William Penn, a Topical Biography

by William I. Hull
[Oxford University Press, $5.00]
A BOOK from the erudite pen of William Hull, Professor of History at Swarthmore College, is one to command respect. Dr. Hull is already the author of a number of monographs on Quaker subjects. One of them happens to be on the Eight First Biographies of William Penn in Seven Languages and Seven Lands. The material therein and that in all subsequent biographies of Penn has in this present work been sifted and traced to its source, many original sources have been quoted, and all has been gathered in one volume. The arrangement of a vast amount of facts under distinct main headings or topics makes the book one of the handiest for ready reference that could be imagined. Of 338 pages, some 220 are devoted to Penn’s family antecedents, his Quaker activities, polemical and religious writings, and a résumé of the historical events of his period, the latter third of the book to the great experiment in colonization of his maturity, its reasons, its course and influence; it closes with sections on the appearance and character of Penn, and a final summary of his achievement. In this last a wealth of comments on Penn have been gathered from many sources, including Pepys, Burke, Jefferson, Macaulay, and Fiske.
The author, himself a Friend, estimates Penn’s importance to Quakerism as equal to that of Fox himself, and his importance as a statesman as making him worthy of a high place among the most illustrious.
The large number of intricate details to be dealt with make it necessary in such space to sacrifice the picturesque. And the ‘topical’ treatment sometimes forces repetition of material, with some loss of imaginative reconstruction. For instance, it is noteworthy that Penn’s only prolonged imprisonment, that in the Tower of London at the age of twenty-four, was occupied by the writing of No Cross, No Crown. But imprisonments are one topic and authorship another, so these facts are of necessity treated under both; and since authorship is treated first, the uninformed reader learns a good deal about No Cross, No Crown without realizing the background from which it sprung.
As a book of ready and accurate reference, this book can scarcely have a rival. It does not attempt a consecutive study of the life of Penn. But where more than one opinion is possible as to Penn’s action, the author is at pains to give full evidence for both sides.
A number of excellent illustrations add to the value of the volume.