"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
An Episcopalian, John Penn was born on May 17, 1741, at Port Royal, Caroline County, Virginia. John was the only child of a farmer, Moses Penn, and Catherine Taylor Penn. On his mother’s side, two descendants of his great-grandfather James Taylor became presidents of the United States—James Madison and Zachary Taylor.
John’s father died suddenly when John was 18 years old. Even though John was left with a modest fortune, his parents didn’t believe in the value of an education. John had spent only two-three years at a country common school.
John could have led an unprincipled life of foolishness and dissipation, but instead he took advantage of the tutelage and vast library of his cousin, Edmund Pendleton. Pendleton was well known as one of the most accomplished statesmen of Virginia. His library was described by both Jefferson and Adams as having no equal in the colonies.
Like many other Founders of America, John Penn was also blessed with an unusually powerful mind and good sense. He immersed himself in the self-study of history, biographies, religion, and philosophy. Within three years, John Penn was licensed to practice law in Virginia, which he did for the next 12 years.
In 1774, John Penn moved his wife, Susannah Lyne Penn and their two children to Williamsboro, North Carolina. There were possibly two reasons for the move. Early in 1774, Penn was brought into court on charges of making disrespectful and perhaps treasonous remarks about King George in a public meeting. The issues were taxes and duties without representation. Penn was a known leader of the colonials who wanted redress of the wrong or a break from England. A tattle tale reported Penn to royal authorities. Penn was charged and found guilty. A sympathetic judge, however, issued a one penny fine. John Penn refused to pay it.
The other reason was Penn’s concerns about English misrule and heavy-handedness. He possessed more “radical” inclinations, and Granville County, North Carolina, was the ideal place for such a man. He joined with others who resented the growing restrictions of British rule, and the unfair treatment from a local government dominated by big plantation owners and wealthy merchants.
Political Life as a Revolutionary Patriot Begins
As a leader in Granville County, his law practice grew substantially, and his popularity soared. In 1775, he was elected to the First Continental Congress and to the Provincial Congress The Provincial Congress authorized Penn and the other North Carolina delegates to join the other colonies in declaring independence and forming alliances. In this, the North Carolina legislature led all the other colonies in declaring for a complete separation from Great Britain. The 83 delegates, including John Penn, present in Halifax at the Fourth Provincial Congress unanimously adopted the Halifax Resolves.
Arriving in Congress on October 12, 1775, Penn declared: “My first wish is for America to be free.” Penn knew the seriousness of the crisis that America faced and was always on the side of liberty. He was re-elected to serve in Congress in 1777, 1778, and 1779.
It is a serious error to judge the Founders of yesterday by today’s standards. John Penn and other members of the Continental Congress made many personal sacrifices, not the least of which was their own health. Many died young. In the case of John Penn, "traveling 400 plus miles to Philadelphia by horseback or stagecoach involved unbelievable hardships. It took two weeks to make the journey from Granville County to Independence Hall. Even in good weather the dirt roads were only rutted Indian trails, which turned into quagmires in a storm. Travelers were subject to attacks by renegade Indians and brutal highwaymen. Taverns were few and far between, food was awful, and you slept on the floor, ten or more to a room, with the possibility you might wake up in the morning missing your boots, pants or baggage."
In 1778, Penn signed the Articles of Confederation.
Early in July 1779, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, a merchant member of Congress, demanded that the publisher of the Pennsylvania Packet be brought to court for slander and disrespect of Congress. The publication had attacked Congress for, among other things, ineptitude in economic matters coupled with charges that some members were using their position to make fortunes on wild speculations which undermined continental currency.
John Penn then took to the floor in defense of freedom of speech. His view was that stopping freedom of speech not only endangered liberty, but that trying to stop free expression was no easier than draining the ocean with a thimble. “Gentlemen,” Penn said, “talk of imprisoning the printer or author is foolish…If you (Congress) have the power, which I doubt, and were to imprison the editor for six months, he would come out a far greater man than when he went in.”
During the summer heat of a Congressional session, Henry Laurens, the President of Congress, challenged John Penn to a duel over some murky matter which history does not record. “The day of the dual found the antagonists and their party of seconds having breakfast together at the same hotel. A previous rain had turned Philadelphia’s unpaved streets into a treacherous quagmire. After breakfast Penn and Laurens were walking together toward their appointed meeting place when the two men came to a crossing deep in mud. In a compassionate moment, Penn offered the older man his arm for support before they attempted to cross the street. History does not record the exact words exchanged but they quickly forgot their disagreement and returned to the hotel without firing a shot.”
“On August 23, 1780 at Hillsborough, the General Assembly appointed Penn and two others to the three-man Board of War in North Carolina to prepare for the British invasion. John Penn stepped forward to take charge, when the other two members of the Board proved incompetent. He established effective communication with General Greene (who replaced General Gates), raised recruits, found funding for the military, provided transportation and supplies, disarmed Tories, and generally spurred the people into action.”
John Taylor of Caroline described Penn’s accomplishments during this period: “He (Penn) was surrounded by discouraged friends, helpless citizens, or inveterate foes—but he had a task to discharge—and an arduous one. But nature had formed him for the effort. Indefatigable, cheerful, extremely courteous in his manners, firm in his political principles, and invigorated by an inextinguishable ardor, he went through the crisis with honor to himself, to the satisfaction of the state, and rendered service inestimable to the prosecution of the war.”
Around 1820, Jefferson wrote to Adams concerning his recollection of the North Carolina delegates during the debate on independence. He remembered that John Penn had played a key role…..It was Penn, according to Jefferson, who fixed the vote of Hewes so that North Carolina came to support the cause of liberty. Hooper abstained on the vote for independence, but later all three delegates signed the Declaration of Independence.
Although John Penn never wavered in support of the cause of freedom, he was a weary man when he returned in 1781 to his home and wife, his health somewhat shattered by the wear of six years in Congress. The strain had been heavy, and but he walked the path of duty without flinching. The future of America lay within the hands of others and the road ahead pointed toward liberty, which was finally achieved in 1783. Penn resumed his law practice and continued to do so in the next few years preceding his death.
John Penn died on September 14, 1788 at age 46.
Sources: The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Fathers Quotes, Biographies, NCpedia , The North Carolina Booklet and North Carolina History.
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