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This webpage reproduces an item in
The North Carolina Booklet

Vol. 4 No. 5 (May 1904), pp4‑23

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p5 John Penn


[image ALT: A lithogravure of a man in his thirties, with long wavy hair and a serious, placid expression. It is John Penn, one of the North Carolina signers of the American Declaration of Independence.]

By Thomas Merritt Pittman

"There sounds not to the trump of fame

The echo of a nobler name."

American history is rich in examples of men who have overcome poverty and humble birth and wrought out for themselves enduring fame. Not many have accomplished the more difficult task of winning distinction, where high station and easy fortune were joined with associations indifferent to education and contemptuous of intellectual attainment. We enter the name of John Penn upon the roll of those who achieved the higher honor.

He was born in Caroline County, Virginia, May 17, 1741.

His father, Moses Penn, was a gentleman of comfortable fortune, but so indifferent to intellectual culture, according to Lossing, that he provided his only son no other opportunity of acquiring an education than was afforded by two or three years' attendance upon a common country school. He died when his son was eighteen years of age, and is said to have left him the sole possessor of a competent though not large estate.

His mother was Catherine, daughter of John Taylor, one of the first Justices of Caroline County. James Taylor, who came from Carlisle, England, about 1635, was the first p6of the family to settle in Virginia. The family was an important one and has contributed many able and useful men to the public service, including two Presidents of the United States — James Madison and Zachary Taylor. Hannis Taylor, a distinguished son of North Carolina, John R. McLean of Ohio and Mrs. Dewey, wife of Admiral Dewey, are among the distinguished members of the family at this time.

Those members of his mother's family with whom John Penn came into closest relations and who most influenced his course in life were his cousins, John Taylor of Caroline and Edmund Pendleton. The first, nine years his junior, is usually spoken of as his grandfather and sometimes as his son-in‑law — an unusually wide range of kinship. The last may be true, since the family records show that he married a Penn, but more likely a sister or other relative than a daughter of John Penn. It is said in the family that the only daughter of John Penn married Colonel Taylor of Granville and died without issue. John Taylor of Caroline was born in 1750, graduated from William and Mary College, studied law under Chancellor Nathaniel Pendleton, served in the Revolution, was Senator from Virginia in 1792, 1803 and 1822, and was a writer of much note. One of his books won the heartiest commendation of Jefferson "as the most logical retraction of our governments to the original and true principles of the constitution creating them which has appeared since the adoption of that instrument." Edmund Pendleton probably contributed more than any other to shaping of young Penn's career. He was born in p71721, and was a scholarly man and able lawyer, of conservative views upon political questions. Jefferson, whom he sometimes opposed, says: "He was the ablest man in debate I have ever met with. * * * Add to this that he was one of the most virtuous and benevolent of men, the kindest friend, the most amiable and pleasant of companions, which ensured a favorable reception to whatever came from him." He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775, President of the Virginia General Committee of Safety. He wrote the preamble and resolutions directing the Virginia delegates in Congress to propose to "declare the United Colonies free and independent States," was President of the Convention to consider the Federal Constitution, and President of the Virginia Court of Appeals. Upon the death of Moses Penn, he gave to his young kinsman, who resided near him in the same neighborhood, free use of his extensive library, an opportunity that was improved to such advantage that the defects of early education were largely overcome, and, without teacher or other aid than his own industry, young Penn studied law and was admitted to the bar of his native county when he reached the age of twenty-one years. But it may be inferred from a playful allusion of Mr. Iredell, "As Mr. Penn would say 'in nubibus' (extremely uncertain)," that he was sometimes not entirely classical.

Of Mr. Penn as a lawyer, Lossing says: "His practice soon developed a native eloquence before inert and unsuspected, and by it, in connection with close application to business, p8he rapidly soared to eminence. His eloquence was of that sweet persuasive kind which excites all the tender emotions of the soul, and possesses a controlling power at times irresistible."

