“the most famous of all colonial constitutions” — Pennsylvania State Quarter Coin

Today, the Pennsylvania State Quarter Coin remembers when William Penn gave his colonists their Charter of Privileges on October 28, 1701.

From Remember William Penn, 1644-1944, A Tercentenary Memorial – Pennsylvania, by the William Penn Tercentenary Committee, published in1945:


To understand the significance of the constitution which William Penn and the legislature were formulating with such great care, it is well to look back over the troubled constitutional history of the province.

In the two decades following the Charter in which King Charles conferred the power to make laws for Pennsylvania upon William Penn, subject to the advice and consent of a representative Assembly, the Province had no less than four written Constitutions, called Frames of Government or Charters.

The First Frame of Government, of May 5, 1682, was issued by the Proprietor in England.

It remained in effect less than a year, being replaced by the Second Frame of Government on April 2, 1683. This was suspended in 1693, when Penn was deprived of his Province.

Pennsylvania was governed as a royal province for a year, under Governor Fletcher of New York.

After Penn’s restoration, the Second Frame was put into force for a time. Then, doubts arose as to its legality, and Governor Markham resumed Fletcher’s pattern of government until he and the Assembly agreed upon a Third Frame, known as Markham’s Frame of Government, on November 7, 1696.

When William Penn returned to his colony late in 1699, he immediately began to plan a final settlement of constitutional difficulties.

The result was the Charter of Privileges, adopted on October 28, 1701. This the last Constitution of provincial Pennsylvania remained in effect until the American Revolution, longer than any other Constitution of Pennsylvania down to the present time.

“This CHARTER of PRIVILEGES being distinctly read in Assembly, and the Whole and every Part thereof being approved of and agreed to by us, we do thankfully receive the same from our Proprietary and Governor, at Philadelphia, this Twenty-eighth Day of October, One Thousand Seven Hundred and One. Signed on Behalf, and by Order of the Assembly, per Joseph Growdon, Speaker.”

This Charter has been called “the most famous of all colonial constitutions, because it contained in its provisions many of the most important features of all workable written constitutions.”

The Assembly received full legislative power, while the Council survived only as a group of advisers to the Governor.

The way was left clear for Delaware to set up a separate legislature, if her representatives so desired; and this was done in 1704.

William Penn had relinquished such a great portion of his powers that “except in the appointment of the governor, proprietary rule in Pennsylvania, as far as administration was concerned, virtually came to an end then and there.”

Penn had good reason to believe that the government of his province was now on a sound and lasting basis.

After chartering the city of Philadelphia, and appointing Andrew Hamilton to be Lieutenant Governor, he set out for England, landing at Portsmouth in December.

In England, his last years were troubled by financial difficulties, which ruined his hope of a speedy return to Pennsylvania.

He had incurred great expense in establishing the colony, and even in maintaining it, for the Assembly was none too cooperative in paying the costs of government.

The dishonesty of a trusted employee, who had falsified accounts and tricked William Penn into mortgaging the province, led to a troublesome lawsuit. He had to spend nine months in a debtors’ prison in 1708.

Though his friends advanced money to pay his creditors, he was never in a position to return to his beloved colony.

With all these troubles, his constant care for the welfare and protection of his colony was unabated.

His clear vision in this regard is well demonstrated in a letter of May 22, 1709, to the Duke of Marlborough, Britain’s leader in the war then raging with France.

If his advice had been heeded, all the long succession of colonial wars with the French and Indians would have been averted.

Despite William Penn’s hopes and pleas for an end to political bickering in Pennsylvania, the disputes continued between the Assembly and the deputy governors, and between the party favoring his rule and the party against it, until a popular reaction in the year 1710 swept all his opponents out of the legislature.

A few passages in a mournful letter which he wrote, before this electoral “upset,” shows his gloom and disappointment at the course which his province was taking.

After this letter, it is pleasing to reflect that there was harmony in the province during the last three years of William Penn’s participation in Pennsylvania affairs.

However, the financial burden was great, and fearing lest the colony might some day pass into the wrong hands, he began negotiations to sell it to the Crown.

In this he took every precaution to assure the rights and privileges of the people, so that— even as a royal province—the holy experiment which he had begun might continue.

His pathetic hope to see Pennsylvania again before his death was not fulfilled, nor was the sale of his province completed.

Two months before this letter, he had felt the first stroke of paralysis. The second, in October, virtually cut him off from life and shut him away from the affairs of the world.

He could not execute the papers necessary to transfer the province to the Queen, and Pennsylvania therefore remained in the possession of his heirs until the American Revolution.

The founding of Pennsylvania, and of New Jersey and Delaware, had far-reaching consequences which have been expressed most clearly by a British writer:

“William Penn received his grant and charter by the fervent good will of Charles and James. That grant and charter lie at the root of all later western expansion of English speech and custom over what was later to be called the United States. . . .

“The pioneers who gradually extended the influences of the eastern seaboard into the interior, and so built up what was to become the United States, were of every kind and origin . . . but the door through which all had to pass, the political society which determined the western movement, was … that of the broad, wise, and just William Penn: the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania, and bequeathed his spirit to his followers.”


The Pennsylvania State Quarter Coin shows with an artist’s image of William Penn late in life.

Pennsylvania State Quarter Coin