William Penn establishes major Delaware River precedent

William Penn (Wikimedia Commons)

William Penn firmly declared that the western bank of Delaware River was a common area owned by the Propriety-not by any property holder along the river.

He then softened his stance by offering a compromise. This oft-reproduced language appears in a letter dated August 3, 1684, a few days before Penn returned to England:

"The Bank is a top common, from end to end. The rest, next [to] the water, belongs to front-lot men no more than [to] back-lot men: the way [Front Street] bounds them. They may build stairs-and, [at] the top of the bank, a common exchange, or walk; and against [Front] street, common wharfs may be built freely;-but into the water, and the shore, is no purchaser's."

Thomas Jefferson called William Penn "the greatest law-giver the world has produced." Penn's declaration is an example of his Solomonic wisdom, since he devised a way to balance both public and private interests. He allowed riverfront developers to build on their bank lots as they desired, but only if they allowed the public to have convenient access to the Delaware.