(Note: The John Penn marker was the first sign erected under the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, on January 10, 1936.)
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The life of John Penn (1740-1788) provides an early example of the American dream. With nothing more than a rudimentary education, Penn rose through legal and political circles to ultimately become one of three North Carolinians to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The only son of Moses and Catherine Penn on May 6, 1740, John Penn spent his childhood in Virginia’s Caroline County. While his family enjoyed moderate wealth, Penn received only basic instruction in rural schoolhouses, as his father mandated. After his father’s death, however, lawyer, neighbor, and relative Edmond Pendleton offered young Penn use of his library. Through self-instruction and an apprenticeship under Pendleton, John acquired knowledge of law sufficient for admittance to the Caroline County bar in 1762.
After wedding Susannah Lyme in 1763, and practicing law for over a decade, in 1774 Penn and his family settled near Williamsborough in what was the Granville County, the epicenter of the colony’s growing independence movement. Since Penn had already earned a reputation as an elegant and persuasive orator, he first entered the political realm as a representative at the Third Provincial Congress in August of 1775. After earning the respect of constituents and colleagues, Penn joined William Hooper and Joseph Hewes at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, replacing Richard Caswell.
During their appointment to the Continental Congress, Penn and Hooper arrived in Halifax, North Carolina, on April 15, three days after the adoption of the Halifax Resolves, a document sanctioning independence from England, was made public. Penn went on to sign the Declaration of Independence in August of 1776, his best known contribution to North Carolina history. With somewhat less fanfare, Penn joined fellow patriots Cornelius Harnett and John Williams in signing the articles of Confederation, a document joining the individual states within federal government.
Later in his career, Penn served on North Carolina’s Board of War, established by Abner Nash in 1780, and on an advisory council to governor Thomas Burke in 1781. After a failed bid for re-election to governor’s council, Penn retired to his home near Island Creek in Granville County, where he died at age 48. Although he was originally buried near Island Creek, in 1894 his remains were transferred to what would become Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 65-66—sketch by George Troxler
William L. Saunders, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, X (1887)
Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina (1917)
Samuel A. Ashe, History of North Carolina, I (1908)
Robert L. Ganyard, The Emergence of North Carolina’s Revolutionary State Government (1978)