Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence have been victims of neglect and distortion, their contributions either ignored or buried under the garble of political bias. Such has been the case of John Penn, a nephew of Edmund Pendleton, under whose tutelage he became one of those men who risked hanging to sign his name to a document which became the future hope of a nation and democracy. The success of such men has crept into the shadow of time but their courage and personal sacrifices remain an eternal beacon of hope for mankind everywhere.
For many people the name John Penn falls on deaf ears. They don’t know who he was or what he accomplished. Some even confuse him with another John Penn, the grandson of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. Lest people lose sight of North Carolina’s John Penn, it is necessary to keep in mind several of his accomplishments:
(1) He served in the Continental Congress for six years
(2) He signed the Declaration of Independence
(3) He signed the Articles of Confederation
(4) He signed the Halifax Resolves (the North Carolina Constitution)
(5) He was virtual dictator of North Carolina at what arguably was the turning point of the American Revolution in 1781-1782
John Penn was born on May 17, 1741, at Port Royal, Caroline County, Virginia, the only child of Moses Penn and Catherine (Taylor) Penn.
Penn’s grandfather, also named John Penn, was born about 1690 and died in 1741, but it is not known when the Penn family came to America.
John’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side, James Taylor, was born in his ancestral home, Pennington Castle, about 20 miles from Carlisle in England. He was a descendant of Baron Taillefer who fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and became the Earl of Pennington. James Taylor arrived in Virginia in 1635 at the age of 20 and established the estate of Hare Forest on Chesapeake Bay between the James and North Rivers. He married Frances Walker, and two of their descendants became presidents of the United States—James Madison and Zachary Taylor.
Another of John Penn’s great-grandfathers on his mother’s side, Philip Pendleton, was born in 1650 and came to Virginia from Norwich, England in 1674. Philip’s ancestors included George Pendleton, Sr., Esquire, of County Lancashire in England, town of Pendleton, who was born about 1500. The Pendleton family name was well known in public life during the reign of Henry VIII.
John Penn, grew up on a small farm in Caroline County, Virginia, where he had hills to climb, caves and dense woods to explore, a stream full of fish, and plenty of wildlife to hunt. He attended a common school for only two years. Moses Penn, his father, modestly wealthy, did not consider education to be important. But one important ingredient was lacking in his son’s life—motivation.
At the age of 18, John Penn’s world changed dramatically. His father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving behind a grieving widow. The farm needed direction, and his mother support and care. The young man suddenly realized the need for an education and his uncle, Edmund Pendleton, took him under his wing. Pendleton was an accomplished attorney, described by his friend Thomas Jefferson as “the greatest orator” in the colonies. Pendleton moved people both by knowledge and empathy, and wrote George Washington’s will the night before Washington was appointed Commander in Chief by the Continental Congress.
John Penn practically moved into Pendleton’s library—a library which both Jefferson and Adams described as having no equal in the colonies—one filled with history, biography, religion and philosophy. Under Pendleton’s auspices Penn had the opportunity to observe some of Virginia’s finest lawyers, learning both the fine points of the law and techniques. Just three years after the death of his father, in 1762, John Penn was licensed to practice law in Virginia, and did so for the next twelve years.
On July 28, 1763, Penn married Susanna Lyne and they raised two children. Susanna’s father, Henry Lyne, was born in Virginia about 1720. He was probably the grandson or great-grandson of William Lyne who sailed from Liverpool to America around 1635. The Lyne family in England dates back to the Norman Conquest.
While he was practicing in Virginia many of Penn’s relatives moved to Granville County, North Carolina and in 1774 he moved his family to the area of Williamsboro, North Carolina. There appear to have been two reasons—closely related—for his removal at this time. One of these reasons was discovered by a retired Smithsonian historian who for years served as a liaison between the Smithsonian and the White House. In early 1774, Penn found himself brought into court on charges of disrespectful and perhaps treasonous remarks about King George. Taxes and duties without representation were the issues, and Penn was in the vanguard of those colonials wanting immediate redress of the wrong or to break away from the mother country.
