After various unsuccessful attempts, two English colonies had been planted on the eastern coast of North America in the early part of the seventeenth century. The more southern of the two was called Virginia, and was colonized principally by mercantile adventurers; the more northern was called New England, and was colonized principally by Puritans, who, driven by persecution from the mother country, had crossed the Atlantic in order to enjoy liberty of conscience in a new country of their own founding. From the year 1620, a constant stream of emigrants from Great Britain had been pouring into these colonies; so that, towards the latter part of the century, the coast on both sides of the Potomac river was overspread by a British population those on the north side of the river calling themselves New Englanders, and those on the south side Virginians. The manner in which the colonization was carried on was as follows: - The king granted to some nobleman, or to some' mercantile company, a certain territory roughly marked out; this nobleman or company again either sold the property in lots to intending emigrants, or themselves organized an emigration on a large scale, and superintended the foundation of a colony on the territory in question. It is evident, therefore, that the purchase and sale of lands in America had become, in the reign of Charles II, a favorite branch of speculation; some parties buying portions of land with an actual view to settle in the new world, or at least to possess property in it, others buying with the mere intention of selling again. Now, it so happened that, in the year 1664, the Duke of York, afterwards James II, who had obtained from his brother Charles II a grant of a great part of the New England coast, conveyed over a portion of it, under the name of New Jersey, to Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. Lord Berkeley again disposed of his half share to two members of the Society of Friends - John Fenwick and Edward Byllinge. It appears that some dispute arose between these two individuals respecting their shares in the land which they had purchased; for, in the year 1775, we find William Penn, who seems to have been a friend of both, acting as arbitrator be tween them, and endeavoring to persuade Fenwick to yield, and, for the credit of the body to which he belonged, not to carry the dispute to a court of law. His remonstrances were effectual; the difference between Fenwick and Byllinge was adjusted, and the former emigrated to New Jersey, apparently in the mere capacity of superintendent for Byllinge, while Byllinge himself remained at home.
This was Penn's first connexion with the American colonies; a connexion, it will be observed, quite casual, but which was followed by important consequences. Byllinge becoming involved in pecuniary difficulties, conveyed. over his property in New Jersey to his creditors, prevailing upon William Penn to act as trustee, along with two of the creditors, for the judicious application of the property to the purpose of discharging his debts. Penn entered on the business with much alacrity; and after concluding an arrangement with Sir George Carteret, by which the boundaries of his and Byllinge's share of New Jersey were defined - the former under the name of East New Jersey and the latter under that of West New Jersey - he prepared to turn his position, as Byllinge's trustee for West New Jersey, to the best account. The property having been divided into a hundred lots, Fenwick, Byllinge's agent, was paid off with ten of these, and the remaining ninety were to be applied for the behoof of the creditors. All that was necessary now was to invite promising emigrants to settle in these lands; and with this view Penn drew up a constitution, consisting of a number of articles of mutual agreement which the purchasers of the lands were to sign, and which were characterised by his own spirit of liberality and toleration. At the same time in order that no one might embark in the undertaking without a full knowledge of the condition of the country he was going to, and the difficulties which he must encounter, he and his colleagues published A description of West New Jersey,' embracing all the information they had it in their power to give. In consequence of these representations, about eight hundred respectable settlers, most of them Quakers, embarked for New Jersey in the beginning of 1678.
Once led to take an interest in the American colonies, nothing was more natural for William Penn, situated as he was, a member of a persecuted sect, who had all his life been struggling ineffectually for the attainment for himself and his fellows of some measure of religious liberty, than to conceive the project of heading an emigration on a large scale, to consist Quakers and other dissenters. Might he not be the instrument of founding a new state, which, constructed upon better and sounder principles than those which regulated the old state of Europe, would one day become great and flourish? Or even supposing that so noble a prospect were never to be realized, would it not in itself be a good and philanthropic action, to remove some hundreds of families from a land where they were suffering continual wrong for conscience sake, and plant them in a land where, supporting themselves by the sweat of their brow, they might still eat their bread in peace, and bless God the giver? Such were the thoughts that recurred again and again to the mind of William Penn, as instance after instance of persecution presented itself to his view. Intelligence which he received of the prosperity of the colonists, whom, in his capacity as trustee for Byllinge, he had been instrumental in sending out to New Jersey, confirmed him in the notion which he was indulging; and at length he formed the decided resolution to head an extensive scheme of emigration on his own account.