Felons and the Declaration of Independence

Lordy. A historian’s work is never done. I often talk on this show about how history is contested, and always has been. And for this 4th of July, I had been preparing to do a show on the various myths about the Declaration of Independence. A sort of combined version of all the small myths about July 4th and the Declaration of Independence that we’ve done over the years. I was stopped from doing that by the story running around the media world of how Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States and now a convicted felon, is in good company because Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence were also felons.

This is an election year, and given who’s running at the top of one of the party tickets this year, and given the immense amount of “low information” stuff that’s believed and propagated by his supporters, I shouldn’t have been suprised that a big new misunderstanding about the Declaration of Independence has arisen and is being trumpted widely. 

The truth is a lot more complex than that, and probably more complex than “low information” people can handle. But my listeners don’t belong in that, um, category. So I’m very confident that you’ll understand this true information.

First, what is this new myth going around? In a video on TikTok and YouTube, right-wing social media commentator, Benny Jonson, said, essentially, that Trump was a great patriot because, like him, all the Founding Fathers were felons when they signed the Declaration of Independence. Johnson’s story was taken up by celebrity analysts like Dinesh D’Souza, and then we were off to the races. You now see the claim everywhere.

Essentially the question is, were the Founding Fathers convicted felons because, in signing the Declaration of Independence, they were committing treason (a very serious crime). Well, a “felony” was not a very well-defined crime in English law at the time, but we can more or less call someone who was convicted of treason in 1776 or soon thereafter a “felon.” Treason was about as high a crime as you could commit then and you would be executed if caught and convicted. So calling it a felony would not be inaccurate. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

To make a very long and complicated story understandable, the English legal system could not convict the Founding Fathers as felons because the American revolution was successful once the British surrendered in 1781. After surrendering to George Washington at Yorktown, the British General Lord Cornwallis couldn’t very well say, “ok, now please hand over the signers of the Declaration of Independence, so I can take them to London where they with be tried as traitors and felons.” If the American Revolution had not been successful, it would have been a different story. 

In addition to being inaccurate, the idea of comparing Donald Trump’s felonies to the “treasonous” acts of the Founding Fathers is strange. He and his team would have to argue that he paid hush money to cover up an affair, and then lied about it, all in an effort to overthrow the “oppressive” government under which he lived. That would be the current United States government. Trump and the MAGA people would have to say that he did all these things so that he could eventually replace the US government with one of his own making. 

So if you support and vote for someone who wants to overthrow the United States government because our Founding Fathers declared independence from the British crown and parliament, well…let’s just say you won’t be on my Christmas Card list.

But this whole thing reminds me of the many myths about the Declaration of Independence, especially the infamous email and Facebook post called “The Price They Paid” that goes viral every year at this time. In fact, as I was getting ready to write this, I saw Vivek Ramaswamy, one of Trump’s leading political supporters and himself a candidate for the Republican nomination early this year, giving a speech about this, quoting at length from The Price They Paid email.

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 without bothering to check even an elementary school encyclopedia. Talk about “low information” myth spreaders.

There are some general fallacies and falsehoods that run throughout the whole thing that should caution any anyone 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 specifically 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 POWs.

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 because he was a colonial rebel. They turned him 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.

The Price They Paid continues, “twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.” Yes, several signers of the Declaration had their property destroyed during the Revolutionary War. Again, there’s no evidence that they were targeted as signers of the Declaration of Independence. It’s not as if British soldiers were running around with lists of Declaration signers and looking for their houses. It was 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 sometimes 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. So if the American Colonial army had to destroy a house for military reasons (likely because it was occupied by British officers), they wouldn’t hesitate to do so because the owner had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence. They had war goals on their mind.

“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. Yet, 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, if you will, “normal” casualties of the Revolutionary War. Not singled out in any way.

“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. Yes, it’s true. 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 Colonial officer who shot Gwinnett during a duel in May 1777. The other eight died from various causes, mostly natural and accidental, and not related to the war.

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 can’t be attributed to the fact that he signed the Declaration of Independence, but it _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. Despite what the story says, 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.” None of this is true. By the time the British captured Hart’s part of New Jersey in late 1776, his wife was already dead, having succumbed to natural causes 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? 

As well as I can determine, it started with Paul Harvey, the famous radio commentator who used to say he could give his listeners “the rest of the story.” Older listeners to this podcast will remember him. Almost all of his stories would be called “low information” nowadays, if not outright falsehoods. He published a version of The Price They Paid in a 1956 book with that very title, “The Rest of the Story,” but where he got the story from, 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 in 2002 that repeated the same “story” without checking its veracity.

And we’re hearing it, and things like it, again in 2024. Not only are these stories consistently untrue, they are also consistently spread by “low information” people. We used to call that “ignorance.”

Talk to you next week.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

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.


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