Dissertation

“‘The Best Poor Man’s Country?'”: William Penn, Quakers, and Unfree Labor in Atlantic Pennsylvania”

William Penn’s writings famously emphasized notions of egalitarianism, just governance, and moderation in economic pursuits. Twentieth-century scholars took Penn’s rhetoric at his word and interpreted colonial Pennsylvania as nothing less than “the best poor man’s country,” as reflected in the title of one of the most popular histories of the colony. They also imagined a world where all men had access to economic opportunity and lived free from the barbarity endemic to Atlantic world colonies. Despite this halcyon vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, the reality was the opposite: a colony where religious convictions justified what we today (and radicals then) condemned as an exploitative labor system. In fact, those very religious and moral imperatives reinforced Quaker conceptions of masculinity that were used in shaping the labor regime in the colony.

My dissertation is the first to explore how Penn’s mental world was shaped by early modern conceptions of gender and how, in turn, his and other Quaker founders’ ideological vision affected the lived experiences of the servants and slaves building the colony’s economy. While scholars have paid increasing attention to the intersections of labor, race, and the economy within the Atlantic world, they have too often reified Penn’s vision without reference to the social or economic exploitation that complicated its implementation; this dissertation argues that it needs to be understood as more in line with these practices, with catastrophic results for its laborers.

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