John Penn (1741 – 1788)

Written By Adrienne Dunn

Patriot, Continental Congress delegate, 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. He 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.

Before signing the Declaration of Independence, Penn and Joseph Hewes, both North Carolina delegates, voted on July 2, 1776, for independence from Great Britain. Another North Carolina delegate, William Hooper, was absent from the vote, but he later signed the Declaration of Independence with Hewes and Penn.

Penn’s contributions to the war effort were noteworthy. In 1778, Penn signed the Articles of Confederation, the rules established by the Continental Congress for the duration of the war and for the first years after the war.  North Carolina governor Abner Nash appointed Penn 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 at Yorktown.

Following the American Revolution, Penn 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 having been given sufficient authority to collect taxes. Penn then returned to practicing law until his death. 

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