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THE LIMITS AND PROMISE OF POLITICAL THEORIZING: WILLIAM PENN AND THE FOUNDING OF PENNSYLVANIA

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Abstract:

This article explores the founding of Pennsylvania as a window into the complex relationship between political theory and political practice. I argue that this founding illustrates both the importance and the limits of political theory to the study of political life. On the one hand, theorizing new societies is vitally important, because founding documents give shape to the aspirations of both founders and citizens. In this case, the founder's plans for his colony were the product of a great deal of political theorizing, grounded in Penn's Quakerism and his active role in English religious and political life. But theory's importance to the study of actual foundings (and, I argue, politics more generally) is inherently limited, as well, since the colony's theoretical foundations were themselves evolving and unstable, and the translation of ideas into practice is only ever partial. After a careful consideration of the many founding documents produced by Penn between spring 1681 and summer 1682, and a close examination of developments in Pennsylvania from late 1682 through Penn's departure in summer 1684, I close by reflecting on what the case of Pennsylvania might tell us about the broader study of political theory and political practice. I suggest that we need a more flexible understanding of what political theory 'is' if we want to make sense of thinkers like Penn who theorized out of their deep involvement in the thick of actual governing.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2013

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