Pennsylvania has been a destination for many, but not always a permanent one. Many who have visited the Keystone State have merely passed through. And still others read about and corresponded with people in Pennsylvania to learn about the place. And fortunately for us, some of these people didn’t keep their Pennsylvania impressions to themselves. This gives us an interesting perspective on Pennsylvania from the outside.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Pennsylvania intrigued many Europeans and featured prominently in their writings. Travel writing was a popular subject and easily sold books, which likely explains why there were so many European writers’ observations that we have today. Marquis de Lafeyette, Charles Maurice Talleyrand, Charles Dickens, Frances Trollope, and Voltaire to name just a few.
I hope to find quotes from non-European observers to make another post sometime. I’m not really sure what sources to look for…If you know of any Asian, African, or other world travelers who wrote letters or published accounts of Pennsylvania let me know!
Recommended listening: “Pennsylvania Polka” as performed by Frankie Yankovic. Wasn’t really sure what song would fit best here, but I figured this one would work since the polka is a traditional Bohemian dance! You might recognize this version- it was the one used in the Groundhog Day movie!
“To bee holden of vs, our heires and Successors, Kings of England, as of our Castle of Windsor, in our County of Berks, in free and common socage by fealty only for all services and not in Capite or by Knights service, Yeelding and paying therefore to us, our heires and Successors, two Beaver Skins to bee delivered att our said Castle of Windsor, on the first day of January, in every yeare; and also the fifth parte of all Gold and silver Oare, which shall from time to time happen to bee found within the Limitts aforesaid, cleare of all charges, and of our further grace certaine knowledge and mere mocon, wee have thought fit to Erect, and wee doe hereby Erect the aforesaid Countrey and Islands, into a province and Seiginiorie, and doe call itt Pensilvania, and soe from henceforth wee will have itt called…”
-King Charles II of England, 1681
Pennsylvania Charter to William Penn, section III
“It was very rare and uncommon for a sovereign to be “thee’d” and “thou’d” by the meanest of his subjects, who never took their hats off when they came into his presence; and as singular for a Government to be without one priest in it, and for a people to be without arms, either offensive or defensive; for a body of citizens to be absolutely undistinguished but by the public employments, and for neighbors not to entertain the least jealousy one against the other. William Penn might glory in having brought down upon earth the so much boasted golden age, which in all probability never existed but in Pennsylvania.”
-Voltaire, c. 1733
“Letters on England,” Letter IV- On the Quakers
“Examine this flourishing province, in whatever light you will, the eyes as well as the mind of an European traveler are equally delighted; because a diffusive happiness appears in every part: happiness which is established on the broadest basis. The wisdom of Lycurgus and Solon never conferred on man one half of the blessings and uninterrupted prosperity which the Pennsylvanians now possess….Pennsylvania hitherto seems to reign the unrivalled queen of these fair provinces.”
-Attributed to an Anonymous Russian Traveler (but likely Hector St. John de Crevecoeur), 1782
“Letters from an American Farmer” Letter XI From Mr. —, A Russian Gentleman; Describing The Visit He Paid At My Request To Mr. John Bertram, The Celebrated Pennsylvanian Botanist
“Many travelers have made the same observation that Philadelphia is a Quaker city and that the strict moral character of the Quakers profoundly affects social life and impresses upon it a certain cold uniformity. In the course of our short stay it was impossible for me to become acquainted with the intimate aspects of family life, but this much I did found out to be true that he who seeks only the sensual pleasures, the glitter of the salon, and the charm of high society to be found in a large city will soon become bored of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is most assuredly not the place for amusement. However, he who takes pleasure in intellectual pursuits will find unlimited satisfaction here.”
-Alexander Farkas of Bolon, 1831
The Life and Work of Alexander Farkas of Bolon, page 235-242, quoted in Pennsylvania History October 1967, “The Visit of Alexander Farkas of Bolon to Pennsylvania in 1831”
“It is full of a wretched sort of people, the ridiculous Quakers, who are fit only to gather in a hall with large hats on their heads whatever the weather. They wait there in silence for the Holy Spirit until one of them, wearied from not seeing it appear, gets up and utters a great deal of tearful nonsense. There you have the people of Philadelphia who, moreover, never fight.”
“I set out for Philadelphia, distant about thirty-six miles, and arrived there in the evening. The country all the way bore a different aspect from anything I had hitherto seen in America. It was much better cultivated, and beautifully laid out into fields of clover, grain and flax…Upon the whole nothing could be more pleasing than the ride which I had this day.
Philadelphia, if we consider that not eighty years ago the place where it now stands was a wild and uncultivated desert, inhabited by nothing bus ravenous beasts, and a savage people, must certainly be the object of every one’s wonder and admiration.”
“I confess that I have never felt any great regard for Pennsylvania. It has always had in my estimation a certain a low character for commercial honesty, and a certain flavor of pretentious hypocrisy…It is noted for repudiation of its own debts, and for sharpness in exaction of its own bargains. It has been always smart in banking…Nevertheless, Pennsylvania is rich and prosperous. Indeed it bears all those marks which Quakers generally leave behind them.”
-Anthony Trollope, 1862
“North America” (page 238-239)