It seems that Penn had been intemperate in remarks about the king in a public meeting. Someone present reported him to royal authorities, and Penn was duly charged. Although tried before friendly townsmen, Penn was found guilty by the perhaps intimidated jury. The judge, perhaps less fearful, limited Penn’s punishment to a one penny fine. A man of principle, John Penn refused to pay the fine, thus sticking his neck out even further.
The other reason for moving, which may have been the key, lay in Penn’s feelings about growing British rule and restrictions. Many other Virginians, including Judge Pendleton (who was chairman of the Virginia Committee of Public Safety) were also concerned about English misrule. The difference was that Penn was on a faster track for independence—a complete separation—than was his uncle. Judge Pendleton still hoped England could be convinced to provide the colonists the same rights as those enjoyed by residents in Great Britain. John Penn hesitated to go publicly against his benefactor, but at the same time he was unwilling to subdue his growing radical inclinations.
Granville County was the ideal place for a man whose thoughts were now filled with more advanced opinions on liberty. Undoubtedly he had heard from some relatives about the people who chafed under British heavy-handedness and the rule of commercial interests in the eastern part of North Carolina. They resented leadership which treated them as ignorant upstarts, denying them their share of positions in local government.
When Penn arrived in the rural area of Williamsboro, he found two overriding concerns:
(1) The growing restrictions of British rule
(2) The unfair treatment from a local government dominated by big plantation owners and wealthy merchants.
Penn was quickly accepted and recognized as a leader in Granville and his law practice took root. His popularity soared, and in a few moths he was elected to the First Continental Congress and to the Provincial Congress, much to the alarm of the eastern North Carolina establishment, who viewed him as an intruder and a threat.
Penn emerged as a leader at the Provincial Congress meeting in Hillsborough in August 1775, and was assigned to several important committees:
(1) To confer with and secure the cooperation of such inhabitants as had scruples against joining the American cause
(2) To effect a temporary form of government
(3) To prepare a civil constitution
(4) To review and consider statutes and draft bills consistent with the genius of a free people
Arriving in Congress later in the year, Penn declared, “My first wish is for America to be free.” Penn maintained a hectic schedule for the remainder of the year and into the spring of 1776. In a letter to Tom Person in February, 1776, Penn underscored the seriousness of the crisis and said that he was clearly on the side of liberty.
In April he returned home to bring a report from Philadelphia and to head up the Provincial Congress committee drawing up the particulars of the usurpations and violence committed against America. The Provincial Congress authorized Penn and the other North Carolina delegates to join the other colonies in declaring independence and forming alliances. In this, North Carolina legislature led all the other colonies in declaring for a complete separation from Great Britain.
Although the delegates worked in Independence Hall with the windows closed during the unbearably hot summer, there were moments of humor. On July 1 John Dickinson was well into his second hour of speaking against breaking away from England. Sitting at an angle behind him was John Penn. To the left was John Adams, his arms folded while he weighed the chances of getting a unanimous vote for independence. Or was he asleep? Sitting in the back was Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration , whose mind had apparently traveled to Charlottesville where his bride awaited him.
Suddenly, Dickinson’s talk was interrupted by a vigorous thunderclap which rattled the building. Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, the oldest but not the least active of the delegates, dropped the hickory cane his head had been resting on, and looked about sharply.
Sitting behind him, John Penn jumped up, not at the sound of thunder, but fearful the old gentleman had been frightened. He learned over Hopkins’ shoulder to whisper reassurance, telling him there was no reason to be alarmed. “There is a rod atop the State House”, he said, “—one of Dr. Franklin’s inventions—the celebrated lightning rod. If by chance a bolt of lightning should strike the belfry, that same rod would run the bolt into the ground.” Turning to Penn, Hopkins roared, “I don’t give a damn about any rod or lightning bolt. I’m just tired of Dickinson’s long-winded harangue!”
