January 17, rural Pennsylvania. This is a Quaker house of many books, in every room, collected over a lifetime. The shelf closest to my bed where I wake is devoted to religion and spirituality: I glance over the titles and see biographies of William Tyndale, Francis of Assisi and Gandhi, but the focus of the collection is Quaker thought and Quaker history. It's Sunday, and my brother-in-law and sister-in-law are already at Meeting. A soft morning light filters through the bare branches of tamaracks, and a dozen mourning doves peck and coo beneath the bird feeder in a gnarled old quince.
I read a little of William Penn's writings, and then look him up and realize I know next to nothing about this man I think of as a founding father and colleague of Benjamin Franklin's, but who was actually born 60 years earlier. As a young man at the time of Cromwell, Penn was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his Quaker beliefs, disinherited by his aristocratic Anglican father, but eventually released and reconciled. He received his inheritance and a grant from the King, and founded the province of Pennsylvania as a haven for England's persecuted Quakers, advocating peace, pacifism, the equality of men and women. His writings and thought were greatly admired by Voltaire, and later by that other Pennsylvanian, Franklin, but Penn - too generous, and a poor manager - finally died penniless in England.
The calendar tells me it's Franklin's birthday today: unlike the Wikipedia (also celebrating, but only 15) Franklin would be 306 today; Penn, 372. Those centuries compress as we drive through the countryside of Bucks County, past one colonial homestead after another, built of solid fieldstones, set into a landscape of streams and rolling fields that Penn must have loved, and Franklin and Washington no doubt saw with their own eyes. A revolution, and pacifism: how did those ideas coexist then? Penn wrote: "My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot: for I owe my conscience to no mortal man."