Mr. Penn remained in Virginia but a few years. In 1774, while yet a young man of thirty-three years, he came to North Carolina and settled near Williamsboro in the northern part of Granville County, then the most important place in the county. Whatever may have been his attitude towards political questions prior to that time, his ardent nature quickly responded to the intense sentiment of patriotism that prevailed in his new home. He soon became as one to the "manner born," and a leader of the people in their great crisis. The year after locating in Granville he was sent by the inhabitants of that county to represent them in the Provincial (Revolutionary) Congress, which met at Hillsboro, August 20, 1775. Here he proved himself more than a pleasing speaker, and won the cordial recognition of the Congress. There were one hundred and eighty-four members, yet he was appointed on some fifteen or twenty committees, nearly all the more important ones, and his work was extraordinarily heavy. It will not be amiss to mention a few of these committees, with notes of their work:

(a) To confer with such inhabitants as had political or religious scruples about joining in the American cause, and secure their co‑operation:

"The religious and political scruples of the Regulators were removed by a conference." — Bancroft.

p9 (b) To form a temporary form of government:

"This was the most important committee yet appointed by popular authority in our annals." — E. A. Alderman.

(c) To prepare a civil constitution:

Mr. Penn was not on this committee at first, but he and William Hooper were added. "Before the body, thus completed, was fought one of the most desperate party battles to be recorded in the civil history of the State." — Jones' Defense.

Government of the people, for the people and by the people was a new and startling thought in those long-ago days. Now any fairly good lawyer can write a whole constitution by himself, and would be glad of the job if a good fee went with it. Then a Constitutional Convention had never been heard of, and the very idea of independence itself was held in abeyance, while men wondered what sort of government should clothe it. In January, 1776, Mr. Wythe of Virginia sat in the chambers of John Adams and the two talked of independence. Mr. Wythe thought the greatest obstacle to declaring it was the difficulty of agreeing upon a form of government. Mr. Adams replied that each colony should form a government for itself, as a free and independent State. He was requested to put the views there expressed in writing, which, upon his compliance, were published anonymously by R. H. Lee, under the title, "Thoughts on Government, in a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend." Later the delegates from North Carolina, by direction of the Provincial Congress, called on Mr. Adams for advice concerning a form of government p10for this State. He furnished Mr. Penn, whom he calls "my honest and sincere friend," a letter similar to the pamphlet just mentioned. The conformity of the Constitution afterwards adopted to this letter in many particulars, shows the practical use to which it was put. The letter was afterwards given by Mr. Penn to his cousin, John Taylor of Caroline, who used it in his work on the Constitution, much to Mr. Adams' surprise, who, apparently ignorant of the relations between the two, could not account for Taylor's possession of his views.

(d) To review and consider statutes, etc., "and to prepare such bills to be passed into laws as might be consistent with the genius of a free people":

"The fruits of their labors are manifest in the laws passed in the years immediately succeeding, laws which have received encomiums for the ability and skill and accuracy with which they are drawn." — Preface to Revised Statutes.

Other committees scarcely less important than those named required able and laborious service, but the space allotted to this paper must exclude them from mention at this time.

The impress of this stranger, so recently from another colony, upon the Congress was something wonderful. On September 8, 1775, less than a month from its assembling, it elected him to succeed Richard Caswell as delegate to the Continental Congress, with William Hooper and Joseph Hewes. In this connection it is stated in Jones' Defense that he was "a man of sterling integrity as a private citizen, p11and well deserved the honor which was now conferred upon him." We learn from Dr. E. A. Alderman also that this "was the beginning of a close and tender friendship and sympathy between Hooper and Penn in all the trying duties of the hour."

