2018 marks the 325th anniversary of the publication of William Penn’s Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, which proposed, among other things, the establishment of a European Parliament. Best remembered as the founder of Pennsylvania, Penn spent most of his life in England and remained deeply concerned about the fate of religious and political liberty across Europe. He proposed his “European Diet, Parliament, or Estates” as a way of promoting peaceful coexistence and breaking out of the cycle of nearly constant European war. A fresh look at Penn’s Essay is a task well worth undertaking, as refugee crises, fears of autocracy in Hungary and Poland, and the future of Brexit continue to roil European waters.
Like its twentieth-century counterpart, William Penn’s proposal for a European Parliament emerged out of an intimate familiarity with the reality of violence and war. In 1644, the year of Penn’s birth, the English Civil War was already two years old. By 1693, when Penn wrote his Essay, the War of the Grand Alliance had been raging for five years. And when Penn was struck down by a stroke in 1712, the War of the Spanish Succession had already been underway for more than a decade.
Much of Penn’s political activism was driven by his Quaker faith, but in his Essay he sought a broader audience. He beckoned to both Christian and classical sources by quoting from the Beatitudes — “Beati pacifici,” or “blessed are the peacemakers” — as well as from Cicero’s De officiis —“Cedant arma togae,” or “Let arms yield to the toga” (privileging civilian over military rule). And in the very first sentence of the very first chapter of his Essay, Penn appealed not to Scripture but to his readers’ basic humanity:
He must not be a man, but a statue of brass or stone, whose bowels do not melt when he beholds the bloody tragedies of this war.
He also emphasized the extraordinary benefits peace brings to human societies, and connected it to trade and prosperity:
Peace preserves our possessions; we are in no danger of invasions: Our trade is free and safe, we rise and lie down without anxiety . . . It excites industry, which brings wealth, as that gives the means of hospitality . . . But war . . . seizes all these comforts at once, and stops the civil channel of society. The rich draw in their stock, the poor turn soldiers, or thieves, or starve . . . but what the peace gave, the war devours.
Finally, he suggested a maxim — “justice is the means of peace” — and tied those two concepts together with the notion of that legitimate government is based on the consent of the people.
Moving from a condemnation of the current war to a plan for avoiding future wars, Penn proposed a Diet, or Parliament, of European states. Such a body would be consultative in nature and be characterized by a number of features aimed at minimizing the opportunity for bribery and corruption and soothing the easily offended honor of early modern princes, including a round meeting table “to avoid quarrel for precedency.” Each state would be granted a number of delegates proportional to “an estimate of the yearly value” of that country’s production.
As an adherent of a pacifist sect, Penn saw the avoidance of war as a holy calling, and in his Essay, he drew on a lifetime of European experiences as well as many attempts at mediation in both Quaker and colonial settings. Peace and prosperity had been themes in Penn’s tolerationist writings since his earliest days, and his emphasis on the economic devastation wrought by war reflected, on a larger stage, his domestic arguments that prosperity and civil peace would follow from the enactment of liberty of conscience in England. Penn also acknowledged — pragmatically — that, in addition to fulfilling God’s call for peace, the establishment of a European Parliament would help rehabilitate Christianity’s reputation “in the sight of the infidels,” and ease travel across Europe.
In addition to rehabilitating his own reputation, which had suffered after the 1688 Revolution, the Essay’s publication was also part of a larger process by which Penn was turning his thoughts to political units larger than colonies and nations. As such, the Essay can be read alongside his later proposal for a union of American colonies (A Brief and Plaine Scheam, 1697). That plan called for annual assemblies of colonial American representatives during wartime, with a colonial Diet not so different from the one proposed for European powers, to coordinate defensive preparations and foster intercolonial cooperation. And looking forward fifty years or so, we might look at Penn’s plan in light of the Albany Congress of 1754, where Benjamin Franklin proposed a system of intercolonial cooperation to combat the French threat and facilitate relations with Indian tribes.
Unfortunately for William Penn — and, perhaps, for Europe itself — his call for a European Parliament went unheeded. Penn died in 1718, and the notion of a European Parliament remained unfulfilled for more than two centuries after. Nevertheless, by remembering him and his Essay, we see that the dream of European unity predates our current difficulties and will surely continue whatever their outcome may be.
Featured image credit: “European Parliament Strasbourg” by Erich Westendarp. CCO via Pixabay.