William Penn or Ben Franklin: Who Was a Better Friend to Indigenous People?

by Jonathan Betz-Zall, University Friends Meeting, 24 October 2021

Some years ago Pablo Stanfield and I paid a visit to a class at Franklin High School; the student government group was concerned that Friends might be offended by the combination of their “Quaker” team name and their logo of a pilgrim with a blunderbuss. [It’s since been changed to one resembling the crest of Great Britain.] As part of the discussion I mentioned that not only was Ben Franklin not a Quaker; he was a political opponent of the Quaker Party in Philadelphia’s government at that time, so it made little sense to have a team named the “Franklin Quakers”. At that time I assumed that this meant that the Quakers were somehow more fair in their dealings with the local Indigenous people than Franklin and other immigrants were. After all, haven’t we been inspired by the stories of Penn’s “only treaty never broken” and the image of peacemaking under the Treaty Elm? What if I was wrong about those relationships? What if Franklin had been the real friend of the Indigenous people instead? 


The October 2021 issue of Friends Journal has a very interesting article, “Neighbors or Tenants?”, which counters our traditional ideas with that question. Written by Francis G. Hutchins, whom I have verified is a historian of indigenous/colonialist relations in North America and in India, His book “Tribes and the American Constitution” was reviewed in the American Historical Review as “a well-written and well-argued analysis, concluding with a challenge to Americans to redefine the place of Indian tribes in their own country, to move beyond the “domestic dependent nation” analysis (which is also effectively critiqued) and toward a relationship that is more equal and more just.” Harring, Sidney L., Francis G. Hutchins. Tribes and the American Constitution. Brookline, Mass.: Amarta. 2000. pp. 273. $27.50, The American Historical Review, Volume 107, Issue 2, April 2002, Pages 533–534, https://doi-org.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/10.1086/ahr/107.2.533


The Friends Journal article does much the same thing: He documents how Quakers and their heirs eventually cheated Indigenous nations of their land while Franklin “steadily maintained that tribes were coherent polities with reasonable concerns about land rights and fair trade practices that must be seriously addressed.” When George Fox had visited Indigenous American societies to see them “practicing approximations of the Christian Golden Rule”, “advocating neighborly interchange of views with members of self-governing tribes,” he learned of the nasty practices of the Puritans and avoided visiting New England. Meanwhile Penn saw himself as a Quaker landlord, who “desired to meet face-to-face with persons conditionally permitted to reside rent-free on his valuable land”. His meetings with them were intended to “explain the conditions of their tolerated tenancy”. While he could have given them legally recorded land grants, as he had done for George Fox as well as to groups of Welsh speakers and German speakers, he only made vague promises to the illiterate tribes.  But he felt obliged to return to England to fight legal battles with adjoining colonies, and his heirs betrayed his generosity. 

Franklin, on the other hand, arrived penniless in Philadelphia and stood up to Penn’s heirs on behalf of the tribes. Franklin began publishing speeches by tribal leaders at their regular treaty conferences [which kept peace among previously-warring tribes], so that eventually he was asked to become a treaty commissioner himself. His reports to the Pennsylvania government documented unfair and hostile treatment by colonists and urged the governor to implement conciliatory measures. Later, when his attempts to avert the French and Indian War failed, he began agitating to end the Penn family’s proprietorship [control] over Pennsylvania’s land. Only when that effort also failed did he begin advocating for American independence. 


So, why do we still think of Penn as the genial friend of the tribal peoples? The Penn family countered Franklin’s efforts to disestablish them by commissioning the famous Benjamin West painting of the treaty signing under the Treaty Elm, which went on to inspire many versions of the Peaceable Kingdom and the statue of Billy Penn on top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, which again depicts a paternalistic attitude toward the formerly independent tribes. The real story, as Hutchins recalls it, remains little known.


As it happens, my father was a major scholar on the life of Benjamin Franklin, but I wasn’t able to corroborate Hutchins’ interpretations in Franklin’s Autobiography. So I’m forced to rely on Hutchins’ reputation, earned through his estimable scholarship in other works, as a basis for reconsidering my ideas of who stood for fair treatment of Indigenous people at the time of Quaker colonization of Pennsylvania.