John Penn (1741-1788)

Written By Adrienne Dunn

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’s 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.