Besides Hancock, Franklin and the Adams cousins, who were they?
So who was Benjamin Rush? How did he commit treason against the British Crown by signing one document, and then try to betray George Washington with one he wouldn’t sign? Who was the one man among 56 who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor—and then broke that oath? It was Richard Stockton of New Jersey….
Don’t feel bad New Jerseyans—you had five signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the other four did you proud. They included Abraham Clark, a devoted patriot. When two of his sons serving in the Continental Army were captured and tortured, he refused to seek any special intercession or even mention their plight in Congress. Only after he learned that one of them was being methodically starved, only fed with what could literally be stuffed through a keyhole, did he seek help. Congress petitioned the British to obey their own rules of war, and the young captain’s imprisonment, though still harsh, was improved.
It’s sad but true that few people today have any real knowledge of the Declaration of Independence and, that much of what they know is, unfortunately, mythical. Even the popular notion that it was the Declaration which set off the Revolutionary War is flawed. The battles of Concord, Lexington and Bunker Hill; the captures of Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point by Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys” had already taken place.
That a state of war existed in fact, if not technically, is true. But early on, in many colonists’ minds, it was not a foregone conclusion that the 13 colonies would formally secede from British rule. All they had petitioned for were the same rights and representation enjoyed by their cousins in Britain. The first battles were fought in simple defense against an increasingly onerous and heavy-handed Crown. It was no single action which sparked the Revolution, but crushing new taxes and a steady and continuing erosion of rights and liberties previously honored.
It’s sad, too, that so many myths about the signers themselves prevail when the truth is praiseworthy enough. In their later years, John Adams and James Madison realized the true stories of the men and momentous acts were being twisted and exaggerated by the “penny press,” and protested it with little success. Then and now, it seems reality can’t compete with dramatic forgeries. A blurb titled “The Price They Paid” is one of the most widely circulated examples of this on the Internet. Let’s bust some of its myths, OK?
“Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died.” In fact, five signers were imprisoned, but four were taken as POWs simply because they were soldiers. George Walton, a militia commander, was wounded and captured at the Battle of Savannah in December 1778. Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton and Edward Ruttledge were captured at the Siege of Charleston in May 1780. They suffered the same terrible conditions as other POWs; conditions which today would be considered horrific, but there is no record of them being tortured, and all were ultimately released. Ruttledge, by the way, was the youngest signer, at age 26.
Only one, Richard Stockton, mentioned above, was grabbed by a mob of Tories specifically because he signed the Declaration. Thrown into the infamous Provost Jail in New York City, Stockton gained a pardon and release by recanting his signature and swearing allegiance to King George.
“Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.” Actually, nine signers died during the war, but only one, Button Gwinnett, died from wounds—and those he suffered fighting a duel with a fellow officer. Virtually all the signers suffered hardships and losses, including many evicted from their homes by occupying troops.
“Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured.” This is partially true. Abraham Clark’s sons were captured. The eldest son of John Witherspoon, another New Jersey signer, was killed in battle at Germantown, Penn. in October 1777. No other signer lost a son in combat.
“John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died of exhaustion and a broken heart.” One of the most heart-rending stories, it is also one of the most exaggerated.
John Hart was a farmer and the elected Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. He was an older man suffering from kidney ailments when the British Army rolled over his farmlands in late November of 1776. They consumed, confiscated and looted—as was the custom of the time—“foraging for supplies.” Hart’s wife had died in early October, and most of their children were grown and gone already. He hid out for a time in the Sourland Mountains. After Washington’s brilliant capture of Trenton, Hart returned home and resumed farming. In June 1778, just before the battle of Monmouth, he invited General Washington to dinner—and the 12,000-man Continental Army to camp in his fields. Perhaps only a farmer would understand the sacrifice of quartering 12,000 men on his fields at the height of the growing season. John Hart did, and gave what he could.
Hart was twice re-elected to Congress and died of his kidney disorders in May 1779.
Just Men, Not Saints
There are 46 other stories, and far more detail about the 10 mentioned here. One became gravely ill during the war and in 1779, took his wife and sailed for the West Indies. Their ship disappeared, presumed lost in a storm. One was later poisoned by an angry family member who learned he had willed part of his estate to his slaves. One was sentenced to a debtor’s prison—while serving on his state’s Supreme Court!
Many were jurists and farmers. One was an ironmaster, another, a country school teacher. One’s epitaph reads “Merchant & Soldier.” But they were just men, not plaster saints; men with fears, passions, ambitions, flaws and dreams. Guys who put one leg in their pants at a time, just like you and me, and in my opinion, that makes their stories more glorious—because their dreams, their passions, forged a nation. They signed. They pledged. They risked. That doesn’t need embellishment; just recognition—and imitation. Connor OUT
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