Penn was born in 1740 or 1741 in Caroline County, Va. His father was a well-to-do farmer, and his mother the daughter of a prominent county judge. Despite the family's social position, Penn received only a few years of formal schooling. At the age of 18, when his father died, he inherited a sizable estate. But he was dissatisfied with the prospects it offered, and decided to continue his education. Encouraged by a relative, Edmund Pendleton, a well-known lawyer who made available his personal library, Penn studied law on his own and within 3 years gained admittance to the bar. Soon thereafter he married; he and his wife reared three children.
In 1774, at the end of more than a decade of successful law practice in Virginia, Penn journeyed to Granville County, N.C., and made his home near Stovall. The next year, he was elected to the provincial assembly and only a few weeks later to the Continental Congress (1775-80). In 1777, upon the retirement of Hewes and Hooper, he inherited the leadership of his State's delegation. He was one of the 16 signers of the Declaration who also signed the Articles of Confederation.
Unobtrusive and unassuming but remarkably efficient, likeable, and discreet, Penn quickly won the respect of his congressional colleagues. He rarely disputed with others, but when he did his good humor and peaceful manner saved the day. On one occasion, he feuded with President of Congress Henry Laurens of South Carolina over a personal matter. He accepted Laurens' challenge to a duel, but en route to the proposed site convinced Laurens that they should bury their differences and drop the matter.
Late in 1780 the Governor of North Carolina recalled Penn from Congress to sit on the emergency Board of War, created by the legislature in September to share with the Governor responsibility for military affairs. The three-man board, of which Penn became the leading member, in effect soon assumed control of all military matters. The Governor and military officials, resenting the infringement upon their prerogatives and their loss of authority, persuaded the legislature to abolish the board in January 1781.
His health declining, the following July Penn declined an appointment to the Governor's Council. With the exception of a short tour in 1784 as State tax receiver for the Confederation, he apparently devoted his last years to his law practice. In 1788, only in his late forties, he died at his home near Stovall. Originally buried in the family graveyard adjacent to his home, his remains now rest in Guilford Courthouse National Military Park near Greensboro.
Drawing: Detail from the lithograph "Signers of the Declaration of Independence," published in 1876 by Ole Erekson, Library of Congress.
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004