Selling the land

The charter from King Charles to William Penn in 1681 gave him ownership of the land with full rights to sell or rent it. The people who bought it from him could in turn freely sell or rent it.  Penn immediately launched a publicity campaign to persuade people to buy. He wrote promotional tracts describing the land and its virtues and laying out his terms for owners and renters.

In these tracts he contrasted the good life in a colony with the sad condition of life in England, with its extremes of poor beggars and wealthy excess. He called the new land fruitful, good for trade and production.  He encouraged industrious farmers, artisans such as “carpenters, masons, smiths, weavers, tailors, tanners, shoemakers, shipwrights”, “ingenious spirits” who might “improve science”, younger brothers who did not receive enough inheritance to live on, and men who shared his vision of “good discipline and just government among a plain and well intending people”. In a new and radical idea, he promised that the constitution of Pennsylvania would not allow laws to be made or taxes levied without the consent of the people. 1

At the same time he cautioned them not to expect an easy beginning. “I would have them understand that they must look for a winter before a summer comes; and they must be willing to be two or three years with­out some of the conveniences they enjoy at home. And yet I must needs say that America is another thing than it was at the first plantation of Virginia and New England, for there is better accommodation, and English provisions are to be had at easier rates.” There would be no “starving time”.

He originally wanted to sell in blocks of 5,000 acres for £100 pounds, based on the model of West Jersey, where proprietors bought large shares and subdivided them. Penn soon found that the English Quakers did not buy together in groups, although some Welsh did, and he changed the plan to sell plots as small as 125 acres. Purchasers had to pay quitrent to him, a yearly tax, of one shilling for each hundred acres. People who took servants along with them would get headright land of 50 acres free for each servant, and the servants themselves would get 50 acres when their time of service was up. This headright land was taxed at a higher rate, of 2 shillings for the servants and 4 for the master. As Penn wrote, “I must either be paid by purchaser or rent … and so I should make nothing of my country.” 2 Penn was a passionate Quaker and a benevolent proprietor, but he never forgot that his colony needed to turn a profit. In the end it cost him more than he gained from it.

  1. Soderlund, William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, p. 58-65
  2. Soderlund, p. 77.

One thought on “Selling the land”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *