Released records shed light on National Park Service plan to remove the statute of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania

Released records shed light on National Park Service plan to remove the statute of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania
William Penn concluding a treaty with the Lenape

William Penn was the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania and an advocate of religious tolerance and cultural co-existence. But in early January, the National Park Service announced plans to remove a “statute of William Penn” from a park in Philadelphia located “on the site of Penn’s house.”

This plan triggered a “torrent of criticism” and as a result, “the National Park Service withdrew” the plan on January 8, reported the Associated Press. The Park Service claimed that the plan “was released ‘prematurely’ and hadn’t undergone a complete internal review. ‘No changes to the William Penn statue are planned,’ it said. The park service never explained the reason for the impetus to remove the statue….Pennsylvania’s top Republican state House member, Rep. Bryan Cutler, had accused President Joe Biden in a statement of trying to ‘cancel’ William Penn. Cutler called it “another sad example of the left in this country scraping the bottom of the barrel of wokeism to advance an extreme ideology and a nonsensical view of history.”

Conservative media lambasted the decision in articles such as “Woke diversity hire Haaland strikes again.” The National Park Service is part of the Department of the Interior. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has pursued some controversial policies promoted by her daughter, whose group seeks “to dismantle” “capitalism” and “hetero-patriarchy” and promote the “rematriation” of land away from its current holders.

We submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the National Park Service and Department of the Interior to find out what was behind the proposal to remove the statute. Was it wokeness run amok? Such as the false belief among left-wing academics that Penn was an architect of “white supremacy”? La Salle University professor Maureen O’Connell claimed that “white supremacy … started in” Philadelphia with “William Penn’s Holy Experiment.” Her claim is pure bunk. “Ironically, William Penn was actually an outspoken advocate for the rights of Native Americans — so much so, in fact, that his name was invoked by Native leaders for generations to come. Penn’s treaty with the Lenape led to 75 years of peace within the colony,” noted Nate Hochman. “Penn went to great lengths to ensure that natives were paid and treated fairly, forged real friendships with many local tribes, and established tribunals to protect their rights,” he observed.

When the National Park Service and Department of the Interior failed to respond to our FOIA requests within the legal deadline, the Bader Family Foundation sued them to obtain internal government records about the planned removal of Penn’s statue.

On May 24, we finally received some of those records — a clump of emails from the Interior Secretary’s office, that discuss the planned removal of the William Penn statue. Those records can be found at this link.

Nothing in their emails suggests that the plan to remove the William Penn statue skipped or sidestepped any customary internal review procedures. So the Park Service’s claim that the plan was released “prematurely” and hadn’t undergone a complete internal review seems disingenuous. That implausible claim seems to be designed to make it appear that the planned removal of the statue was less premeditated than it in fact was, to evade accountability for a decision that turned out to be almost universally unpopular with the public — so unpopular that even Democratic officials who face competitive races, such as Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, told the Biden administration it was a bad idea.

The internal “Briefing Statement” for the plan to remove the statute shows that it was carefully planned and the subject of extensive deliberations, and the culmination of years of planning. “The proposed design has been in development for four years with informal collaboration with park neighbors, the City, and tribal nations Formal tribal consultation was initiated on October 13, 2023″, it says. “The park initiated a period of public comment on January 5th through the issuance of a press release and social media channels. The release has generated an overwhelming response as the release stated that the statue of William Penn will be removed.” See pages 347-349 of the emails, containing the “Briefing Statement FY 2024, Issue: Rehabilitation of Welcome Park,” which is described as “Internal to NPS/DOI.” The head of the NPS, Charles Sams, got “on the phone” with the Park Superintendent to ask “follow up questions” about the briefing statement (See page 921).

On the other hand, there is nothing in the emails released so far that suggests that Joe Biden himself was involved in trying to “cancel” William Penn, or even that the Interior Secretary was the driving force behind the decision. The emails released so far depict the Interior Secretary’s office as largely reactive, responding to the bad press about the proposal, rather indicating it was behind the plan.

But there is also nothing in the emails suggesting that the Interior Secretary would have blocked the removal of the statue absent the public outcry that occurred. Government employees didn’t share the public’s outrage about the planned removal of the William Penn statue. For example,one employee in the Office of the Secretary wrote that “This is just ridiculous,” in response to a Philadelphia Inquirer article reporting that the statue would not be removed after all following the public outcry. In response to her email, an Agriculture Department employee expressed dismay that members of Congress opposed the removal of the statute, sarcastically writing, “Whew! I am glad they were able to get this done [thwarting removal of the statute] instead of passing a new budget, haha.” These government employees likely viewed opposition to the statue’s removal as a stupid culture war issue that diverted attention from more important government tasks. Both of these statements are found on page 310 of the released emails.

