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Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Reader clarifies facts about signers of Declaration

July 4, 2001

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Confidential to Dear Abby in Los Angeles: Happy Birthday, Sis. I send love and good wishes for many more happy ones. Aren't we a couple of firecrackers?

Dear Ann: Last July 4th, you printed an inspirational essay about what happened to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The writer said five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the war, and another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or the hardships of the war.

The writer also said Carter Braxton lost his ships, went into debt and died in rags. Thomas McKean was forced to live in hiding and wound up poverty-stricken. Thomas Nelson Jr.'s home was destroyed when the British took it over as their headquarters, and Nelson told Washington to fire on it. He died bankrupt. Francis Lewis lost his home, and his wife was jailed. John Hart's fields were destroyed, and he died heartbroken.

The essay brought a tear to my eye. Unfortunately, a lot of the information in it was incorrect or misleading. Here's what the facts say:

No signer was killed outright by the British, and only one, Richard Stockton, is said to have been imprisoned solely for having signed the Declaration of Independence. The others were captured while fighting in the army and were treated just like any other prisoner of war (which was fairly harsh), but they were not tortured. Of the 56 signers, 17 (not nine) held commissions in the army or did medical duty during the war. Many of those whose property was looted or destroyed managed to re-establish themselves financially after the war.

Carter Braxton did suffer financial hardship because of the British, but he retained other holdings. What ruined him were commercial setbacks after the war. Thomas McKean did not die in poverty. In fact, he was quite wealthy when he died at the age of 83 in 1817. No one knows for sure if Thomas Nelson's home was fired upon (the source of this story is family legend), but I heard the home was turned into a tourist attraction after the war, and additional cannonball holes were added for "authenticity."

The other facts are essentially correct, but give the impression that these men died as a result of wounds suffered in the war, or they died in poverty. In reality, the majority survived the war and rebuilt their fortunes.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew they could have been targeted by the British as traitors. They showed tremendous courage and bravery by willingly putting their names on a document that could bring about their deaths. They were remarkable men. We do not need to embellish the truth. History Buff in Dallas

Dear History Buff: Thank you for your excellent research. You were not the only one to tell me that the facts presented in my column were misleading. There was also some controversy about the author. Some readers insisted the original piece was written by the father of Rush Limbaugh Jr. (Rush Sr.) during World War II.

Another said the author was Peter McWilliams, a libertarian writer. Several said the true author is Gary Hildreth of Erie, Pa.

So, dear readers, those who want the entire history lesson can look up the facts at the local library or on the Internet. I've done my part.

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