Gov. John Penn

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John Penn was the last governor of colonial Pennsylvania.  He served two terms from 1763 to 1771 and 1773 to 1776, when the Penn family was removed from power by the American Revolution.  John Penn was the grandson of William Penn, the founder and sole proprietor.

John Penn was born in London on July 14, 1729.  He was the eldest son of Richard and Hannah Penn.  Richard inherited one quarter interest in the Pennsylvania proprietorship from his father William.

At eighteen, John clandestinely and somewhat scandalously married the daughter of Doctor James Cox.  The family believed she married John to get a piece of the Penn family fortune so he was sent to Geneva to study.  During this time he never contacted his wife.  In 1755 the Cox family sued the Penns for support.  There is no record of dissolution of marriage.

In 1752 John first arrived in Pennsylvania as an apprentice to Governor James Hamilton so that he might learn how to rule the colony.  His extravagant life style included paying the rent of an Italian musician he had befriended caused the chief proprietor Thomas Penn to demand that he return to London.

In 1763 John was finally seen as ready to take over the governorship and returned to Pennsylvania to assume those duties from Governor Hamilton.  Upon assuming the duties of governor, Penn faced almost immediate problems.  Pontiac’s Rebellion caused Penn to be confronted with raising a militia to help defend the colony from Indian attacks.  Due to the Quaker belief in conciliation over confrontation and because of an issue of whether the lands of the proprietors should be taxed to help pay for the colony’s defense many people felt that the Penn’s were more supportive of the Indians than the settlers of their own province.

As Pontiac’s Rebellion raised the issue of self defense the Paxton Boys brutally murdered twenty peaceful Conestoga Indians near present day Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1763.  The Paxton Rebellion reached a climax when they began to march on Philadelphia which caused the very real prospect of the colony falling into civil war over representation in the colonial assembly as well as land ownership issues.

The worst problems were averted when Benjamin Franklin convinced the Paxtons to write their grievances in a document called the Declaration and Remonstrance written in February 1764.  We know today that Franklin actually co-authored this document because he was a participant in a faction that wanted the Penns replaced by a Royal Governor.  This made the assembly election of 1764 a referendum on the Penn’s leadership which brought Governor Penn to what may be considered his greatest crisis of his governorship prior to the Revolution when on March 6, 1765 the Black Boys burned George Croghan’s trade goods on Sideling Hill.

Because Penn needed the support of the frontier people in his battle to remain governor of Pennsylvania he appeared initially to support the Black Boys Rebellion while walking a fine line so as to not politically antagonize the British Military Authority.  He attended an investigation into the Sideling Hill event at Carlisle that ended with William Smith, Colonial Magistrate of Cumberland County’s deposition and the acquittal of all those charged in connection with the burning of trade goods.  Penn’s apparent support began to wavier when General Thomas Gage Commander of all British forces in America began to question what Penn was doing when British soldiers were being fired upon by the rebels.

Gage sent Penn an advertisement that had been posted in public which depicted the Black Boys destruction of the trade goods as a heroic act and also claimed that Governor Penn was in agreement with their actions.  Gage was outraged by this advertisement and demanded to know if Penn supported this rebellion.  The author of this advertisement was never identified although it was speculated to have been Captain Robert Callender, partner to George Croghan.  The advertisement achieved its purpose to end Penn’s neutrality.

After receiving these letters from General Gage, Governor Penn subpoenaed William Smith to answer charges before him on July 30, 1765.  In addition, Governor Penn subpoenaed fellow magistrate William Maxwell and Lieutenant Charles Grant, commanding officer of Fort Loudoun to testify against Smith.  Smith delivered a stirring self defense exonerating himself which resulted in a warrant to be issued for Lt. Grant that implicated Grant in the transportation of illegal trade goods.  The Black Boys Rebellion ended in November 1765 with the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment abandoning Fort Loudoun permanently.

Governor Penn was slow to understand that unrest like the Paxtons and even Smith’s Rebellion were part of a growing feeling of uneasiness with British Rule that would lead to the American Revolution.  Penn remained neutral while hoping the revolutionaries would lose the war.  Penn was eventually forced to take a loyalty oath in 1778 as a way to avoid confiscation of all of his property.

In 1779 the colonial assembly still passed the Divestment Act confiscating about 24 million acres of unsold proprietors land in Pennsylvania and abolished the quit rent system for the purchase of property.  The Penns were paid a fraction of what the confiscated lands were worth.  Parliament awarded Penn £4,000 a year in perpetuity.  Penn died in 1795 and is buried under the floor of Christ Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the only proprietor to be buried there.


John Penn (governor) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Minutes of the Provincial Counsel, Volume X, Theo. Penn & Co.  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 1852

Peaceable Kingdom Lost, The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment.  Kenny, Kevin.  Oxford University Press.  NY, NY.  2009

American Leviathan:  Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier.  Griffin, Patrick.  Hill and Wang A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.  2007

Chapter V:  Race:  The Permanent Pennsylvania Frontier, 1763 – 1768 in Creating Pennsylvania:  The Politics of the Frontier and the State, 1682 – 1800.   Spero, Patrick.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.  2009

Taming Democracy, “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution.  Bouton, Terry.  Oxford University Press.  NY, NY  2007