“Fate of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence”–Fake History

The lives of the Founding Fathers and Mothers are inspiring. They were true heroes. We don’t need to fabricate their stories to bolster their sacrifices or greatness.

Decades ago, I came across a document entitled, Fate of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.”  I thought I would include the inspirational patriotic article in my blog — until I discovered that the document was largely “fake news.” 

The Signers of the Declaration of Independence were potentially signing their death warrants. They were openly committing treason.

However, when I looked up the document on the Constitution Society website, it now came with a disclaimer.   The following is often published and cited concerning the fate of the Signers, but its accuracy is doubtful, and should only be taken as ‘traditional’ rather than historical.”

So, I turned to Snopes.com, the fact checking website. I learned that the details in the inspiring article were fake history. 

The British did not have the inclination or the resources to hunt down and target the Signers. Some of the Signers lost their fortunes. Some of them lost their lives. But they did not suffer more than other rebels.

About 6,800 Americans were killed in action during the Revolution, about 6,100 were wounded, and about 20,000 were taken prisoner.  An additional 17,000 deaths were the result of malnutrition and disease, including 10,000 who died while being held as prisoners of war.

(Below, I have put quotes from the article “Fate of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” in large bold letters, and I have put the facts according to Snopes.com underneath.)

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died.

It is true that five Signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured by the British. But four were captured as prisoners of war engaged in military activity, not targeted as “traitors.” They were not tortured, and they were all released.

Richard Stockton of New Jersey was the only Signer taken prisoner because of his status as a signatory to the Declaration. He was “dragged from his bed by night” by local Tories, not British troops, after he had evacuated his family from New Jersey.  He was not hung for treason. He was imprisoned in New York City’s infamous Provost Jail like a common criminal.

Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.

Many of the Signers saw their homes occupied, ransacked, looted, and vandalized by the British. However, this was a common occurrence during the war, and the homes of the Signers were not specifically targeted

Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured.

Abraham Clark of New Jersey saw two of his sons captured by the British and incarcerated on the prison ship Jersey. John Witherspoon saw his eldest son killed in the Battle of Germantown. We do not know of any other Signer whose son was killed by serving in the Continental Army.

Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.

Nine Signers did die during the war, but none from wounds or hardships inflicted by the enemy. One signer did die from wounds; not from the Brits, but from a fellow officer during a duel.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and he died in rags.

Carter Braxton became wealthy through inheritance and marriages. He invested in merchant ships. Some of his ships flying the British flag were appropriated by the Brits.  Some of his other ships carrying the American flag were captured or sunk. He had to sell some land to cover debts incurred by the loss of his ships. However, he recouped much of the money after the war, but lost it again through bad business deals. His fortune was greatly diminished, but he did not “die in rags.”

Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

He repeatedly moved around because he served three states and many more cities and county governments, often performing duties in two or more jurisdictions, even while engaged in federal office. His name does not appear on printed copies of the Declaration in January 1777.  If he was targeted by the British, it was quite possibly because he also served in a military capacity as a volunteer leader of militia. In any case, McKean did not end up in “poverty,” as the estate he left behind when he died in 1817 was described as consisting of “stocks, bonds, and huge land tracts in Pennsylvania.”

Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.

 The need to forage for supplies in enemy territory has long been a part of warfare.  Many more prominent American revolutionaries who were also Signers of the Declaration of Independence had homes in areas that were occupied by the British during the war, yet those homes were not looted or vandalized. It is hard to make the case that the men named above were specifically targeted for vengeance by the British.

At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr., noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.

 The tale about Thomas Nelson’s urging the bombardment of his own house is one of several legends whose truth may never be known. Many conflicting versions of this story exist. Whatever the truth, the Nelson home was certainly not “destroyed” as claimed. The house stands today as part of Colonial National Historical Park.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months.

Shortly after he signed the Declaration, Francis Lewis’s Long Island estate was raided by the British. While Lewis was in Philadelphia, his wife was taken prisoner by the British after disregarding an order for citizens to evacuate Long Island. Had she obeyed the order she would not have been arrested. Mrs. Lewis was held for several months before being exchanged for the wives of British officials captured by the Americans. Although her captivity was undoubtedly a hardship, she had already been in poor health and died a few years (not months) later.

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 from exhaustion and a broken heart.” 

John Hart’s New Jersey farm was looted in the course of the Revolutionary War , and he went into in the nearby mountains for a short time. When the British overran the area of New Jersey in late November of 1776, he was not “driven from his wife’s bedside,” as his wife had already died several weeks earlier, and most of his thirteen children were adults and had already moved away from home at the time. The Continental Army recaptured the area within a month. So, he did not die “from exhaustion and a broken heart” a mere “few weeks” after emerging from hiding. Moreover, in 1778 he was re-elected to the New Jersey assembly. He also invited the American army to encamp on his New Jersey farmland in June 1778 before succumbing to kidney stones in May 1779.

Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.”

Lewis Morris saw his New York home taken over in 1776 and used as a barracks for soldiers. However, it was taken over by the Continental Army, not the British. Afterwards his property was burned by the British when they occupied New York.

Philip Livingston lost several properties to the British occupation of New York and sold off others to support the war effort. He did not recover them because he died suddenly in 1778, before the end of the war.

Such were the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution.”

The lives of the Founding Fathers and Mothers are inspiring. They were true heroes. We don’t need to fabricate their stories to bolster their sacrifices or greatness.

(Other Articles: http://www.londonedition.net)

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