- Walt Whitman
By Michael Quay
Some years ago, while traveling in Europe, I boarded a boat on the Belgian coast and headed across the North Sea to visit England. Within an hour the small ship was caught in a storm and I spent much of the night holding on to a post on the deck watching the queue of other ships waiting their turn to enter the safety of the ports of Dover. It was one tremendous swirl of black storms filled with wind, rain, thunder and giant waves - It was, now that I think of it, one of the best nights of my life.
After boarding a train in Dover late that night, I made my way to London, flopped exhausted in the hotel bed, and awoke the next morning to dutifully trudge my way through the streets of one of the greatest cities in the world. I had no sooner crossed a busy intersection when I found myself standing directly in front of a small Tudor style house. There was a tarnished plaque embedded in the wall, it read: Here stands the birthplace of William Penn, Founder of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the United States of America .
I had never given "Billy Penn" much thought until then. I conjured some vague image of the guy from the Quaker Oats box and stepped inside the creaky looking house. It smelled of old paper and wood. Under protective glass, were various documents and maps from the 17th century regarding what was to become 'Pennsylvania.' There was one map that caught my eye. It was a surveyor's map of the waterways discovered in the eastern part of the new province. With my index finger I traced the delicate lines along the Delaware River, then north-west up the Schuylkill, until it came to the yet un-named smaller rivers and creeks that I immediately recognized. "There are the French and Pickering creeks," I said out loud. There was no one else in the room.
I suppose it was really no big deal. But here I was on the other side of the world, and I just happen to come upon a little house with maps that laid out the landscape of my home back in America; it was a realization of how small the world really is. On the visitor's display table were some historical documents...
During the late 17th century, when Protestants persecuted Catholics, Catholics bashed the Protestants, and everybody hated the Jews and Quakers, Penn established an American sanctuary which protected freedom of conscience. Almost everywhere else, colonists stole land from the native people, but Penn traveled unarmed among the Indians and negotiated peaceful purchases. He insisted that women deserved equal rights with men. He gave Pennsylvania a written constitution which limited the power of government, provided a humane penal code, and guaranteed many fundamental liberties.
For the first time in modern history, a large society offered equal rights to people of different races and religions. Penn's dramatic example caused quite a stir in Europe. The French philosopher Voltaire, a champion of religious toleration, offered lavish praise. "William Penn might, with reason, boast of having brought down upon earth the Golden Age, which in all probability, never had any real existence but in his dominions."
Penn was the only person who made major contributions to individual liberty in both the New World and the Old World. Before he conceived the idea of Pennsylvania, he became the leading defender of religious toleration in England. He was imprisoned six times for speaking out against intolerance. While in prison, he wrote one pamphlet after another, which gave Quakers a voice in the press. He alone proved capable of challenging oppressive government policies in court - one of his cases helped secure the right to trial by jury. Penn used his diplomatic skills to get large numbers of Quakers out of jail and safe to Pennsylvania. He saved many from the certain death.
I wondered about what I had just read. I couldn't think of a single American political or religious leader back home who would even consider spending a single night in jail for conscience's sake. Where are all the heroes now?
It was no coincidence that the American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Quaker Philadelphia, or that our young nation's Bill of Rights was modeled after the Quaker-drafted constitution of Rhode Island. The Liberty Bell itself, which rang to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, was originally the Great Quaker Bell, purchased by the Pennsylvania Assembly long before the American Revolution. "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" was inscribed on the bell by Quakers long before freedom was proclaimed to be the right of all Americans.
Former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin said that "the Quakers possessed a set of attitudes which fit later textbook definitions of American democracy." Despite their relative obscurity in 21st century America, Friends (as they call themselves), because of their role in forming the American character and a successful democracy, can arguably be credited with inventing America .
To this day Americans are heirs to these fundamental Quaker beliefs: political liberty, equality, tolerance, trial by one's peers, truth-telling, generosity, conflict resolution, hard work, universal education, the rehabilitation of criminals, and marriage for love, and most importantly, finding "that of God" in every person. What a legacy we have.
As I sit here writing this column, I feel both sad and hopeful. Sad that much of the history of our part of this nation really isn't known anymore, and a little disappointed that the foolish leaders we have today couldn't hope to hold a candle to these peculiar people who went on before us. But I'm hopeful, because I was at that house in London; I saw with my own eyes the promises laid down more than 300 years ago. And I know that these heroes actually did exist. They lived and worked and struggled in this very spot where you and I live. They walked on the same ground that is underneath your feet right now. They were real.
Contact Michael Quay at firstname.lastname@example.org