Many perennials won't bloom the first year that you plant them--they need time to get their roots going first. Sometimes they'll get their roots going quickly and bloom the first year but I wouldn't be surprised if they wait until next year.
It is likely that potted purchased penstemons (ooh, alliteration ;-)) already bloomed before they were purchased - you may see cutoff flower stems if you look closely. They should bloom next year. In my experience, plants sold commercially are normally of blooming size, however, it is true that seedlings of perennials usually take until the second year to bloom.
N.B. To say a plant behaves like a biennial implies it dies after it flowers in its second year - I hope that didn't happen with yours, MiniPonyFarmer! What penstemons require, mainly, is good drainage and no excess of moisture or humidity. The genus overall has gotten the reputation of being short-lived, falsely, due to lack of understanding of these requirements.
Actually yes, mine did die after the year they bloomed. This did not happen once, but twice with the penstemon strictus. Also I have had this happen with penstemon barbatus once. I do not feel that they are long lived, at any rate.
No, it sounds like they are obviously not long-lived in your area without special conditions created for them. Here, a very large number of species can be grown easily and successfully with individual plants being long-lived. Poor drainage, high humidity and high rainfall are usually the culprits when penstemons are hard to grow in an area.
Edited to add: If you have access to it, Robert Nold's Penstemons is an excellent reference that gives a great deal of insight into the conditions that penstemons experience in their native habitats, which is what one needs to consider for growing them in the garden.