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PA Government

When William Penn was granted the Charter of Pennsylvania from Charles II on March 4, 1681, he gained legal ownership to one of the largest private land grants in history. The Charter granted Penn and his heirs the authority to establish laws, as long as they did not conflict with those of England, but did not specify the manner in which Penn would have to govern; however, the reality of governing was much more complex than the Charter implied, and the men who served in the institutions Penn helped to create did not always share the same view of Pennsylvania's government as Penn.

Penn drafted his "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania" in 1682, before he set forth to Pennsylvania as Proprietor. In it, Penn famously summed up his philosophy on governance as follows: "Any government is free to the people under it where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion." He crafted a government that he felt would strive for those ideals.

The 1682 Frame of Government provided for a quasi-bicameral legislature consisting of the Provincial Council and the General Assembly. The Provincial Council was to be made up of 72 persons, and the Governor was to have three votes on Council. The Council was to propose all legislation, to which the General Assembly would assent to or not. The General Assembly could propose amendments to bills, but not create bills on their own. The General Assembly was not to exceed 200 members. The Provincial Council also was empowered to appoint individuals who would rule with executive powers during the absence of a Governor.

However, the first Assembly that was convened in 1682 refused to assent to Penn's Frame of Government unless changes were made. In order to appease the Assembly, Penn revised the Frame of Government in 1683 and eliminated the Governor's voting power in Council and reduced the number of members of the Council to three members from each county. There were 6 counties in Pennsylvania at the time; therefore, the size of the Council was set at a maximum of 18 members. The 1683 Frame, however, did not alter the restriction on the Assembly to introduce laws, which became a major problem over the course of the next 20 years.

In 1684, Penn sailed back to England to settle the border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and charged the Provincial Council to act with executive authority in his stead. In Penn’s absence, the tension between the powers of the Provincial Council and the Assembly grew. The Council and Assembly entered a period of hostile discord immediately following Penn's trip back to England that led Penn to strip the Council of its executive powers and appoint a five-man Commission to act with the powers of a Governor during Penn's absence. However, this plan was met with resistance as well, and Penn decided to dissolve the Commission and appoint John Blackwell as Deputy Governor, who would take over the executive powers of the Provincial Council.

Blackwell failed to bring any more order to the Province than either the Council or Commission, and Penn eventually replaced him with Thomas Lloyd in 1691. In 1692, Penn’s Proprietorship was briefly suspended by King William III over the failure of Pennsylvania to provide for the defense of the province from the French. Benjamin Fletcher was then appointed Governor, and the members of the Provincial Council started being appointed, rather than elected, to office. Penn’s Proprietorship was restored to him by the King in 1694, with the condition that Penn had to personally assure that Pennsylvania would provide an allotted number of troops for the King's use. Upon receiving back the Proprietorship, Penn appointed his cousin, William Markham, as Deputy Governor.

Markham had difficulty raising money for Pennsylvania’s defense, and the Quaker-dominated General Assembly refused to assent to a bill providing money for defense unless Deputy Governor Markham agreed to a new frame of government which would grant greater liberties to the General Assembly. Despite lacking Penn’s permission, Markham agreed to the new frame in 1696, which granted the General Assembly the right to initiate legislation. When Penn returned to Pennsylvania in 1699, there was a disagreement over whether “Markham’s Frame” was valid, or whether the 1683 Frame was still in effect. To resolve this dispute, in 1701 Penn issued the "Charter of Privileges," which granted the General Assembly the right to initiate legislation, and therefore, took away legislative powers from the Council. The Charter of Privileges remained in effect until Pennsylvania declared independence in 1776 during the American Revolution.

Pennsylvania's early government was a work in progress. While Penn had ideas on how he wished the institutions he set up to function, oftentimes the people running those intuitions had different ideas. It took nearly two decades for Penn and the men who served in those institutions to finally agree on the powers they would exercise. While reading the biographies of these early leaders, it is important to remember them in this context.


Dunn, Mary Maples. William Penn: Politics and Conscience. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967. Illick, Joseph E. William Penn the Politician: His Relations with the English Government. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1965.