As we approach the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, many may be curious about William Penn's attitude toward slavery. Unfortunately I have to report that, for his time, it was just slightly above average.
Penn was a slaveowner, like many of his fellow Quakers of the time. Historian Douglas Harper of Lancaster County says Penn preferred slaves to indentured servants, because the slaves could be kept for a lifetime. He quotes Penn to that effect. (Harper's online paper "Slavery In The North" is, by the way, a must-read for northerners, including Pennsylvanians, who think we are superior to those slave-owning southerners. Slavery did not legally end in Pennsylvania until 1845, and there were some nasty vicissitudes along the way.)
So, what made the state's founder a slight cut above the rest--at least in my opinion? First, when he was preparing to return to England, he freed the slaves at his Pennsbury estate. Second, and perhaps even more important, he persuaded Pennsylvania's provincial government to pass a law forbidding the breaking up of slave families through sales to various masters.
William Penn was a very great man, and is not to be blamed for lacking our more advanced ideas about race and rights. Perhaps we ought to look into the mirror and ask ourselves why we are not living up to the advanced ideas people like Penn helped us evolve. These ideas did not come to us from nowhere. We should, I think, question why we have not yet turned them into realities.