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Canceling William Penn

The founder of Pennsylvania championed American ideals—a fact that some apparently cannot forgive

A statue of William Penn stands at Welcome Park in Philadelphia, Pa. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke

Canceling William Penn
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Emblematic of our times, the National Park Service announced and then retracted the removal of a William Penn statue from Welcome Park in Philadelphia, Pa.. The proposed “rehabilitation” of the park would have deleted Pennsylvania’s Quaker founder in favor of “expanded interpretation of the Native American history of Philadelphia, in consultation with representatives of the Indigenous nations of the Haudenosaunee, the Delaware Nation, Delaware Tribe of Indians, the Shawnee Tribe, and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.”

A model of Penn’s home in the park, which originally sat on the site, was also to be removed, as were exhibit panels illustrating the timeline of Penn’s momentous and admirable life.

Kudos to the Park Service for correcting itself after a few days, but why was the cancelling of Penn, the embodiment of welcome and peaceful coexistence, even contemplated?

In William Hackett Fisher’s famous 1989 book, Albion’s Seed, he proposed that America was shaped by four British “folks ways:” the Congregationalist Puritans who settled New England, the Anglican Cavaliers who settled the South, the Presbyterian Scots-Irish who settled the back country, and the Quakers who settled Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic. No single leader incarnated the Puritan, Cavalier, and Scots-Irish migration folk ways the way that Penn incarnated Quakerism, with ongoing impact today.

Penn famously abjured war, rejected conquest in place of harmony with the native tribes, and established religious freedom in Pennsylvania. Of all early American personalities, he should be safe from assault by the radical deconstructionists. But for too many, any European Christian is an oppressor who must be deleted.

Ostensibly, removing Penn would have offered a more “welcoming, accurate, and inclusive experience for visitors,” according to the original Park Service announcement. The updated Park Service news release simply declared without explanation that the “preliminary draft proposal, which was released prematurely and had not been subject to a complete internal agency review, is being retracted. No changes to the William Penn statue are planned.”

The Penn statue’s proposed removal had sparked criticism from, among others, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, who, protective of the man for whom his state is named, tweeted: “My team has been in contact with the Biden Administration throughout the day to correct this decision. I’m pleased Welcome Park will remain the rightful home of this William Penn statue—right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Penn founded.”  

No wonder that such lofty sentiments should be resented in our current age when grievance, entitlement, and self-righteousness are the prevailing fads.

Welcome Park, according to the Park Service, is to be renovated in time for America’s 250th anniversary in 2026. We can pray this celebration will revive American spirit and patriotism. But just as likely it will provoke many anti-American deconstructionists who think America is only an experiment in imperialism and oppression. Welcome Park, named for Penn’s ship that brought him to America, by its very existence, rebuts the critical theorists who only want to apologize for America.

Penn was a wealthy man in England in the 1600s, the heir to his father, who had served as an admiral. But Penn was impressed by the faith of the persecuted Quakers and eventually adopted their faith, for which he was imprisoned. His father secured him access to the king, through which Penn obtained the massive land grant that became Pennsylvania. Penn established the colony as a “holy experiment,” where the religiously persecuted from throughout Europe would be welcomed.

Penn’s 1684 farewell speech to Philadelphia, which is more of a prayer, is inscribed on his statue:

O that thou may be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee, that faithful to the God of thy mercies, in the life of righteousness, thou mayest be preserved to the end. My soul prays to God for thee, that thou mayest stand in thy day of trial, that thy children may be blessed of the Lord, and thy people saved by his power. My love to thee has been great, and the remembrance of thee affects mine heart and mine eye. The God of eternal strength keep and preserve thee to his glory and thy peace.

What a beautiful tribute that is instructive for all Americans who pray for a better country, that we might all “stand in thy day of trial.” No wonder that such lofty sentiments should be resented in our current age when grievance, entitlement, and self-righteousness are the prevailing fads. Such smugness means cancelling even Penn.

Penn was famous for mostly good relations with the native tribes, notably his treaty with and land purchase from the Lenape, who had continued travel and hunting access to the lands they sold. A famous Benjamin West painting commemorates Penn’s treaty, as does a frieze inside the U.S. Capitol dome. Reputedly even Voltaire in France called Penn’s accomplishment “the only treaty never sworn to and never broken.”

The pushback against cancelling Penn offers some hope that Penn’s ideals, which are America’s ideals, might—even in the face of great adversity—endure.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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