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William Penn’s Townships, the “Cheshire Friends” and the Shape of Community in America

From: Quaker History
Volume 101, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 24-56 | 10.1353/qkh.2012.0012

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The farm country of colonial Pennsylvania seems to have been unusually well suited to the nurturing of a pluralistic, democratic society. As James Lemon observed in his classic study of social geography, Penn’s young colony rapidly emerged as “the best poor man’s country.” It had few large plantations in the seventeenth century, and few incorporated towns. Outside of Philadelphia, the countryside was characterized by mile after mile of relatively small, individually-owned family farms. The typical unit of local government was a rural township made up of ten to twenty families of more or less equal means. Because there was no dominant landowner, and no established church to serve as a center of power, these families had unusual freedom to shape their own communities as they wished. With its “conservative defense of liberal individualism, its population of mixed national and religious origins, its dispersed farms, county seats, and farm service villages,” Lemon notes, it was “the prototype of North American development.”1 Alan Tully, a few years later, extolled the “open, pluralistic community structure” of Pennsylvania, as both “flexible enough to accommodate the fluidity of a dynamic society, and cohesive enough to produce the type of community life that would satisfy the deep-felt needs of provincial residents.”2 There was a rising tide of individualism taking root in America, both Tully and Lemon conclude, as expressed in the open, flexible, community-fostering Pennsylvania landscape.

William Penn’s governmental policies certainly deserve part of the credit. Guarantees of basic civil liberties, including freedom of religion, encouraged pluralism and diversity. Generally amicable relations with Native Americans facilitated orderly and steady expansion of the colony. Encouragement of mercantile activity fostered economic growth. The role of William Penn’s land policies is less well understood. His “method of townships” in particular provided a framework for local community that would prove both enduring and effective in promoting self-governance.

Historians have long known that a system of townships was established in Pennsylvania during the first six months of settlement, but scholars have had difficulty studying it because of a surprising lack of documentation.3 If Penn ever fully described his method of townships for Pennsylvania, his description has been lost. Nevertheless, it can be resurrected with a fair degree of confidence by teasing out data from surviving correspondence, voluminous if incomplete survey records, and information that has been collected about Penn’s First Purchasers.

Such a reconstruction strongly suggests that the system of townships was, in fact, an intentional expression of Quaker community, in much the same way that New England villages were an expression of the Puritan understanding of social order. With its open landscape of individual farms and decentralized community structures it embodied the unusual individualistic corporatism that was characteristic of Quakerism in the seventeenth century.

William Penn’s Vision

Penn saw his colony from the first as a divinely appointed opportunity to establish Christian community.4 He had been among the most articulate defenders of Quakerism from the time of his conversion in 1667 at the age of 23, and he conceived Pennsylvania at least in part as a Holy Experiment in organizing society within a Quaker framework. He was thoroughly convinced of the importance of community control to curb individual excesses. His defense of George Fox in the wake of the Perrot and Wilkinson-Story controversies in the 1670s emphasized the idea that a measure of community control was necessary, to curb the excesses brought on by individual enthusiasm. God’s authority, he argued, “always descended on a community, not an individual.”5

By the time he founded Pennsylvania, William Penn had already had the opportunity to experiment in establishing Quaker community in West Jersey, beginning in 1675, as one of three Quaker trustees for the bankrupt Edward Byllynge. He played an active role in devising the frame of government for West Jersey, and in 1677 helped oversee settlement of the “London Tenth” (later Burlington), when a shipload of 230 Quakers, mostly from the south of England, arrived to take up their land. There were ten shares in the London Tenth of West Jersey, each estimated to be equal to about 20,000 acres. When the shares were...

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