Billy Penn Statue a Monumental Effort
William C. Kashatus
Philadelphia Daily News
October 24, 2000
On this, the 356th anniversary of his birth, William Penn can be found standing atop City Hall, seemingly surveying a “Holy Experiment” he nurtured out of the ideals of his Quaker faith.
But few people understand just how he landed on his perch.
Penn’s founding of a colony dedicated to pacifism, participatory government and religious toleration, as well as the constitutional legacy he forged, are only part of the story. In fact, the politics behind the statue are every bit as fascinating.
Hoping to capitalize on Penn’s achievements, Philadelphia artists began early on to forge a niche for the Quaker founding father in the popular imagination. Benjamin West’s painting, “William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” (1771), vividly immortalized Penn’s unique awareness of the essential humanity of Native Americans, a rarity for the time. A half-century later, Edward Hicks, strongly influenced by West’s masterpiece, began a long succession of paintings titled “The Peaceable Kingdom” (1820s), which firmly fixed the treaty in Old Testament lore.
Businessmen also traded on Penn’s image as an “apostle of thrift, mutual helpfulness and justice.” John W. Homer took the founding father’s name for his insurance company, Penn Mutual, while Justus C. Strawbridge and Isaac H. Clothier adopted the Penn Treaty handshake as a seal of confidence.
The most ambitious – if not shameless – effort to exploit William Penn occurred in June 1881, when Gov. Henry M. Hoyt embarked on a mission to bring the Quaker founder’s body back to Philadelphia from its quiet resting place at Jordan’s Burial Ground in Buckinghamshire, England. The scheme was concocted to highlight the bicentennial celebration of Pennsylvania’s founding, scheduled for 1882.
George L. Harrison, the commissioner appointed by Hoyt to negotiate the transfer, attempted to justify the measure by reasoning that Penn’s work was “almost forgotten in his native country,” but that the “5 million people, who profit by his sacrifices, are ready to offer him that tribute of whole-hearted reverence that was denied him by the English people” by “transferring his remains to Philadelphia.” A special location inside the courtyard of the new City Hall was prepared for reinterment, and the month-long struggle over Penn’s body began.
After securing approval – from Penn’s heirs and the British government – Harrison met with the Quaker trustees of Jordan’s Meeting House and Burial Ground, who retained legal custody of Penn’s remains. He was sorely disappointed.
Refusing the request on the grounds that Jordan’s was “selected by Penn as the burial place of himself and his family during the vigor of life,” the trustees also stated their concern that the transfer would be accompanied by “a State ceremonial, military honors and a parade” and the new location would bear an “elaborate, monumental tombstone.” Such “pomp and circumstance” would be “utterly repugnant to Penn’s known character and sentiments.”
Undaunted by the failure, Philadelphia’s Commissioners for the Erection of Public Buildings proceeded with their plans to celebrate Penn’s legacy. In 1886, they hired European sculptor Alexander Milne Calder to create a giant statue of the Quaker founder that would be placed atop of the new City Hall.
When completed in 1892, the figure was the largest bronze statue ever cast, towering 37 feet high, and the world’s heaviest, weighing 27 tons. Calder’s Penn was a youthful and dignified proprietor attired in fashionable 17th-century dress, not like the earlier renditions of a portly, middle-aged man in plain Quaker garb. In his left hand, Penn holds the Charter of Privileges and with the other, extends a blessing of peace and friendship over his beloved city.
After a two-year display in the courtyard, the magnificent statue was hoisted to the top of the 548-foot-high tower, where it has remained ever since. Penn was installed facing northeast (looking toward Penn Treaty Park where he allegedly met with the Lenni Lenape Indians), despite Calder’s protest that he would be “condemned to an eternal silhouette,” being positioned away from the sun.
How would Penn himself feel about his likeness?
He probably wouldn’t appreciate the fact that it provided the finishing touch for a monument to the graft-ridden Republican machine that built City Hall between 1871 and 1894. Nor would his practical taste in architecture tolerate the craggy magnificence of the structure, which one architect claimed, “combines bulk with sterling insignificance, squalid paltriness and painfully grotesque decorations.”
But at least his presence – when not confused with Benjamin Franklin – reminds Philadelphians of their honorable roots and his vision for a society based on mutual respect and brotherly love among all people, regardless of their backgrounds. Or, as he said in his prayer for the city, before returning to England in 1701:
“And thou Philadelphia, the virgin settlement of this province, named before thou wert born, what love, what care, what service and what travail have there to bring thee forth and preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee. Oh that thou may be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee; that faithful to the God of thy mercies, in the life of righteousness, thou may be preserved to the end. My soul prays to God for thee that thou may stand in the day of trial, that thy children may be blessed of the Lord, and thy people saved by his power.”