- John Penn (governor)
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John Penn (14 July 1729 – 9 February 1795) was the last governor of colonial Pennsylvania, serving in that office from 1763 to 1771 and from 1773 to 1776. He 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.
"Governor" John Penn was born in London, the eldest son of Richard Penn and Hannah Lardner. Richard had inherited a one-fourth interest in the Pennsylvania proprietorship from his father, which provided him with a fairly comfortable living. Richard's elder brother, Thomas, had also inherited a one-fourth interest from their father, but Thomas's interest grew to three-fourths of the proprietorship when their eldest brother, John "the American", died unmarried in 1746.
Richard married young, and quickly produced two sons: John and Richard, Jr. Because Thomas seemed unable to produce a male heir, it was presumed that John would inherit the entire proprietorship. Thus, his upbringing was of concern to the whole family.
In 1747, when he was eighteen years old and still in school, John clandestinely married a daughter of Dr. James Cox of London. The Penn family disapproved of the marriage, believing that the woman married him to get a piece of the family fortune. For awhile, John'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 apparently regretted his youthful indiscretion and made no effort to contact his wife. The Cox family sued John for support in 1755, but after that time no further reference to John's first wife appears in the Penn family records. How the marriage was dissolved is unknown.
John 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. He 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 John's role was primarily as an observer.
From his home in England, chief proprietor Thomas Penn soon became alarmed at John's extravagant expenses. Peters reported John's close association with an Italian musician whose rent John paid and at whose home he 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.
In 1760, at age 57, Thomas finally did produce a son — John Penn "of Stoke". So, at age 30, John saw his prospects for inheritance greatly reduced.
In 1763, Thomas Penn sent his nephew John back to Pennsylvania to take over the governorship of the colony from Hamilton. The Penns were not displeased with Hamilton, but John 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, "Governor" John Penn married Anne Allen, daughter of William Allen. He reluctantly returned to England in 1771 after his father's death, where he took over his father's affairs. John inherited his father's one-fourth interest in the proprietorship. Richard Penn, Jr. was appointed governor in his brother's place, but the inheritance caused a permanent rift between them. Richard proved to be a poor choice as governor in the opinion of chief proprietor Thomas Penn, and so John was reappointed governor in 1773.
Two years later Thomas Penn died, and his three-fourths interest in the proprietorship passed to his son, John Penn "of Stoke", then 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. After the War of Independence began at Lexington and Concord, "Governor" 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 John's role as governor with a Supreme Executive Council. With no real power at his command, he 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 "Governor" John 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. He refused, but he agreed to go to Philadelphia, where he was kept under house arrest. As Howe's army grew nearer, John 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 John to an Allen family estate in New Jersey called "the Union", about 50 miles (80 km) from Philadelphia in present Union Township. His wife Anne stayed in Philadelphia to look after family affairs while British forces occupied the city, but she later joined her husband in New Jersey.
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. While this protected his private lands and manors, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the Divestment Act of 1779, confiscating about 24,000,000 acres (97,000 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. John 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, John Penn "of Stoke", 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. Returning to Pennsylvania, John 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. Some older accounts state that his remains were eventually taken back to England, but there are no records of this.
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