Commentary: Pa. Charter Day a reminder of where American greatness began

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In the documentary series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment," there is a reenactment of the making of Penn's treaty with the Lenape under the elm tree at Shackamaxon along the Delaware.

Nicholas Miller

is a scholar adviser to the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center coming to Independence Mall, a professor of church history at Andrews University in Michigan, and author of "The Religious Roots of the First Amendment" (Oxford, 2012)

If we hope to make America great again, it would be good to know what made America great to begin with.

March 12 is a good time to reflect on this question, as it is Pennsylvania Charter Day, where we remember King Charles II's Charter to William Penn in 1681, along with Pennsylvania's Great Law of 1682.

Penn believed that the principles of these documents were foundational, not only for Pennsylvania, but would serve as "the seed of a nation" - and indeed as an example for many nations.

What were the principles that Penn found so important to the greatness of a state? The Charter and Great Law make provisions for: judicial fairness, rule of law, and due process; a representative, accountable legislature; and an executive committed to the civil rights and liberties of the people. Penn placed a special emphasis on the equal treatment of people of all religious beliefs, a conviction rooted in his dissenting Protestant biblical and philosophical conceptions of the rights of individual conscience given by a divine Creator.

These commitments to open, accountable government, the rule of law, and religious freedom and ethnic diversity, led to Pennsylvania becoming a magnet for immigrants from many nations of the world. English Quakers, German Moravians, French Huguenots, British Baptists, Dutch Anabaptists and Mennonites, European Jews, and Catholics - all outcasts somewhere - soon streamed into Philadelphia and its environs. There they found a new home of almost unparalleled inclusion and equality (Rhode Island offered similar legal standards but was far removed from the center of the colonies, both geographically, in commercial success, and in popular awareness.)

The results of this influx were startling. While Boston and New York had been founded decades earlier, Philadelphia soon passed them in population. It rapidly became the largest and most commercially successful city in the American colonies. By the 1720s, Philadelphia was considered the "Athens of North America" and the most cosmopolitan city on the continent.

What Penn had dreamt indeed came to pass - his commonwealth did become the model, "the seed," for the new American nation, and eventually for many nations around the world. Some point to Roger Williams' Rhode Island as the precursor to American pluralism, and others to the Virginia of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These no doubt played a role. But the founders themselves, including Jefferson and Madison, more often pointed to Pennsylvania as the model for the new national American government.

The success and prosperity of Pennsylvania, located in the heart of the American colonies, showed that religious and ethnic diversity was not an obstacle to governmental and commercial success. Rather, it was seen that these qualities could be part of the engine to achieve such successes. This example was not lost on the founders. Not on Jefferson, who called Penn "the greatest lawgiver the world has produced."

Neither was it lost on Philadelphia native Elias Boudinot, who later founded American Bible Society. As a member of the first Congress, Boudinot chaired the House Select Committee that drafted the First Amendment, which chartered religious freedom and pluralism on Pennsylvania's progressive model of liberty.

I think it no coincidence that our national Constitution was written in Philadelphia, surrounded by the diversity and prosperity of Penn's experiment in government. But the critical point is that Pennsylvania's success, its greatness, was not based on business acumen or industrial might. Rather, that commercial skill and prosperity was itself a result of a commitment to underlying principles of open, accountable government, an evenhanded, independent judiciary, and a principled embrace of religious and ethnic diversity.

In seeking a return to American greatness, we would do well to keep these foundational values in mind.

nicholas@andrews.edu.