The idea of the province at that time was to secure a redress of grievances, not a dissolution of political relations with the mother country. Indeed, the Provincial Congress declared: "As soon as the causes of our fears and apprehensions are removed, with joy will we return these powers to their regular channels; and such institutions, formed from mere necessity, shall end with that necessity that created them." But the trend of events was beyond their choosing. No accommodation with the British authority was practicable. The end was inevitable, and Penn was one of the first to realize the true situation. He wrote Thomas Person, his friend and countyman, February 14, 1776: "Matters are drawing to a crisis. They seem determined to persevere, and are forming alliances against us. Must we not do something of the like nature? Can we hope to carry on a war without having trade or commerce somewhere? Can we even pay any taxes without it? Will [not?] our paper money depreciate if we go on emitting? These are serious things and require your consideration. The consequence of making alliances is, perhaps, a total separation from Britain, and without something of this sort we may not be able to procure what is necessary for our defense. My first wish is that America be free; the second, that we may be restored to peace and harmony p12with Britain upon just and proper terms." Person was a member of the Council. By the advice of that body the Provincial Congress was convened on April 4th. On the 7th Penn and the other delegates reached Halifax from Philadelphia. On the 8th a committee, which included Thomas Person, was appointed to take into consideration "the usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of Britain against America, and the further measures to be taken for frustrating the same and for the better defense of the Province." This committee reported, and the Congress adopted a resolution which empowered the delegates to the Continental Congress to "concur with the delegates from the other colonies in declaring independence and forming foreign alliances." By virtue of this authority William Hooper, Joseph Hewes and John Penn, in behalf of North Carolina, joined in the execution of the Declaration of American Independence. Colonel W. L. Saunders says: "This was the first authoritative, explicit declaration, by more than a month, by any colony in favor of a full, final separation from Britain, and the first like expression on the vexed question of forming foreign alliances." It may be added that both resulted from Mr. Penn's initiative, as just shown. It is entirely possible that the influence of Penn may have reached across the border and moved his cousin, Edmund Pendleton, to follow and improve upon the example of North Carolina, and offer the Virginia resolution directing the delegates from that colony to propose a declaration of independence.

p13 The significance of Mr. Penn's action does not fully appear to the casual view, but the following letter from John Adams to William Plummer throws new light upon the situation:

"You inquire, in your kind letter of the 19th, whether 'every member of Congress did, on the 4th of July, 1776, in fact cordially approve of the Declaration of Independence.'

"They who were then members all signed, and, as I could not see their hearts, it would be hard for me to say that they did not approve it; but as far as I could penetrate the intricate internal foldings of their souls, I then believed, and have not since altered my opinion, that there were several who signed with regret, and several others with many doubts and much lukewarmness. The measure had been upon the carpet for months, and obstinately opposed from day to day. Majorities were constantly against it. For many days the majority depended on Mr. Hewes of North Carolina. While a member one day was speaking and reading documents from all the colonies to prove that the public opinion, the general sense of all was in favor of the measure, when he came to North Carolina, and produced letters and public proceedings which demonstrated that the majority of that colony were in favor of it, Mr. Hewes, who had hitherto constantly voted against it, started suddenly upright, and lifting up both his hands to Heaven, as if he had been in a trance, cried out: 'It is done, and I will abide by it!' I would give more for a perfect painting of the terror and horror upon the faces of the old majority at that critical moment than for the best p14piece of Raphael."

But for the action of the North Carolina Congress it is extremely doubtful if Mr. Hewes could have been induced to support the measure. Mr. Hooper was detained at home; so upon a vote at that time North Carolina's vote must have been against the measure, and independence at least delayed.

