Reprinted from the Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.
To the number of honorable instances of individuals, who rose to eminence and distinction, among the leading patriots of the American revolution, by their own resolute and persevering efforts, with but little aid from others, may be added the name of John Penn. He emerged from obscurity, such as would have disheartened men of less energy of character, at the outset. But he resolved on accomplishing his purpose and he did accomplish it, notwithstanding many obstacles which for years opposed his progress.
He was a native of Virginia, and was born in the county of Caroline, on the 17th of May, 1741. He was the only child of Moses Penn, who seems to have regarded his welfare almost with indifference. For at the age of eighteen years, he had been furnished with but two or three years instruction in a common country school, whence he could have derived but small advantages. At that age, he lost his father by death. He industriously improved that very slight opportunity, to obtain what little knowledge it could furnish, which must have been very small.
His father left him a competent property, though not large, of which he became at that youthful period of life, the sole guardian and manager. The comparative obscurity of his early life, was in one respect favorable. It had preserved him from those dangerous associations, and contaminating examples which are numerous, and by which many unprotected youths are ensnared, and enticed to their ruin. But Mr. Penn possessed a mind which was disposed to avoid, and capable of resisting the dangerous allurements of youth, and of fixing on a course both discreet and honorable, and promising an auspicious result.
He was a relative of the celebrated Edmund Pendleton, one of the distinguished Virginia patriots, and fellow laborers with Messrs. Lee, Henry, Randolph, Wythe, &c. and young Penn availed himself of the use of his library, kindly tendered to him by its generous owner. He resided near to his kinsman, and taking advantage of his kindness, which gave him access to his books, he industriously applied himself to improve the privilege by intense application. Mr. Penn thus situated, formed the resolution of qualifying himself for prac. tising law. He immediately set about effecting his purpose, with no other guide but his own judgment, and with only the very limited preparatory education we have mentioned.
At twenty-one years of age, he was admitted to the bar, in the county where he resided ; and by close application, and native powers of eloquence, he soon rose to eminence. His eloquence was of that attractive kind, to which auditors always listen with peculiar satisfaction. He could enlist the tender feelings in his favor, and bear them along to a successful issue of the cause in which he was engaged.
In 1774, he removed to North Carolina, and entered on his professional business in that province. There the same distinction attended him which he had attained in Virginia.
We may be assured that his reputation as a politician and a patriot, had become extensively known, from the fact, that in less than two years after his settlement in that province, he was elected a delegate to congress, among those early worthies, to whom the management of the important interests of the country was committed. He took his seat on the twelfth day of October, 1775, as a delegate for North Carolina ; and in the following year, met the crisis which severed the colonies forever from the mother country, and gave them a rank among the independent nations of the world. He was returned to a seat in congress annually during the three following years ; and like the other members of that assembly, he faithfully and with promptitude, industriously performed the numerous duties which were devolved on him, during that long and gloomy period of the revolutionary conflict.
At the time when Lord Cornwallis was directing his march from Camden, in South Carolina, at the head of a victorious army, North Carolina, almost defenceless, was the object of his invasion and ravages. In that situation the confidence reposed in Mr. Penn was almost unlimited. Cornwallis had entered the western part of the state, and it was almost destitute of all the necessary means of defence. The eyes of the community were turned in this emergency, on Mr. Penn ; and he was invested with a power but little short of that of a dictator. This power, so dangerous in all situations to be intrusted to any man, as history abundantly testifies, he used, and applied to the pressing situation of the state, without abusing it, and for the great benefit of the commonwealth. He sustained the trial, performed the requisite duties of his appointment, received the approbation of the state, and acquired additional honor to himself.
Previous to the termination of the war of the revolution, Mr. Penn had relinquished public employment, and retired to the enjoyment of domestic life.
In 1784, he was appointed receiver of taxes for North Carolina, by Robert Morris, the celebrated financier of the United States. It was an unpopular and an unwelcome office. It was one of high trust and honor. But the incumbents in the several states, suffered more obloquy and reproach from the peculiar state of the times, and the empoverished condition of the inhabitants, than all the honors and emoluments of the office were worth. With feelings the most patriotic, the most sincere desires to be useful to the country on the one hand ; on the other, a conviction derived from experience, that he could effect little by retaining his office, and that he must continue to suffer much in his feelings, he resigned his office, which was proved to be alike destitute of profit to the public and himself. He held it but a few weeks.
He died in 1788, in the month of September, in the forty-seventh year of his age. He was married in July, 1763, to Miss Susan Lyme, by whom he had three children ; one only of whom became the head of a family. The others died in single life.
Such was the character of another of the revolutionary worthies, who by his own almost unassisted exertions, raised himself from obscurity to a distinguished rank among the great men of that memorable period, became qualified for extensive usefulness, and attained to high and merited honors in the commonwealth. Thus furnishing another example, well worthy of an extensive imitation.