You may know of William Penn as the founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania, but did you know his second wife – Hannah Callowhill – succeeded him after he died?
Callowhill was the only surviving child of wealthy English merchants who taught her accounting and management skills, which she used to help Penn get out of debt with his land managers. The managers were not accustomed to working with a woman, but she became known for her sharp business mind and navigated the political world of the colonies and King James II court.
After Penn suffered a series of strokes, Callowhill quietly handled all the colony’s official business. She successfully kept creditors at bay and the Pennsylvania colony active and successful.
To ensure his wife would remain in charge of the Pennsylvania colony, Penn named her as his successor in his last will and testament.
When Penn died in 1718, Callowhill became owner and governor of the colony – the first, and so far the only, female governor Pennsylvania has ever had. Although women in 1718 could not be called “governor,” Callowhill was the legal owner of the land. When Penn’s son from his first marriage tried to take it from her, the court ruled in Callowhill’s favor.
As Pennsylvania’s unofficial governor, Callowhill created an effective system for collecting taxes and rents, negotiated with the neighboring Maryland Colony on a border dispute, and worked with the Pennsylvania Assembly on legislation and policies.
When asked about the success she had brought to her family and Pennsylvania, Callowhill wrote, “[the Pennsylvania colonists] … are safe and think themselves so. Their comfort is … interwoven with mine and that my children’s whole fortune, my husband’s reputation, my own satisfaction and their happiness hang all in a thread together and therefore shall be carefully preserved by me.”
More than 200 years after her death, President Ronald Reagan honored Callowhill in 1984 as an honorary US citizen, saying she “effectively administered the Province of Pennsylvania for six years and, like her husband, devoted her life to the pursuit of peace and justice.”
While Hannah Callowhill and William Penn promoted religious freedom and made valuable contributions to the community, they did own enslaved people. Slavery is never justified, and though William Penn spoke about freeing enslaved people in Pennsylvania, he did not free those he owned.