Unlike most of the other signers, John Penn did not have the privilege of gaining an early education. Born the only child of Moses and Catherine Penn, his only book learning occurred at a free grammar school for the space of two or three years. Despite his late start, Penn overcame his difficulties to become a lawyer, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the 16 signers to also add his name to the Articles of Confederation.
Teaching himself to read and write out of the library of Edmund Pendleton, in the province of Virginia, Penn studied for three years before admission to the tile bar. His feat in overcoming circumstantial hardship is a testimony to his character of fortitude and diligence. “At the age of twenty-one, Mr. Penn reaped in part the reward of his toil and indefatigable industry, in being licensed as a practitioner of Law. The habits of study and application which he had now formed, were of great advantage to him in pursuing the business of his profession. He rose with great rapidity into notice, and soon equaled the most distinguished at the bar. As an advocate, in particular, there were few who surpassed him.”
After living in North Carolina for two years Penn was elected to the Continental Congress along with delegates William Hooper and Joseph Hewes. Although he was capable of bringing the courtroom to tears with his orations, he did not say much while at Congress, unlike fellow North Carolinian William Hooper who had caught the ears of the cynical Adams. Differing also from the other North Carolina delegates, who had a few qualms about independence, John Penn voted straight ticket for what he thought to be a principal preservation of America. “He was seldom absent from his seat, and hesitated not, either from want of firmness or patriotism, to urge forward those measures, which were calculated to redress the wrongs, and establish and perpetuate the rights of his country.”
One wrinkle in his cloth was the time he almost shot a man in a duel. After a squabble with South Carolinian, Henry Laurens, they both decided a duel was in order to settle their argument. The next morning, after sharing breakfast and taking a morning walk, Penn made a principled proposition to the gentlemen to call the whole thing off. After all, why shoot a man with whom you had just breakfasted?
Penn continued to serve Congress until 1780, during which time he worked with the war board to delineate the region’s defenses against an oncoming attack by General Cornwallis. In 1781 Penn suffered from a fatal illness and retired from public life. He died shortly after, survived by his wife and three children. He is buried, with fellow North Carolina delegate William Hooper, at Guilford Courthouse Military Park in Greensboro, on the grounds of the battle that ruined Cornwallis’s chances of holding the state that Penn so nobly served.