William Penn: More Than a Picture on an Oatmeal Box


If I mention William Penn, you might say, "The guy with the strange hat, featured on Quaker Oats boxes." Actually the real Penn was more than just a handy advertising model; he was a brilliant thinker and a believer of the maxim, “It’s never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right.”

At a crucial juncture in his young life, Penn could have chosen an action which would have disastrous results. Instead he chose to live out the maxim, “Freedom is not the right to do what I want, but the power to do what I ought.”

William Penn, born in 1644, was the son of a famous British admiral, Sir William Penn. When Admiral Penn died, young William inherited a large fortune; however there also was a debt of £16,000 which King Charles II owed to his father.

William had a brilliant thought. He asked the king if he would be willing to exchange the debt for a piece of land—frontier land for England at the time—west of the Delaware River in what was then called “The New World.”

King Charles agreed, stipulating that the land be called “Penn’s Woods”—or Pennsylvania in Latin—in memory of Admiral Penn.

The king was amazed, however, at William’s plans for the colony. Teasing Penn that the natives might eat him when he arrived, Charles was surprised to hear Penn was going to buy the the land from the Indians.

The monarch replied that the land belonged to him, Charles; the English had discovered it. Penn then asked a strategic question: if a canoe full of Indians crossed the Atlantic and discovered England, would it make England theirs?

Penn wisely did exactly what he said he would do. He bought land from the Indians and for several years after his death, red, white and black people lived harmoniously together in Pennsylvania due to his wise and peaceful influence. In the colony of Pennsylvania—and particularly in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, Penn provided a refuge for people fleeing religious or social persecution. Later, Pennsylvania was the first state to outlaw slavery.

Thomas Jefferson praised Penn as “the greatest lawgiver the world has produced…who has laid the foundation of government in the pure and unadulterated principles of peace, of reason, and right.”

Virtue can be defined as “doing right even when popular opinion condones what is wrong.” It would have been easy for young William to demand land from the Indians. His contemporaries expected it. However, he chose virtue, going against the tide of popular opinion. And he made the difference for generations who followed.

What about you? Any comments on doing the right thing?