Founding Fathers Friday: William Hooper and John Penn
by Derrick G. Jeter
The abilities and talents of some men are so notable that it is natural to compare them with great men in history. For example, Richard Henry Lee’s eloquence motivated his fellow Virginians to call him the “Cicero of Virginia.” Patrick Henry’s oratorical prowess brought with it the comparison to the great Greek orator Demosthenes. And according to John Adams, who had heard both Lee and Henry speak, William Hooper was the greatest orator next to those two Virginia voices—even though most people have never of Hooper.
Hooper was the son of a Boston minister and graduate of Harvard. Setting out to practice law, young Hooper, for some unknown reason, left his New England home and moved South to Wilmington, North Carolina. There he married Anne Clark.
Hooper was a rebel and came to the patriot cause early. In fact, he was known as the “prophet of independence.” In a letter dated April 1774 to his friend James Iredell, Hooper apparently penned the first prediction of American Independence:
[The colonies] are striding fast to independence, and will, ere long, build an empire upon the ruins of Great Britain—will adopt its constitution, purged of its impurities; and from an experience of its defects, will guard against those evils which have wasted its vigor and brought it to an untimely end.
Though Hooper was a patriot didn’t mean he was a man of the people. He wasn’t. A decade before his letter to Iredell, Hooper was caught up in a political squabble known as the Regulator Movement, or the War of Regulation. The good people of North Carolina grew tried of what they saw as corruption, excessive taxation and regulation imposed on them by the ruling elite in the colony. Violent protests broke out and Hooper as attorney general was part of the establishment and therefore part of the problem. Hooper was either beaten (at least harassed) in a courtroom or was dragged through the street of Wilmington. History is uncertain as to which, but one thing was certain: William Hooper distrusted democracies for the rest of his this life, fearing they could dissolve into mobocracy at any moment.
Hooper was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774 and served until 1777. He missed the critical vote on Lee’s resolution of independence (though he clearly supported the measure and signed the Declaration) because he was back home tending to his failing finances. Being a Congressman in those days required sacrifice, unlike today.
In contrast to most signers, Hooper did suffer from the war. In January 1781, the British moved up Cape Fear River, which ran through the heart of Wilmington, and apparently destroyed two homes owned by Hooper—one on the banks of the river and one in town. His family separated and Hooper had to hide out in the backcountry of North Carolina, relying on friends for support. While on the lamb he contracted malaria and suffered from fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms until the end of his life. In 1782, after the British left the area, Hooper reunited with his family and they moved into a home in Hillsborough, northwest of Durham.
Though Hooper served in the North Carolina legislature, argued for the adoption of the Constitution, and finally saw it ratified, he wouldn’t live long enough to see it put into practice. Dying in 1790, Hooper was two years shy of his fiftieth birthday.
If it wasn’t for his signature on the Declaration of Independence John Penn would have faded into obscurity.
Born outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia to a farmer father, Penn was initially set to enter the farming trade—a trade that required little book-learning. With only a few years of formal education, young Penn at the age of eighteen, an age when most of the signers had already graduated college, decided he wanted an education. He’d start will learning how to sign his name. He befriend a lawyer cousin and sought tutoring. In a crash course of three years, Penn taught himself not only to read and right but law. By the time he was twenty-one, the young man who looked destined to a life of an illiterate farmer was admitted to the bar and began practicing law.
Penn married Susannah Lyme and remained in Virginia for about a decade after his admittance to the bar. Eventually he and Susannah moved to Granville County, northeast of Durham, North Carolina. He was barely two years in his adopted colony when he was elected to the Continental Congress and putting his name on the Declaration.
Penn was an ardent patriot. On February 12, 1776, while attending Congress in Philadelphia, Penn poured out his passion for the American cause in a letter to Thomas Person, brigadier general of the North Carolina militia: “For God’s sake my Good Sir, encourage our People, animate them to dare even to die for their country. Our struggle I hope will not continue long—may unanimity and success crown your endeavours.
Well, either Person or someone else animated the folks back home because in April of 1776 the Halifax Resolves was passed by the legislature instructing the North Carolina delegates to support independence when the matter came to a vote. And when it was time to stand up for their country, John Penn, William Hooper (though he missed the vote), and Joseph Hewes stood on the right side of history and signed the Declaration on August 2.
Penn continued to serve in Congress until 1780, also signing the Articles of Confederation. After returning home, he served on the board of war for his state and helped organize defenses against General Charles Cornwallis as his troops marched from South Carolina on their way to Virginia.
The only other remarkable thing to note about John Penn is the fact that he and Henry Laurens of South Carolina planned on killing each other.
While both men were serving in Congress a dispute that is now lost to history broke out between the two men. Laurens challenged Penn to a duel. Both men lived in the same Philadelphia boarding house and breakfast together the morning of the fateful day. This was a good sign that neither man would really shoot the other, but would throw away their fire—shoot their round into the dirt. But both had to prove their honor, so would go through the motions of the duel. After their meal, they walked together to the dueling sight on Chestnut Street. Crossing Fifth Street, they approached a large puddle. The younger Penn turned to help the older Laurens across when Penn’s common sense got the better of him. He apparently apologized for his part in their argument and convinced Laurens to drop the whole silly notion. Laurens agree. How could you shoot a man with whom you’d just bacon and eggs?
John Penn died, not as a result of Henry Laurens’s bullet but of unknown causes in 1788. He was, like his fellow signer William Hooper, only forty-eight.