PENN, JOHN. (1740–1788). Signer. Virginia and North Carolina. Born in Caroline County, Virginia, 6 May 1740, John Penn studied law with his kinsman Edmund Pendleton, passing the bar in 1761. He moved to Williamsboro, North Carolina, in 1774, where he became a local political leader. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, serving until 1780, becoming famous for rarely speaking in public yet having an active social life. Initially favoring reconciliation, Penn became an advocate in 1776 of both independence and foreign alliances, and signed the Declaration of Independence. During the foreign affairs controversy involving Silas Deane and Richard Henry Lee, Penn became such a violent defender of Robert Morris against the accusations of Henry Laurens (a Deane supporter) that, in January 1779, Laurens challenged Penn to a duel. As he assisted his elderly opponent across the street from the boarding house they shared, Penn realized the absurdity of the situation and suggested that they call it off. Laurens agreed.
Returning to his state, Penn became a member of the North Carolina board of war in 1780. General Charles Cornwallis was moving north, the state authorities were clashing with the Continental officers that were being sent to defend the South, and Penn waged an administrative battle against all three. His post was abolished when Thomas Burke became governor of North Carolina in 1781. In July he returned to the private practice of law. He died on 14 September 1788.
SEE ALSO Deane, Silas.
Morgan, David T., and William J. Schmidt. North Carolinians in the Continental Congress. Winston-Salem, N.C.: J. F. Blair, 1976.
The John Penn Papers. Duke University Library, Durham, N.C.
revised by Michael Bellesiles