Welcome to Pennsylvania

Welcome to the site of revolution


Before we talk about William Penn, let it first be said that Pennsylvania’s modern delineation was first home to the Lenape and Susquehannock, a people indigenous to the Northeastern Woodlands. Penn, the man after whom the state is named, came much later, and wasn’t even to be found among the first wave of European settlers to colonise the area: these came from England, Sweden and The Netherlands, and warred for half a century over territories that were continually misassigned to royal subjects, by monarchs who had no claim over the land they awarded. 

In 1681, some time after state borders had been drawn, and Charles II of England had emerged victorious from several Anglo-Dutch wars, William Penn was awarded the territory now known as Pennsylvania, as a land charter by the King of England who owed Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn, a debt of £16,000. 

Penn was an English writer, Quaker, and religious free thinker, and was notable before his arrival in America for being what would now be considered a progressive thinker, but at the time was viewed as radical and revolutionary. He rejected the idea of monarchy, thinking all men equal before God, and strongly advocated for freedom of religious affiliation, having been imprisoned and persecuted in England for converting to the Quaker faith from the Anglican religion. After his arrival in America, he became, and remains, famous for being an early advocate of democracy, and building preliminary relationships with the Lenape people. 

Given the emphasis placed on individual liberties by its founder, it’s no surprise that less than a century later, Pennsylvania found itself the seat of America’s revolutionary impulse. The Liberty Bell was initially purchased to cultivate a body politic in and around Philadelphia, with the idea being that the bell would be rung from a newly constructed statehouse to summon residents to public meetings. The initially innocuous bell first rose to fame when it was rung some four days after the American Declaration of Independence was signed at independence Hall, and the country’s Founding Fathers performed its first ever public reading, on the steps of the statehouse. 

The now deemed Liberty Bell’s historic usage and iconic inscription, reading "Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof", makes this sacred symbol of independence, a profound yet painful manifestation of American identity. For no sooner were declarations signed than a constitution was ratified that ingrained the use and existence of slavery in the foundations of American society and politics. 

Ravished in the aftermath of revolution, the newly independent states needed to quickly create a national government and economy that would allow the country to support itself through recovery. The first Constitutional Congresses of the thirteen states was held in Pennsylvania, where the constitution was drafted and eventually ratified, with Pennsylvania being second in line to offer its signature. In the haste and necessity of forming a government, several concessions were made to placate and include wealthy Southern slaveholding states in the union that would constitute the US. These compromises, and the conflicts of interest they barely masked, were nowhere more keenly felt than in those states that marked the cultural and ideological border that separated North and South. 

For example, the Fugitive Slave Act, passed by congress in 1850, allowed enslavers from Southern states to actively venture into Northern territories where slavery had been abolished, capture escapes slaves, and return them to enslavers that federal law still considered their legal owners. This meant that even if states like Pennsylvania acknowledged Black people as free and autonomous individuals, they were legally bound to allow, and in doing so to some extent facilitate, the subjugation of Black people in other parts of a country they called their own. Having a front row seat to the brutality of the South only intensified public feeling about the state of the nation, in Pennsylvania. 

Historian and scholar Nicole Hannah Jones also points out in The 1619 Project, that “what pro-slavery advocates feared most was democracy itself: that Northern majorities would use the power of the federal government to dismantle slavery”. To prevent this, Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia “proposed that congressional representation be based on population and not the one-vote-per-state rule that had governed the Articles of Confederation. Northern and Southern delegates debated whether Black enslaved people should count toward a state’s population”

It was decided that “Congress would be divided into two houses, a lower house based on population—with each enslaved Black person counting as three-fifths of a citizen—and an upper house that gave all states an equal number of votes. The Southern advantage conferred by the Three-fifths Clause was extended to the executive branch through the Electoral College… which provided each state a number of electors that aligned with its representation in the lower house of Congress”. 

The electoral college is an enormous point of contention in American politics today, being both an institution designed to ensure the longevity of slavery, and a feature of political process and procedure with the potential to override the popular vote, a commonly considered vehicle of democracy. The most recent exhibition of the electoral college’s power was in 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidential election on the strength of 304 electoral votes, discrediting his opponents 2.9 million person majority in the popular vote. 

This relates to Pennsylvania particularly, because in spite of originally being a Northern, Abolitionist and pro-union state, it now holds more electoral votes than 46 of the United States 50 states. In combination with this between the elections of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Pennsylvania consistently voted for Republican administrations, swinging occasionally in more recent years towards the policies of Democrats. 

No matter what the political inclination of this historically central state, the culture and public feeling of Pennsylvania remains a pulse the rest of the United States must keep their finger on, and regard with full respect when it comes to the future of the country. 

Share this article