Elaine Peden: Making William and Hannah Penn honorary US citizens

William Penn’s statue atop City Hall has been part of the Philadelphia skyline for over 100 years. For a time, he stood at the pinnacle of the tallest building in the world, and is literally looked up to by Philadelphians every day. For one Philly native in particular, he has inspired dedication and determination for almost half a century.

Elaine Peden is ninety years old, and still lives in the Frankford rowhouse she grew up in. After she got married, she took on and ran her parents’ bar. One day in the early 1970s, she visited City Hall alongside fellow tavern owners to protest a rise in taxes. “Someone asked me if I’d ever been up the tower,” she remembers. “And I hadn’t, so they said – wanna go up?”

She was not impressed by what she found. The waiting room beneath the statue was small and dirty, with graffiti on the walls, and Elaine felt “something mystical” – she knew she had to change things.

She called up the Mayor to offer to refurbish the room and create a William Penn Museum there, at her own expense – and her request was granted. Elaine installed a United States flag, and set up an annual art competition for high school students across the city – their Penn-themed paintings were hung up to decorate the room.

With the annual art competition established, Elaine decided to travel to England to research William Penn, and learn more about his life. While there, she visited Penn’s grave at Jordans Friends’ Meeting House in Buckinghamshire, twenty-six miles from London. She brought flowers to put on the grave, and as she was feeling patriotic, a United States flag.

“Suddenly out of nowhere, this guy comes running up with a shovel,” says Elaine. “And he says that I can’t put the flag on Penn’s grave – the Quakers don’t pledge allegiance to the flag, you see.” Instead of the flag, the man offered to dig up some sod from Penn’s grave, for Elaine to take back to Philadelphia. Elaine was disappointed she couldn’t leave the flag, and he answered with something crucial: “If you ever make him an honorary US citizen, we’ll consider it.”

Elaine thought about his words for the rest of her trip. On the plane back to Philadelphia, she asked her husband how you’d make someone an honorary US citizen – and while he didn’t know, he figured a good way to find out would be to call their local congressman.

As soon as she got home, she did just that, and was told that what she had planned would be a big challenge. “In 300 years, we’d only had two,” she says. “British former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who rescued Jews in Hungary from the Holocaust. And there I was, wanting two at once!” For Elaine didn’t just want to make William Penn an honorary citizen – she felt a deep connection with Hannah Callowhill Penn, his second wife, who ran the colony for many years. She wanted Hannah’s amazing achievements to be recognized.

“Hannah saved Pennsylvania,” explains Elaine. “She was effectively the first female governor in the New World, and she was determined to keep the colony for her sons to inherit.” As her husband grew ill from 1712 onwards, Hannah took on the administration of Pennsylvania, and immediately came up against a major challenge. Lord Baltimore of Maryland claimed that the eastern part of Pennsylvania – including Philadelphia – belonged to him, but Hannah was able to produce the original deed for the land signed by Queen Mary, settling this dispute in 1714.

After her husband’s death four years later, Hannah essentially succeeded him as governor, fighting off two lawsuits by his eldest son from his first marriage to maintain her role. One of the first women in Britain and the United States to have any formal political authority, Hannah ran Pennsylvania through her deputy, Sir William Keith, until her death in England in 1726. “She was an incredible woman,” says Elaine. “She laid the ground for the likes of Alice Paul, all these women who came after her.”

It took Elaine 10 years of campaigning and three sessions of congress, but she never gave up, and in 1984 President Ronald Reagan proclaimed William and Hannah Penn to be honorary US citizens. Hannah was the first woman to ever be granted honorary citizenship, and even today is only one of two (the other being Mother Teresa). Elaine’s efforts were lauded in the press and by then-Mayor William Goode.

By the late 1980s, the city had decided to take down the high school art projects Elaine commissioned for the City Hall waiting room. Determined that they wouldn’t be lost, Elaine brought them home with her, dedicating an entire room to the Penn memorabilia she has gathered over the years.

Alongside the stunning student artwork, there is the official White House proclamation making Hannah and William US citizens; an engraving of William as a young man in the 1660s; and a copy of the portrait of Hannah that once hung in the Pennsylvania governor’s residence.

Elaine has collected all sorts of objects inspired by William Penn, from a 1920s advertisement for kids’ breakfast cereal, to silk thread, to craft beer.

Elaine achieved her goal of making the Penns honorary US citizens, but her mission is far from over. She remains dedicated to educating people in Philadelphia and beyond about the Penns’ legacy.

“I believe in projects,” she says, and she’s already working on her next one – a mural to honor Hannah and William, in Hannah’s namesake Callowhill Street.



Article written by Alice Krainock on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association.

Photographs by Alice Krainock on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association.