It is not to be ignored that the first delegates to the Continental Congress — Hooper, Hewes and Caswell — were from the east, "and had not ceased to regard the Regulators * * as red-handed traitors," while Penn must be classed as a representative of the Regulator element. He was this friend of Person and was not cordially esteemed by Caswell, possibly because of that intimacy. Caswell in a letter to Burke characterizes Person as "more troublesome this Assembly, if possible, than formerly." Hooper, Hewes and the men of their party were for what we call the aristocracy, for want of a better name. They "were in favor of a splendid government, representing the property of the people, and thus giving by its own independence and splendor a high character of dignity to the State." They had not learned the truth that men constitute a State. Even Hooper, almost unapproachable in fineness of spirit, in splendor of intellect and loyal patriotism, lacked sympathy and faith in the people. In consequence, his life was incomplete and his power failed at a time when the State had much need of his learning and great ability. Penn and Person, with their party, stood for the people, and had constant accessions of strength with every trial of their faith and sympathy. Governor Caswell wrote p15Mr. Burke: "Mr. Harnett * * * I am sure will give you his utmost assistance. Mr. Penn has engaged his to the Assembly, I am told. Very little conversation passed between him and myself on public matters." This cannot have been the fault of Penn, for it is of record that he made advances for the friendship of Caswell. One after another of the delegates to the Continental Congress found the burdens, expense and hardships of the office too heavy and retired. Mr. Penn soon became the senior member from North Carolina. Others became gloomy and discouraged. Penn, more trustful of the people, quietly, steadily, hopefully and uncomplainingly remained at his post and wrote home to Person: "For God's sake, my good sir, encourage our people; animate them to dare even to die for their country."

There can be no doubt that the position of a delegate to the Continental Congress was beset with great difficulties. Under much more favorable conditions the conflict would have been unequal. But situated as the colonies were, the outlook was appalling. A government and all its departments had to be created outright; a currency and credit established; an army organized — all in the face of an enemy ever ready for war. There were also domestic problems that embarrassed the national administration at every step. The Confederation was little more than a rope of sand, and the government had little power to enforce its policies. In North Carolina the militia were not even available to oppose the invasion of Georgia and South Carolina, by which the British would reach this State, until an act was passed by the General p16Assembly authorizing their employment without its borders. This is mentioned only to show how serious were the problems which perplexed and burdened our delegates in the Continental Congress. These delegates also abounded in labors wholly foreign to their legislative duties. These have been strikingly summarized in Dr. Alderman's address on Hooper: "They combined the functions of financial and purchasing agents, of commissary-generals, reporters of all great rumors or events, and, in general, bore the relation to the remote colony of ministers resident at a foreign court. * * * They kept the Council of Safety well informed as to the progress of affairs; they negotiated for clothing and supplies for our troops. In the course of only two months they expended five thousand pounds in purchasing horses and wagons, which they sent to Halifax loaded with every conceivable thing — from the English Constitution to the wagoner's rum — pamphlets, sermons, cannon, gunpowder, drums and pills. They scoured Philadelphia for salt pans and essays on salt-making; they haggled avoid the price of gray mares, and cursed the incompetency of slothful blacksmith whose aid they sought."

Is it any wonder, then, that Hooper resigned and Hewes laid down his life in the struggle; that Harnett appealed to be relieved, and that nearly every man who passed through the trials of the position only reached home to lay down his life without even a view of the morning of old age? None of these difficulties moved John Penn. His courage and p17hopefulness were invitation. But he died while yet a young man!

The delegates served almost without compensation. A salary of sixteen hundred pounds per annum was allowed for a time, but the depreciation of the currency was so great that the amount proved wholly inadequate, and it was determined to pay their expenses and defer the fixing of compensation to a future time. As illustrating the depreciation of the money, Iredell wrote in 1780: "They are giving the money at the printing-office in so public and careless a manner as to make it quite contemptible."

The scope of this paper does not permit a more detailed discussion of his Congressional career. It may be added that while he made no conspicuous public display, Mr. Penn's services were highly efficient and useful, and entirely acceptable to the people he represented. Another distinguished honor that fell to him during his congressional career may be barely mentioned: with John Williams and Cornelius Harnett, he ratified the Articles of Confederation in behalf of North Carolina.

In 1777 he was appointed Judge of the Court of Oyer and Terminer for the Hillsboro District. He questioned the legality of the Court and declined the appointment with what his associate in the appointment, J. Kitchin, called "inflexible obstinacy." But Samuel Johnston in like manner refused to exercise the same office in the Edenton District and notified Governor Caswell that the bar concurred in his opinion.

