The Man Who Founded Pennsylvania Also Dreamed Up the European Union

Behind Cameron’s fight to stay in the EU is a 323-year-old plea for peace by William Penn.

Britain’s Brexit debate has seen the ghosts of Napoleon and Hitler pressed into service by campaigners in favor of leaving the European Union, which they see as an alien idea imposed from overseas. They may have overlooked the contribution of William Penn, the Englishman better known for founding Pennsylvania.

Penn’s argument that wars could be averted by bringing together countries in a European parliament is echoed almost daily in Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign stump speech.

William Penn.
William Penn.
Source: MPI/Getty Images

The son of a naval hero, Penn wrote an essay in 1693 that proposed a union of European states 100 years before Immanuel Kant, the man often credited with the idea for the EU. “An Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of an European Dyet, Parliament or Estates” outlines how trade, prosperity and science would boom if disagreements were solved at the conference table rather than on the battlefield.

“However frustrating I find the European Union, I never forget that I sit around that table with 27 other prime ministers from countries that have been involved in war and conflict in the past,” Cameron told an audience in the City of London financial district on May 17. “When we’ve got a continent that’s had so much conflict, so many problems, when we’ve found a way to work, we should be careful before giving it up.”

‘Navigating Differences’

When Penn wrote his essay, the most recent pan-European war had been going on for five years and he was trying to build on his attempts to establish toleration in Britain and the new world, according to Andrew Murphy, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. A Quaker, Penn proposed that countries would have representatives at the parliament and keep a check on the military ambitions of their neighbors.

william penn

“It really was a continuation of Penn’s life’s work and his pursuit of ways of living together and navigating differences without resorting to bloodshed and violence,” Murphy, author of “Liberty, Conscience and Toleration: The Political Thought of William Penn,” said in a telephone interview. “He was very clear that peace would yield prosperity, peace was good for trade and peace was good for education and advancement.”

‘Harassed Inhabitants’

Penn proposed a parliament to bring together the European states along with Turkey and Russia, whose inclusion was an even more radical notion in 1693 than in 2016. They would sit at a round table, so there were no arguments about who should be at its head, and “establish rules of justice for sovereign princes to observe,” he wrote.

Those rules would then be enforced by the parliament to ensure peace for Europe’s “harassed inhabitants.” It would keep track of the buildup of armed forces and those that went too far would “be obliged forthwith to reform or reduce them lest anyone, by keeping up a great body of troops, should surprise a neighbor.”

Borders would be opened and marriages for love between royal families would become the norm, instead of the usual 17th-century practice of using them to seal political deals. In a section that would be recognized by overworked 21st-century bureaucrats in Brussels, Penn correctly warned that European leaders would have to stay up all night to thrash out agreements.

“I should think it extremely necessary that every sovereignty should be present under great penalties,” he wrote. “And that none leave the session without leave until all be finished.”

(Corrects the image of William Penn.)
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