Life and career
Born in Newark, New Jersey, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1813 and then studied law with Theodore Frelinghuysen. He was admitted to the bar in 1817 and served as a clerk of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (where his father was a judge) from 1817 to 1826.
As a member of the Whig party, he was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly in 1828, and then was elected Governor of New Jersey annually from 1837 to 1843. His tenure as governor was marked by the “Broad Seal War” controversy. Following a disputed election for Congressional Representatives in New Jersey, Pennington certified the election of five Whig candidates while five Democrats were certified by the Democratic Secretary of State. After a lengthy dispute, the Democrats were eventually seated.
In November 1858, Pennington was elected as a Republican to represent New Jersey’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House during the 36th Congress. Following a protracted election for speaker of the House of Representatives, 44 ballots over the course of eight weeks (December 5, 1859 through February 1, 1860), he was elected to the post. This was the third time since 1789 that the House elected a freshmen congressmen as its speaker (after Frederick A. Muhlenberg in 1789 and Henry Clay in 1811); such a feat has not been repeated since.
In March 1861 he penned his name on the Corwin Amendment, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution shielding state “domestic institutions” (slavery) from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress. Submitted to the states for ratification shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, it was not ratified by the requisite number of states.
After running unsuccessfully for reelection in 1860 to the 37th Congress, he returned to New Jersey. He died in Newark of an unintentional morphine overdose and was interred at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Newark.
- “Speaker Elections Decided by Multiple Ballots”. history.house.gov. United States House of Representatives. Retrieved February 18, 2019.
- Heitshusen, Valerie (February 11, 2011). “The Speaker of the House: House Officer, Party Leader, and Representative” (PDF). CRS Report for Congress. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress. Retrieved February 18, 2019.
- Rojas, Warren (October 8, 2015). “‘Interim Speaker’ Stumps Scholars”. Roll Call. Washington, DC.
- United States Congress. “William Pennington (id: P000214)”. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- New Jersey Historical Commission biography for William Pennington
- New Jersey Governor William Pennington, National Governors Association
- William Pennington biography from The Political Graveyard
- “William Pennington”. Webster’s American Biographies. G. & C. Merriam Company. 1975.
| Governor of New Jersey
October 27, 1837 – October 27, 1843
James L. Orr
| Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
February 1, 1860 – March 4, 1861
Galusha A. Grow
|U.S. House of Representatives|
Jacob R. Wortendyke
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New Jersey’s 5th congressional district
March 4, 1859 – March 4, 1861