The Many Myths About the Declaration of Independence: 4th of July Special Encore!
July 4th is upon us and two things will likely happen, at least for American Buzzkillers. The first is that we will use the July 4th national holiday as an opportunity to take a mid-summer vacation (or extend a weekend vacation). The second thing that will happen is that we will be treated to a great number of canned, poorly-researched, even more poorly-argued, sound-byte stories about the Declaration of Independence from a lot of traditional media outlets. And, of course, the same type of thing will happen over email, social media, and podcasts.
No doubt some of the stories we’ll hear will be good and solidly based. But historical urban legends have only been enhanced by social media, and their spread and influence have been greatly boosted by mass emails and Facebook posts put up carelessly and (perhaps worse) re-posted and forwarded in a knee-jerk way, without any thought to whether the content of these posts have any evidence behind them. For instance, we’ll hear that John Hancock, he of the big signature, quipped to the assembled delegates after he signed the Declaration so hugely, “there, King George will be able to read that without his spectacles.” And we’ll be told by an email myth that will not die that, essentially, the British army went around during the Revolutionary War rounding up signers of the Declaration of Independence, and marked them for special punishment and torture.
Here in this episode, we’re going to examine some of the history of the Declaration of Independence, the complications in that history, and whether any of the things your crazy uncle sends in those emails, or your nutty aunt posts on Facebook, are true. And we’ll give you the ammunition to fight your own revolutionary battle against historical myths, myth makers, and myth spreading.
First of all, why did the American colonies and colonists need a _declaration_ of independence? After all, the colonies (more or less united) had been at war with Great Britain since April 1775, and had certainly witnessed deteriorating relations with the mother country since 1765. Tensions increased in the mid-1770s, and the colonists met in the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in October 1774 to discuss how they, together, should respond to pressure from the British government to agree with new colonial taxes and trade regulations. They agreed to boycott British goods and to demand repeal of the Coercive Acts passed by parliament to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Neither of these things lessened the British parliament’s desire to clamp down on colonial discontent, and so a Second Continental Congress was called in 1775 to manage the war against the crown and discuss whether the colonies should declare full independence from Great Britain.
The Second Continental Congress debated these matters, off and on, for a year before deciding to pass an independence resolution. Two significant things prompted the actual Declaration of Independence. The first was the delegates’ realization that they needed to declare themselves an independent nation in order to get foreign help for the Revolutionary War. The other great European powers might help a revolt by Britain’s American colonies, but these countries had their own colonies, and messing around with the British _colonial_ system might invite British retaliation against their own colonial system. A colonial war wasn’t something to be entered into lightly. The second thing was the influence that Englishman Thomas Paine and his publications had on supporters of the American complaints against the British crown and empire. Although many of the Founding Fathers thought Paine wasn’t as sophisticated and careful a thinker as they were, his work was becoming popular among the chattering classes in the colonies. Many in the Continental Congress thought that they should jump on the Paine bandwagon. They urged other members of the Continental Congress to consider the Paine-esque public relations value of a major and strong statement through a Declaration of Independence.
It took a few months for the delegates to the Second Continental Congress to overcome disagreements between themselves in early 1776, but by the end of June, they had agreed not only to declare independence but to publish the declaration and the reasons why. They voted that way on July 2nd, and some delegates, including John Adams, thought that July 2nd would become known as Independence Day because that’s when the question of independence was decided. But it took a couple of more days for some of the textual details to be hammered out, and it was resolved on July 4th to finish the document and send it to be printed. But even then it wasn’t the final final version that we all know and love. In the first place, the actual July 4th document was typeset and printed, not published through the “engrossing” process of creating a facsimile of a handwritten document (more on that in a moment). The first July 4th Declaration was printed in Philadelphia and distributed widely. The title read:
In Congress, July 4, 1776
by the Representatives of the
United States of America
in General Congress Assembled.
