John Penn (governor)

John Penn (governor)

name = John Penn

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John Penn (14 July 17299 February 1795) was the last governor of colonial Pennsylvania, serving in that office from 1763 to 1771 and from 1773 to 1776. Penn was also one of the Penn family proprietors of the Province of Pennsylvania from 1771 until 1776, when the creation of the independent Commonwealth of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution removed the Penn family from power.

Early years

John Penn was born in London, the eldest son of Richard Penn, Sr. and Hannah Lardner. Richard Penn, one of the three sons of Pennsylvania founder William Penn by his second wife Hannah Callowhill Penn, had inherited a one-fourth interest in the Pennsylvania proprietorship from his father, which provided him with a fairly comfortable living. Richard's older brother Thomas Penn—John Penn's uncle—controlled three-fourths of the proprietorship. Because Thomas did not have any sons while John Penn was in his youth, the young Penn stood to inherit the entire proprietorship, and thus his upbringing was of concern to the whole family.

In 1747, when he was eighteen years old and still in school, John Penn clandestinely married a daughter of Dr. James Cox of London. [The name of John Penn's first wife does not appear in Penn correspondence, but a modern genealogy identifies her as Grace Cox; Treese, "Storm Gathering", 214, note 1.] The Penn family disapproved of the marriage, believing that the woman married him to get a piece of the family fortune. For awhile, Penn's father refused to speak to him because of the marriage. Thomas Penn, John's uncle, sent him to Geneva to study and to get him away from his wife. John Penn apparently regretted his youthful indiscretion and made no effort to contact his wife. The Cox family sued Penn for support in 1755, but after that time no further reference to Penn's first wife appears in the Penn family records. How the marriage was dissolved is unknown. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 24.]

Penn first arrived in Pennsylvania in 1752, when his uncle Thomas sent him to the province as a sort of political apprentice to Governor James Hamilton. Penn served on the governor's council, associating with important Penn family appointees such as Richard Peters and William Allen. In 1754, Penn attended the Albany Conference alongside other Pennsylvania delegates, including Peters, Benjamin Franklin, and Isaac Norris, but Penn's role was primarily as an observer. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 23.]

From his home in England, chief proprietor Thomas Penn soon became alarmed at John's extravagant expenses. Peters reported John Penn's close association with an Italian musician whose rent Penn paid and at whose home Penn stayed until two or three in the morning. The "debauched" musician was, in turn, "constantly tagging after him." Thomas Penn summoned his nephew John back home in late 1755. [Hubertis Cummings, "Richard Peters, Provincial Secretary and Cleric, 1704-1776" (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944), pp. 169, 209-10.]


In 1763, Thomas Penn sent his nephew John Penn back to Pennsylvania to take over the governorship of the colony from Hamilton. The Penns were not displeased with Hamilton, but John Penn was finally prepared to claim a place in family affairs. He took the oath of office as governor—officially "lieutenant governor"—on 31 October 1763. The new governor faced many challenges: Pontiac's Rebellion, the Paxton Boys, border disputes with other colonies, controversy over the taxation of Penn family lands, and the efforts of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, led by Benjamin Franklin, to have the Penn proprietary government replaced with a royal government.

In 1766, Penn married Anne Allen, daughter of William Allen. Penn reluctantly returned to England in 1771 after his father's death, where he took over his father's affairs as one of the proprietors of Pennsylvania. John's brother Richard Penn, Jr., was appointed governor in his place, but Richard proved to be a poor choice in the opinion of chief proprietor Thomas Penn, and so John was reappointed governor in 1773. Two years later Thomas Penn died, and the chief proprietorship passed to his son, also named John Penn, then still a teenager attending school.

Revolution and after

The Penns were slow to perceive that the growing unrest that became the American Revolution would become a threat to their proprietary interests. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 202.] After the War of Independence began at Lexington and Concord, John Penn watched with apprehension as Pennsylvanians formed themselves into militia companies and prepared for war. Soon after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, "Patriots" (or "Whigs") in Pennsylvania created the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, which replaced Penn's role as governor with a Supreme Executive Council. With no real power at his command, Penn remained aloof and carefully neutral, hoping that the radicals would be defeated or at least reconciled with Great Britain.

The war soon began to go badly for the revolutionaries. In August 1777, as General William Howe was launching his campaign to capture Philadelphia, American soldiers arrived at Penn's estate (called "Lansdowne") near Philadelphia and demanded that he sign a parole stating that he would do nothing to harm the revolutionary cause. Penn refused, but he agreed to go to Philadelphia, where he was kept under house arrest. As Howe's army grew nearer, Penn was faced with the possibility of forced exile to another colony, and so he finally relented and signed the parole. As Howe finally approached Philadelphia, Patriot leaders exiled Penn to an Allen family estate in New Jersey called "the Union", about convert|50|mi|km from Philadelphia in present Union Township. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 4, 176.] Anne Penn stayed in Philadelphia to look after family affairs while British forces occupied the city, but she later joined her husband in New Jersey. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 179.]

After the British evacuated Philadelphia, John and Anne Penn returned to the city in July 1778. The new government of Pennsylvania had become more radical, requiring that everyone take a loyalty oath to the Commonwealth or face confiscation of their property. With the consent of his family, John Penn took the oath. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 187.] While this protected Penn's private lands and manors, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the Divestment Act of 1779, confiscating about convert|24000000|acre|km2 of unsold lands held by the proprietorship, and abolishing the practice of paying quitrents for new purchases. As compensation, the Penns were paid £130,000, a fraction of what the lands were worth, but a surprisingly large sum nonetheless. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 189.] Penn retired to Lansdowne and quietly waited out the final years of the war.

For several years after the war, John Penn, along with his cousin of the same name, lobbied the Pennsylvania government for greater compensation for the confiscated proprietary property. Failing there, they traveled to England to seek additional compensation from Parliament, which awarded them £4,000 per year in perpetuity. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 199.] Returning to Pennsylvania, Penn lived the rest of his life quietly at Lansdowne. After his 1795 death, Penn, an Anglican, he was buried under the floor of Christ Church, Philadelphia, the only proprietor buried in Pennsylvania. [Treese, "Storm Gathering", 199.] Some older accounts state that his remains were eventually taken back to England, but there are no records of this. [Cadbury, "John Penn", p. 430.]


*Cadbury, Henry J. "John Penn". "Dictionary of American Biography", vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 430.
*Treese, Lorett. "The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution". University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-271-00858-X.


External links

* [ Biography and portrait] at the University of Pennsylvania
* [ John Penn's House, Philadelphia]
*Find A Grave|id=7177228

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