Upon the retirement of Governor Caswell, Abner Nash became p18Governor. He complained to the Assembly that he derived no assistance from his Council, and suggested the creation of a Board of War. This was acceded to and the constitutional prerogatives of the Governor were probably infringed by the powers granted. It was charged with the control of military affairs within the State, and was composed of Colonel Alexander Martin, John Penn and Oroondates Davis. It organized at Hillsboro in September, 1780. The other members had occasion to leave for their homes within two or three days after its organization, and Mr. Penn became practically the Board, and exercised its powers alone during the greater part of its existence. He conducted its affairs with great energy, decision, tact and efficiency. Finally he became ill and unable to exercise the office. In a little while thereafter there was a clash with the Governor, who had become sore over the invasion of his dignity and authority. He carried his complaint to the next Assembly, who discontinued the Board of War and elected a new Governor. There has been some disposition to belittle the Board of War and its operations, particularly by General Davie. But Governor Graham, who was familiar with the records, and whose fairness, diligence and ability to judge correctly are beyond question, views their work very differently. He says: "They undertook the work devolved on them in the most devoted spirit of patriotism, and with a proper sense of its magnitude, and executed its duties with fearlessness, ability and eminent public benefit."

While the Board sat at Hillsboro that village was the scene p19of great activity and was crowded to its utmost capacity. Iredell wrote his wife that he and Colonel Williams had to ride out every evening two or three miles to Governor Burke's, and "must have deprived of that resource if Governor Rutledge had not been so obliging as to stay in town and take half of Penn's bed, in order to accommodate us."

Mr. Penn did not thereafter re-enter public life with any great activity. In July, 1781, he was appointed a member of the Governor's Council, and was notified to attend a meeting at Williamsboro, near his home, Thomas Burke, his old colleague in the Continental Congress, being then Governor. He replied: "My ill-state of health * * * will perhaps prevent my undertaking to act in the office you mention. As I have always accepted every office I have been appointed to by my countrymen, and endeavored to discharge my duty previous to this appointment, I expect my friends will not blame me."

After the war he was appointed by Robert Morris Receiver of Taxes in North Carolina, but resigned after holding the office about a month. He was yet a young man, but his work was done. In September, 1787, at the age of forty-six years, he died at his home in Granville County and was buried near Island Creek, whence his dust was moved to Guilford Battle-ground a few years ago.

The halo with which time and sentiment have surrounded those who wrought our independence has largely veiled the real men from our view, but they were quite as human as the men of to‑day. Mention has been made of the bitter political p20differences among the patriots of the Revolution. These developed at an early period. The election of Penn to the Continental Congress was the beginning of democratic representation from North Carolina in that body. The real struggle came over the formation of the State Constitution. The aristocratic party were deeply chagrined and resentful of democratic dominance, and proved sadly inferior to their opponents in self-control. The most eminent of their leaders was Samuel Johnston, a man of great ability and character, whom the State delighted to honor. Intemperate language from such a man indicates something of the prevailing tone of party feeling. He wrote: "Every one who has the least pretence to be a gentleman is suspected and borne down per ignobile vulgus — a set of men without reading, experience or principle to govern them." Very naturally Mr. Johnston lost his place in the Governor's Council and his seat in the Provincial Congress; and in the Congressional election next ensuing, upon a contest between Mr. Penn and his old colleague, Mr. Hewes, the latter was defeated. Throughout these controversies Mr. Penn seems to have borne himself with such prudence and moderation as to avoid personal entanglements and command the respect of those who opposed him. Aside from Governor Caswell's petulance and Governor Davie's silly sneer, he was almost uniformly spoken of in respectful terms, even in the free and confidential correspondence of Johnston and Iredell.

