding with the king, procured his pardon. They represented his case, he says, as not only hard, but oppressive, there being no evidence but what “impostors, or those that fled, or that have since their pardon refused to verify (and asked me pardon for saying what they did) alleged against me.” The king announced that Penn was his old acquaintance, and that he might follow his business as freely as ever, and that for his part he had nothing to say to him.

Thus again, and at last, the political accusations against William Penn came to nothing. He had been in a hard position as the faithful friend of a dethroned monarch in a day when conspiracies were being made on every hand. That he should have been suspected of treason was inevitable. That in his unconcealed affection for James and disapproval of William he said imprudent things is likely enough. Prudence was not one of his virtues. He was never calculatingly careful of his own welfare. But that he was ever untrue to William, or did any act, or consented to any, which could reasonably be called treacherous, is not only quite unproved, but is out of accord with the true William Penn as he is revealed in his writings and in all his life. The only fault which has been clearly established against him is that of liking James better than he liked William. He was a stanch friend to his friend; that is the sum of his offending, wherein the only serious regret is that his friend was not more worthy of his steadfast and unselfish friendship. “At no time in his life,” says Mr. Fiske, “does he seem more honest, brave, and lovable, than during the years, so full of trouble for him, that intervened between the accession of James and the accession of Anne.”