This is perhaps not a surprise. Progressives have a less favorable view of founders like William Penn, with a few viewing him as an evil “white supremacist.” Government employees are more progressive than Americans in general, as studies and election results in the seat of government confirm. See Associated Press, Election results: How Virginia, Maryland and DC voted in the presidential race, Nov. 3, 2020 (Democrats easily carried Washington, DC, and surrounding areas). Moreover, emails to the Interior Secretary’s Office express concern about “Indians being erased from history,” see, e.g. pg. 191, and removing Penn’s statute could certainly provide more space in Welcome Park to tell Native American narratives instead.

The Interior Department’s Communications Director, Tyler Perry, edited the draft press release announcing the withdrawal of the plan to remove the statute to make it much more concise and read better (see below). In pages 554-57 of the emails that were released, the Secretary’s Office “approved [the] below” National Park Service “news release” titled, “Park withdraws review of Welcome Park proposal” claiming it was “released prematurely” not reviewed before being put out for comment. The Secretary’s Office made only modest changes to the press release in question, which had been approved by the National Park Service’s head, Charles Sams (who wrote “Good by me. Thank you. If anyone else sees something, please chime in.”). The press release in question was drafted by the “Independence and NER [Northeastern Region]” branches of the National Park Service, before being tweaked and approved by the Secretary’s Office.

On January 8, Rachel Taylor in the Office of the Secretary gave Interior Secretary Haarland “talking points on the issue for tomorrow” in case they would “come up” on January 9, which Taylor thought was unlikely, in an email found on page 896 of the released emails (Secretary Haaland was in New Hampshire at the time). The talking points are redacted as privileged under “(b)(5),” a notation that means Exemption 5 of the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(5). That exemption contains a deliberative process privilege shielding internal government communications from release when they involve pre-decisional deliberations.

On Page 1318, the Secretary’s Office and the National Park Service discuss how to respond to a query from Jesse Waters’ show on Fox News, as Fox News stoked public outrage about the planned removal of William Penn’s statue. On pages 1253-56, Interior Department Director of Communications Tyler Cherry says “I’ve got this”, about the press query from Kristy Cappiello of the Jesse Waters Show. On page 1203 of the released emails, Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles,  Chief of Public Affairs & Chief Spokesperson of the National Park Service, says, “please have the park clear any press queries on this up to DC.”  On page 66, Cherry gives advice to Anzelmo-Sarles on how to handle Jesse Waters Primetime Statement Request, writing “For your follow up once the Park sends their statement out. I would make sure this producer receives the update directly so we don’t have misreporting during primetime.”

There was even more public hostility to the proposed removal than I thought, as is illustrated by the many hostile press articles about the plan one can find listed on pages 876-892 of the released emails. On pages 763-765 of the released emails, Duncan Morrow warns Interior Department employees about the hostile press coverage on January 7, lamenting that “Variations of this article are posted to a variety of right-wing ‘news’ sites, including Fox News.”

These emails were released in Bader Family Foundation v. U.S. Department of the Interior, et al., Civil Case No. 24-511, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed on February 23, 2024, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The court complaint filed in the lawsuit is at this link.

Press release withdrawing the plan to remove the William Penn statute, as approved by Tyler Cherry, Communications Director of the Interior Department:

Park withdraws review of Welcome Park rehabilitation proposal

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Independence National Historical Park has withdrawn the review of a draft proposal to rehabilitate Welcome Park and closed the public comment period. The preliminary draft proposal, which was released prematurely and had not been subject to a complete internal agency review, is being retracted. No changes to the William Penn statue are planned. The National Park Service (NPS) remains committed to rehabilitating Welcome Park as the nation prepares to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. Upon completion of all the necessary internal reviews, the park looks forward to engaging in a robust public process to consider options for refurbishing the park in the coming years.

The park is located on the site of William Penn’s home, the Slate Roof House, and is named for the ship, Welcome, which transported Penn to Philadelphia. The design and construction of Welcome Park was funded by the Independence Historical Trust and was completed in 1982.

Updates on the project may be found on the park’s website at www.nps.gov/INDE

Draft press release submitted by the National Park Service (before being edited by Tyler Cherry, Communications Director of the Interior Department):

Park postpones review of Welcome Park rehabilitation proposal

PHILADELPHIA, PA

Independence National Historical Park has postponed the review of a draft proposal to
rehabilitate Welcome Park and closed the
public comment period. The preliminary draft proposal was released prematurely and had not
been subject to a complete internal agency review.
The National Park Service (NPS) remains committed to rehabilitating Welcome Park as the
nation prepares to commemorate the 250
th
anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. Upon completion of all the necessary
internal reviews, the park looks forward to engaging in a robust public process to consider
options for refurbishing the park in the coming years. No changes to the
park or the William Penn statue are
planned at this time.
Welcome Park was designed by the design firm Venturi & Scott Brown Associates. The park is
located on the site of William Penn’s home, the
Slate Roof House, and is named for the ship, Welcome, which transported Penn to
Philadelphia. The design and construction of Welcome Park was funded by the Independence
Historical Trust and was completed in 1982.
Updates on the project as plans evolve may be found on the park’s website at
www.nps.gov/INDE.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for CNSNews.com and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at hfb138@yahoo.com

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