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John Penn (1741-1788)

John Penn born in 1741. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

John Penn born in 1741. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Patriot, Continental Congress member, and North Carolina signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Penn was a native of Caroline County, Virginia.  Although he achieved only a limited, formal education, Penn read many books from the library of Edmund Pendleton, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses’ and Penn’s uncle.  Under the tutelage of Pendleton, Penn served as a legal apprentice and in 1762 obtained a license to practice law.  The Patriot first practiced law in Virginia before traveling to Granville County, North Carolina and establishing a law practice.

Penn’s involvement in public affairs began with his 1775 election to the Continental Congress. He was reelected in 1777, 1778, and 1779 and served on various committees.

During the American Revolution, Penn contributions to the war effort were noteworthy.  Before signing the Declaration of Independence, Penn and Joseph Hewes, both North Carolina delegates, voted on July 2, 1776 for independence from Great Britain.  Although absent from voting, another North Carolina delegate, William Hooper, signed the Declaration of Independence with Hewes and Penn.  In 1778, Penn signed the Articles of Confederation, and Governor Abner Nash appointed the Tar Heel to serve on the North Carolina Board of War from 1780-1781.  Penn proved to be the most active member of the Board; he supplied war materials to Nathanael Greene’s Continentals and Francis Marion’s guerrillas.  As a result of these actions, Penn has been credited for Charles Cornwallis’s ultimate defeat.

Following the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence signatory was appointed in April 1783 by Robert Morris, another signer of the Declaration of Independence, as North Carolina’s receiver of taxes for the Confederation government.  One month later, however, Penn resigned not given sufficient authority to collect taxes.  Penn then returned to practicing law until his death. 

Although a World-War-II attack-transport ship, USS John Penn, was dedicated in Penn’s honor, the North Carolinian’s efforts during the American Revolution and defense of liberty have been largely overlooked.

Sources: (Accessed July 2, 2010); (Accessed July 2, 2010); (Accessed July 2, 2010).


By Adrienne Dunn, North Carolina History Project

See Also:

Related Categories: Revolution Era, Political History, Early America, Colonial North Carolina
Related Encyclopedia Entries: Arthur Dobbs (1689-1765), Edward Vail (1717-1777), Edenton Tea Party, Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, Carteret County (1722), Robert Howe (1732-1786), Republicanism, William Hooper (1742-1790), Watauga Association, Cross Creek, William Richardson Davie (1756-1820), Alfred Moore (1755-1810), Principles of an American Whig, Stamp Tax Protests (Wilmington), Sons of Liberty, Non-Importation Movement, Merchants Committees of Inspection, The Justice and Policy of Taxing the American Colonies in Great Britain Considered, Provincial Convention (1775), Tories, John Alexander Lillington (c.1725-1786), Richard Dobbs Spaight (1758-1802), Archibald Maclaine (1728-1790), The Great Seal of the State of North Carolina, Philip Alston, The Test, Port Act, Cornelius Harnett, Thomas Burke (1747-1783), David Fanning (1755-1825), William Richardson Davie (1756-1820), Polk County (1855), Lincoln County (1779), Gaston County (1846), Randolph County (1779), Edgecombe County (1741), Guilford County (1771), Battle of Guilford Court House, Chowan County (1681), Pamlico County (1872), Nash County (1777), Battle at the Mouth of Sandy Creek, Battle of Plymouth (1864), Granville County (1746), Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Rutherford's Campaign, Royal Governor William Tryon (1729 - 1788), Tryon Palace, Royal Governor Josiah Martin (1737 - 1786), Battle of Cowan’s Ford (February 1, 1781), The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill (June 20, 1780)
Related Commentary: Edenton Tea Party: An American First, When Wilmington Threw A Tea Party: Women and Political Awareness in Revolution-Era North Carolina, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 1771 Alamance: The First Battle of Our American Revolution, Defending Liberty From The Bench, Defending Liberty From the Bench

Timeline: 1664-1775 , 1776-1835
Region: Statewide

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