Many years later, 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, that there had been no greater Tory in Congress than Hooper, but that Hewes was sometimes firm, sometimes feeble, changing direction according as the day was clear or cloudy. 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.
According to historian E. A. Alderman, the delegates combined the functions of financial and purchasing agents of commissary generals and reporters of all great rumor or events. They had to buy military supplies, arrange shipment and conduct intricate financial operations. All these things Penn did besides attending numerous committee meetings and the regular sessions of Congress for nearly six hears.
It is difficult for us to imagine the personal sacrifices made by John Penn and other members of the Continental Congress in order to serve their fellow countrymen. To travel 400 plus miles to Philadelphia by horseback or stagecoach involved unbelievable hardships and dangers. Even in good weather the dirt roads were only rutted Indian trails, which turned into quagmires in a storm. Life was at risk at the 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, purse, pants or baggage.
For his service in the Congress Penn received no salary, only an occasional small voucher for travel reimbursement. As travel was slow, it took him two weeks or so to journey from Granville County to Independence Hall. In view of these hardships, it is not surprising that so many of the delegates were afflicted by poor health and that many died quite young.
Early in July 1779 the Pennsylvania Packet stated that not all members of Congress were free of scandal. The publication attacked Congress for ineptitude in economic matters coupled with charges that some members were using their position to make fortunes on wild speculations which undermined continental currency. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, a merchant member of Congress, demanded that the publisher of the Packet be brought to court for slander and disrespect of Congress.
John Penn then took to the floor in defense of freedom of speech. His view, according to historian Page Smith, 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.”
What was quite out of character for John Penn occurred during the summer heat of a Congressional session when Henry Laurens, the President of Congress, and John Penn agreed 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—probably exchanging a few toasts afterwards to complete the proceedings.
In 1780 the British embarked on their attempt to win the Revolutionary War in the South, defeating the American army under General Gates at Camden on August 16, 1780. Colonel Otto Williams, a combatant, gave a vivid description of the desertions and looting that took place: “Leading a torrent of unarmed militia who fled the scene was General Gates and Richard Caswell (a general who later became governor of North Caroline) who fled non-stop on horseback to Charlotte, 60 miles or so away….Another general had his sword stolen from his tent…Another group helped themselves to Caswell’s mess, drinking a pipe of excellent Madeira.”
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.”
American victories at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, and Greene’s standoff with the British at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse compelled the British Army under Cornwallis to begin a retreat through North Carolina and Virginia that ended with the victory at Yorktown.
Jealous perhaps of Penn’s success, and feeling that his actions impinged on his own authority, Governor Burke recalled Penn and persuaded the legislature to abolish the Board of War in 1781.
John Penn was characterized as having an attractive and congenial personality. Unobtrusive and unassuming, but remarkably efficient, likeable and discreet, he quickly won the respect and confidence of his colleagues in the Continental Congress.
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 beloved wife in Stovall, his health somewhat shattered by the wear of six years in Congress. The strain had been heavy, and weariness must have removed from his sight any dreams he may have had of future political or judicial goals. 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 and was buried at his home a few miles northeast of Stovall in Granville County, North Carolina. On April 25, 1894 his remains were re-interred under the Signers Monument, together with the remains of William Hooper, close by the equestrian statue of General Nathaniel Greene at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
On March 16, 2008, a DSDI plaque was dedicated to the memory of John Penn and William Hooper at the Signers Monument, and an elaborate ceremony was performed on the occasion, including a 21 gun salute.
In Washington D.C. near the Washington Monument, in a memorial park dedicated to the signers of the Declaration, there are 56 granite blocks, one of which bears the name of John Penn.
On June 6, 1933, a memorial tablet to Penn’s great-grandfather, James Taylor, was unveiled at King and Queen Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia listing a number of his descendants including “John Penn (signer of the Declaration of Independence)”.
David McCullough, descendant, 2008
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