It is unfortunate that so little is known of Penn as a man and in his personal relations. At the age of twenty-two years p21he married Susan Lyme, by whom he had two children Lucy, who married Colonel Taylor, of Granville, and died without issue, and William, who removed to Virginia. No mention is made of Mrs. Penn in his will written in 1784, nor in his correspondence. It may be that she died before his removal to North Carolina. Messrs. James G. Penn, of Danville, Virginia, and Frank R. Penn, of Reidsville, North Carolina, are among the descendants of William. A sister married ––––– Hunt, of Granville County, and many descendants of that marriage yet live in Granville and Vance Counties, useful and honored citizens. That Mr. Penn was an orator is proof that he possessed warmth of feeling. The absence of controversy marks him an amiable and discreet man. His labors show him to have been a patriot, endowed with judgment, tact, industry and ability. That he was not devoid of social tastes is very clearly recognized by his colleagues in the Continental Congress. Mr. Burke wrote from Philadelphia: "The city is a scene of gaiety and dissipation, public assemblies every fortnight and private balls every night. In all such business as this we propose that Mr. Penn shall represent the whole State." One anecdote is preserved of his life in Philadelphia. He became involved in a personal difficulty with Mr. Laurens, President of the Congress, and a duel was arranged. They were fellow-boarders, and breakfasted together. They then started for the place of meeting on a vacant lot opposite the Masonic Hall on Chestnut street. "In crossing at Fifth street, where was then a deep slough, Mr. Penn kindly offered his hand to aid Mr. Laurens, then p22much the older, who accepted. He suggested to Mr. Laurens, who had challenged him, that it was a foolish affair, and it was made up on the spot."

His fidelity could not shield him from criticism. But as he made no complaints of hardships, so he made no effort to justify himself, but was content in saying to Governor Nash: "I have done, and still am willing to do, everything in my power for the interest of my country, as I prefer answering for my conduct after we have beaten the enemy." Others were more considerate of his reputation. Mr. Burke wrote Governor Caswell, declaring his own diligence, and said of Penn, "nor did perceive him in the least remiss." Harnett wrote the Governor, "his conduct as a delegate and a gentleman has been worthy and disinterested." The General Assembly on July 29, 1779, directed the Speaker of the House to transmit to him its resolution of thanks in part as follows:

"The General Assembly of North Carolina, by the unanimous resolves of both houses, have agreed that the thanks of the State be presented to you for the many great and important services you have rendered your country as a delegate in the Continental Congress. The assiduity and zeal with which you have represented our affairs in that Supreme Council of the Continent, during a long and painful absence from your family, demand the respectful attention of your countrymen, whose minds are impressed with a sense of the most lively gratitude."

Neither the county nor the State which Mr. Penn represented with such fidelity and credit have erected any p23memorial to his memory. But the Guilford Battle-ground Company, which is making a veritable Westminster Abbey for North Carolina, has been more mindful to render honor. Maj. J. M. Morehead, President of the Company, writes: "There is a handsome monument at Guilford Battle-ground, twenty feet in height, crowned with a statue of an orator holding within his hand a scroll — The Declaration — and bearing this inscription on a bronze tablet:

In Memoriam.

William Hooper and John Penn, Delegates from North Carolina,
1776, to the Continental Congress, and Signers of the
Declaration of Independence. Their Remains were
Re-interred Here 1894. Hewes' Grave is Lost.
He was the Third Signer.

**********

To Judge Jeter C. Pritchard Primarily the State is Indebted for
an Appropriation out of which this Monument was Erected.

After all, the value of the man's life rests in its example of unselfish, devoted patriotism, its fidelity to principle, its loyalty to the great spirit of Democracy — in that he lived not for man but for mankind.

"Vivit post funera ille, quem virtus non marmor in aeternum sacrat."


The Author's Note:

Note. — A curious instance of the failure of different branches of American families to keep track of each other was brought to light in the preparation of the foregoing paper.

Mr. J. P. Taylor, of Henderson, N. C., and Mr. J. G. Penn, of Danville, Va., have been copartners in business for seventeen years. In a recent conversation they first learned that they were kinsmen, one representing the male line of John Taylor, the other representing the female line through John Penn. T. M. P.


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