Top critical review
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Intriguing and very all-encompassing
on September 16, 2007
The biography, William Penn and the Quaker Legacy by John A. Moretta recounts the life of well-known pacifist, Quaker, and creator of Pennsylvania, William Penn. Penn impacted both American and English society by being an outspoken proponent of religious freedom and for reflecting his Quaker ideals in his political decisions. Moretta's biography takes one on a journey through Penn's turbulent political, spiritual, and emotional life.
William Penn was born in 1644, the son of a wealthy English sea captain, and lived a lonely childhood in a home with a father who was rarely present. He was put into both classical and practical schooling, however his true interest was intense reading of the Bible and pondering the Quaker messages of George Fox. As a young boy Penn became enraptured by Quaker practices and much to his father's chagrin, at age 23, he became a devoted follower. While father and son rarely understood each other, the relations his father's status allowed him to develop, like his friendship with King Charles and his brother James, would be how Penn was able to succeed throughout his life.
Penn created a stir in England and Ireland by preaching, debating, and, after being imprisoned, writing pamphlets extolling and validating the Quaker tradition. Some of his main arguments were that one should always live and dress in a plain way, people were naturally good, and that Jesus preached the brotherhood of man, meaning no wars or arms. Penn's family status, money, and his cunning use of words managed to get him out of jail the many times that he was imprisoned by the angry puritans.
As a young man Penn realized Quakers would never be free to worship in England and became fully dedicated to the development of a safe haven for Quakers and all other religious people in the New World. In 1676 Penn began the intense planning and negotiations for the colony which would meet many obstacles in the following decades. The colony was to be built on the idea that all men and women could own land and worship their own religion. While most of Penn's plans did not work out, one of the biggest things he accomplished was a peaceable relation with the Native Americans. Political disputes, personal debt, and constant pressure from the Crown and surrounding colonies kept William and Pennsylvania in a constant state of turmoil, having Pennsylvania's economic prosperity being one of the few things keeping the experiment alive. By 1700 Pennsylvania had become a state of 15,000 people, largely in part to internal emigration by people from other states wanting to worship freely and escape militia duty. Penn died in 1718 at the age of 73 having had two wives, numerous children, and many trials that he overcame using his prestige, support from the Friends, and his intelligence. He left the right to govern Pennsylvania, a state where people of different religions coexisted, with the Crown and gave the land to twelve people in American and England, including his wife.
This book was full of historical detail regarding Penn's life and gave tremendous insight in to William Penn as a person rather than just what he accomplished. Bringing in Penn's attitudes to issues allowed the book to read smoothly and allowed the reader to understand Penn on a deeper level. I particularly enjoyed how Moretta would tie a lot of events back to Penn's relationships with people important to him; his father, mother, wife, children. This put in perspective that Penn was still a human being and not just a machine who was constantly working to accomplish his next great thing. However, occasionally it would quickly skip over key historical events, requiring one to do further research into the time that Penn was living. Also, perhaps to make the book a smooth read, I frequently found myself wondering the date in which something had occurred. Oftentimes I was confused as to whether it was that in one particular year a tremendous number of events occurred or if that the writer was presenting information that spanned over a number of years. Even when I looked back to pages I had already read, this never became clear to me.
In my opinion the book made the key historical developments in Penn's life unclear because it gave a very similar amount of attention to things that seemed to be of varying importance. In that sense I wish the book had been more succinct in clearly elaborating or stating that certain events had a particularly large impact on history or Penn's life. Also, because there was so much detail about trivial events, I found the book could be repetitive and felt that the information could have been condensed.
Moretta's book left me with a deep respect for Penn and appreciation for the fact that he had been a far from perfect person but had still done tremendous good in his life. I was confused regarding certain historical developments that had been glossed over in the book (The Glorious Revolution, the Great Fire of London, the reign of William and Mary) and was curious to research more. In regards to Penn's development of the state of Pennsylvania, I did find myself wondering how much of his endeavor was a desire for religious freedom and how much was a desire to fulfill his need to wander and quest for economic prosperity. William Penn lived a determined life full of a quest for more and attaining a deeper understanding of these has made me have a strong appreciation for his strength to persevere through the tremendous opposition he met along the way.