So far so good, right? That’s what we ended up with, right? Well, no. The Declaration of Independence was, for want of a better term, a living document for the next few months (kind of like the Constitution is a living document because it’s been amended a lot). When it came to producing the “engrossed” (hand-written) copy for printing, the delegates decided to change the wording. They voted on July 19th to:
Resolved, That the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,” and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.
That changed the title from “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled” to “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America.” They added “unanimous” to give more solidarity to the sentiments expressed. It finalized the text that we know today. They also resolved that all the members of Congress (those who had voted on it during the Second Continental Congress) would sign the engrossed version and that their signatures be printed on the copies produced. That was done on August 2, 1776.
Four dates could have been chosen as America’s Independence Day — July 2nd (when independence was agreed to by vote); July 4th (when the first declaration was printed; July 19th (when the introductory text got amended to make it more “unanimous”); or August 2nd (when most of the delegates actually signed the Declaration, and, in effect, pledged “…to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” the phrase which ends the document and appears just above the signatures.
Perhaps the most fun myths and misunderstandings about the Declaration of Independence, however, are related to a couple of reported “quips” supposedly uttered by John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin. First, let’s take John Hancock, who was the president of the Second Continental Congress, and whose signature is large and central on the document that we all know. In fact, “John Hancock” has become a synonym for “signature” in American culture, as in “put your John Hancock right there…” when you’re signing your future away by buying a house or an expensive car. According to one of the myths about Hancock and his signature, he was the first to sign the document and he said aloud, after he signed, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”
There are variants of this story, and the only thing that changes is what Hancock was supposed to have said after signing his name so hugely and prominently.
“King George can read that without spectacles!”
“There! John Bull can read my name without spectacles and may now double his reward of £500 for my head. That is my defiance.”
“The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.”
There is absolutely no good evidence that Hancock said anything after signing the declaration. The reason that his signature is so central and prominent is that he was the president of the Congress that wrote and approved the Declaration.
Similarly, after signing the Declaration, good ‘ole Ben Franklin was supposed to have quipped, “There you have it gentlemen. We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Just like the Hancock quote, this is considered to be an absolute fact, even though there’s absolutely no evidence that it happened, and the earliest that “quote” appears is the mid-19th century, in stories about the Founding Fathers.
What Happened After? The Price They Paid Myth
But the biggest myth (and the one that seems to be the most persistent) is the famous Price They Paid myth that flies around email circles every July 4th. Almost invariably, this email story comes from your nutty uncle or that slightly crazy guy in the next office over who’s always spreading these kinds of historical myths via email without bothering to check even a grade school encyclopedia. I debated over how best to present the myth to you, whether to read out the entire email and then show where it’s wrong or to analyze it claim by claim. I decided on the latter because I was afraid that reading out the whole text without interruption might be mistaken for reading out an accurate history of what happened to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. So we’ll take The Price They Paid email apart piece by piece.
But there are some general fallacies and falsehoods that run throughout the whole thing that should caution any good Buzzkiller when reading a document such as this. In the first place, there’s the common fallacy that operates like this. Because person A committed act X in 1776 and then, years later, was captured by the enemy, doesn’t mean that they were targeted for capture because they committed act X. Or that they had their property damaged or destroyed mainly because they committed act X.
The Price They Paid starts this way. “Five signers,” it says, “were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died.” Yes, four signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured by the British during the Revolutionary War: George Walton, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge. But they there’s no evidence that they were captured or targeted specifically because they signed the Declaration of Independence. They were captured as “normal” prisoners of war while fighting against the British, they were not tortured while prisoners, and did not die while p.o.w.s.
Richard Stockton of New Jersey _was_ captured by the British because he signed the Declaration of Independence. Well, technically, on November 30, 1776, he was taken prisoner by local British sympathizers (Tories) and turned over to the British army, garrisoned in New York. Stockton was thrown in jail and kept in deplorable conditions until released in mid-1777, his health utterly ruined.
“Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned,” The Price They Paid continues. Several signers of the Declaration had their property destroyed during the Revolutionary War, but again, it wasn’t because they were targeted as signers of the Declaration of Independence, but because that property was either in the path of battle or because it was captured, occupied, and destroyed by one of the marauding armies, British or Colonial. What’s that, Professor, _one_ of the armies? Yes,, the big houses owned by prominent lawyers and politicians were captured and commandeered by both the British and the American forces as the battles of the Revolutionary War raged, depending on who needed them most and who was in the strongest position to capture the property.
“Two [signers] lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured,” we are “informed” by the famous email story. Again, this is partly true. Abraham Clark from New Jersey had two sons captured and imprisoned on a ship. John Witherspoon (also from New Jersey) had his eldest son killed at the Battle of Germantown. The other son killed during the war has yet to be identified. And again, there’s no evidence that any of these sons of Declaration signers were targeted _because_ their fathers had signed the document. From all the available evidence, they were part of the “normal” flow of the Revolutionary War.
“Nine of the 56 [signers] fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War,” is the next claim in The Price They Paid. Technically, this is true, but Buzzkillers across the nation and the world recognize a misleading statement when they hear it. Yes, nine signers of the Declaration of Independence died during the Revolutionary War. But they did not die from war wounds or the deprivations caused by the war. At least none of them died as a result of injuries inflicted directly or indirectly by the British. The only founding father who died from wounds received during the Revolutionary War was Button Gwinnett from Georgia, but even his wounds were from a fellow continental officer who shot Gwinnett during a duel in May 1777.
Not only does The Price They Paid claim that the signers of the Declaration of Independence either lost their lives or had their sons killed by the British, it also says they had their property and livelihoods ruined by the British. Again, these claims are either untrue or greatly exaggerated. Carter Braxton of Virginia did indeed have his fleet of merchant ships captured by the British Navy, but there’s no evidence that he was targeted because he signed the Declaration of Independence, and he certainly didn’t die penniless, as the story claims. The same is true of Thomas McKean, whose treatment during the Revolutionary War not only can’t be attributed to the fact that he signed the Declaration of Independence, but can be attributed to the fact that he was the volunteer leader of colonial militia forces. And the same is true of the eight signers who are listed as having their property looted. Again, there’s no evidence that the looters or marauding armies targeted the signers of the Declaration of Independence when moving through the regions they captured.
And, finally, The Price They Paid gets personal. But there is no evidence that Francis Lewis’s wife was captured by the British and held because he was a signatory to the Declaration. She was captured along with other civilians on Long Island and held by the British looking for a deal whereby wives of British officers could be exchanged for colonial civilians. And that’s what eventually happened.
The Price They Paid even claims that “John Hart [of New Jersey] 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.” By the time that the British captured Hart’s part of New Jersey in late 1776, his wife was already dead, having succumbed several weeks earlier. And all his children were grown and off on their own by then. Further, he lived well into 1779 and served in the New Jersey assembly in the intervening years.
Certainly, signing the Declaration of Independence was a brave act, and each of the delegates to the Continental Congress knew the significance of what he was doing. But how did these false stories get circulated? The best that Buzzkill Institute historians can do is trace it back to Paul Harvey, the famous radio commentator who used to come up with “the rest of the story.” He published it in a 1956 book with that very title, The Rest of the Story, but where he got it, or whether he came up with it on his own, is impossible to say. Paul Harvey’s popularity on the radio meant that when political talk radio really took off in the 1980s, this story was picked up by Ann Landers and Rush Limbaugh, and later by Pat Buchanan and Oliver North. And it’s undoubtedly from them that General Richard B. Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent out an Independence Day message that repeated the same “story” without checking its veracity in 2002. I expect that many of you will hear it this year. But this year you have been forewarned! Buzzkill Institute historians and researchers have set you straight, and you’re welcome.
Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2002).
In this landmark work of history, Joseph Ellis explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals–Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison–confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.