On this day in 1936, the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program erects its very first marker. Any guesses as to what person or event was being celebrated?
Okay, so maybe the title gives it away a bit.
The marker celebrates someone you’ve probably never heard of: John Penn, a lesser-known signer of the Declaration of Independence. Why Penn? “The life of John Penn provides an early example of the American dream,” a North Carolina website explains.
Yes, it did, in many ways. But it also contained at least one episode that might remind you a bit more of an American soap opera! Would you believe that Penn was once challenged to a duel by Henry Laurens, a President of the Continental Congress? It seems those two never really got along. On one occasion, Laurens reportedly lost it a bit and taunted Penn from the chair with a chant of “Poor little Penny! Poor little Penny!”
Political drama and in-fighting, it would seem, are nothing new.
Penn was born into a Virginian family that apparently didn’t value education too much. He had only the most basic of educations before he embarked on his own at about age 18. Fortunately, he found an opportunity to study law with a relative, Edmund Pendleton. He was also given access to Pendleton’s huge library. Penn made the most of it and worked his way into a successful Virginian law practice. By 1774, he’d moved to North Carolina, where lawyers were in greater demand. He quickly established himself there as well.
Grabbing opportunity and making the most of it. Now THAT’s the American dream!
Penn was appointed to the Continental Congress and served in that body as the Declaration of Independence was being considered. He’d once hoped for reconciliation with Great Britain, but by July 1776, he was ready to approve independence. “My first wish,” he’d written mere months earlier, “is that America may be free.”
In Congress, Penn never really gained national prominence, but he was a hard worker, behind the scenes. Unfortunately, it seems that he also got under the skin of Henry Laurens for at least part of that time. Laurens once challenged Penn to a duel, although many details of that incident have been lost to history. In some versions of the story, the two men went through with the duel but wasted their shots. In other versions of the story, the two men were staying at the same boarding house and ended up having breakfast together on the morning of the duel. On the way to the dueling grounds, the elder Laurens stumbled a bit and was caught by Penn. The moment of kindness was enough. The duel was canceled.
Penn would serve his state in many capacities in the years after his congressional service. Not every signer lived long enough to see America gain her independence, but Penn did—barely. A few years later, he passed away. He never saw George Washington inaugurated or the new government established. Yet, without men such as Penn, neither of those events could have happened.
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the signers to the Declaration of Independence (1832)
Daniel J. McDonough, Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots (2000)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
Letter from John Penn to Thomas Person (February 14, 1776)
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program (G-1: John Penn)
William S. Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (2000) (Volume 5)