Wednesday, June 3, 2009

We hold these semi-truths to be self-evident…

I love reading about history, American history in particular, but especially the period surrounding the founding of our nation. There are many books on the subject, a few I would highly recommend are David McCullough’s “John Adams” and “1776”, Joseph J. Ellis’ “American Creation” and Steven Waldman’s “Founding Faith.” When I choose a book on almost any subject, I like to check out reviews on Amazon to see how historically accurate the book is. I may not agree with an author’s interpretation of or opinions on the facts, but if the author presents true facts, it is most likely a book I’ll read. When it comes to history, the facts must be presented truthfully.

Which brings me to today’s topic of stretching, embellishing or otherwise distorting the facts surrounding that mythical period of our nation’s founding. In particular, I want to look at a widely circulated and oft quoted piece regarding the fates of those men who signed the Declaration of Independence (DoI) in 1776. Here are a few of the “facts” generally stated as follows:

• 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 serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured.
• Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War
• Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife and she died within a few months.
• 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 to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later, he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.

The difficulty I have with such “facts” is that they are presented in a context of each one having undergone these hardships as a direct result of their signing the DoI. But as we’ll see, the true facts prove otherwise. (Courtesy of Snopes and other sources)

#1: Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died.

Right off the bat, this statement starts off with a verifiable truth (5 signers were indeed captured) but quickly goes downhill on the steep slope of fabrication. Four (Walton, Heyward, Middleton and Rutledge) were not captured as traitors or for their involvement in the signing of the DoI, but were taken as prisoners of war due to their military involvement. Richard Stockton was the only once captured specifically because of his involvement in signing, but he was also the only one of the 56 signers who violated the pledge to support the DoI. He was granted release only after recanting his signature and swearing allegiance to King George III. The four who were captured as prisoners of war were not tortured, but were given the same ill treatment given to all prisoners of war. They were later released.

#2: Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned

Taken at face value, this is a true statement. However, the implication that they were targeted as a result of their signing the DoI is false. A common part of warfare during this period was the seizure or destruction of personal property by both sides of the war. It’s also worth noting at this point that, at the time of the signing in 1776, the war had been going on for over a year.

#3: Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured
Abraham Clark had two sons captured and imprisoned. Only one signer had a son die in the Army: John Witherspoon’s eldest son was killed in the Battle of Germantown.

#4: Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War

Here, too, we see an embellishment of fact. Nine of the signers did indeed die during the time of the War, but none of them died from wounds or hardships inflicted on them by the British. Several did not even take part in the war. Button Gwinnett was the only one who died from wounds, but these were as a result of a duel against a fellow officer.

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

Francis Lewis’s wife ignored an order to evacuate Long Island and as a result was captured by the British. However, she was later exchanged for wives of British officials captured by the Americans. She lived for a few more years (not months) after her capture and died (most probably due to the hardships she faced as a prisoner) in 1779. One note in this particular case is that Lewis and his family was indeed targeted for his role in signing the DoI.

#6: 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 to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later, he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.

Hart’s wife Deborah was practically bedridden with sickness, probably due to the hardships incurred by the Hessians destroying their property earlier in 1776 (some accounts list their property as only being damaged, not destroyed.) Hart was on his way home from his duties as Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly on the day Deborah died on Oct. 8, 1776. It was not until later in the year that Hart was forced to go into hiding. Further, he was twice re-elected as Speaker as well as served numerous other offices before dying of kidney stones in May 1779, two and a half years (not a few weeks) after the death of his wife.

There are others, but these are ones that I want to highlight. The signers of the DoI fought long and hard over the issue of independence. When at last it was passed, those signing knew the risks they were taking in officially breaking away from what was then one of, if not THE most powerful empire in the world. As Benjamin Franklin quipped, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” They also knew they were founders of something monumental. However, we tend to overdramatize these men’s lives as well as the price they paid, almost to the point of deifying them and making them martyrs of a quasi-religious nature. The true accounts of these men’s lives are so much more fascinating than these blurbs (and others) really tell. Further, we don't see the struggles that they faced, either on a personal level or on the national level (such as the decision to almost completely sidestep the issue of slavery.) With such accounts as the ones above, we lose the human elements experienced, the uncertainties faced, the herculean decisions made and both the physical & intellectual battles fought. Don’t settle for “sound-bite media” when the full story is so much more worth the time to read.

3 comments:

thedesertpastor said...

Excellent post! I love history as well and unfortunately, both time and embellishment have a way of changing the "facts". However good the stories are, they are only worth repeating if they are based on truth. Enjoyed the read!

HouseOfSmooches said...

Very interesting post! It's amazing the half-truths we believe and teach to our next generation.....hey you want to take the history teaching position at the House of Smooches School next year? :)

David said...

Martin Luther King, Jr. has suffered the same sort of fate -- the media called it the "SantaClaus-ification" effect, where a real person with real greatness is transformed into a mythical figure who's above the rest of us. Because, you see, if Dr. King or George Washington or Ronald Reagan was such a better person than me, then I don't have to do anything, because I'm so much smaller and less "great".