The Price They Didn’t Pay
For over fifteen years a document has been circulating the Internet lauding the signers of the Declaration of Independence and stating how many of them paid a high price for their courage in signing it. It is often e-mailed around elections and the 4th of July as a means to prompt receivers into thinking patriotically about the alleged high price paid by those 56 signers over the course of the War of Independence from 1776 to 1783. It alleges that several signers were killed by the British during the war, some were tortured, many had their property taken from them, and they were targeted for retribution and death. This document is for the most part a complete fabrication and when it is not stretching the truth, it is deliberately lying.
The history of this piece of fiction is interesting in itself. The earliest known version of it was found in Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story published in 1956. The 1950s were a decade best remembered for its theme of anti-communism which permeated all levels of American society. A great deal of patriotism, both factual and fictional was used to counter any potential communist thought from developing in the US, and it appears that this fabrication was part of that fictional patriotic output. Since then, it has appeared in various forms and was actually made part of the Congressional Record by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Years later Rush Limbaugh used the article on his talk show and website and attributed the authorship to his father, Rush H. Limbaugh, Sr.
|Declaration of Independence|
Since the 1990s the article has been circulated repeatedly via the Internet and has become an urban myth. Many websites list it as a factual based document when it is nothing of the sort. Instead, it is a nothing more than what it was intended to be; an article written to influence people to consider associated material or ideas in a positive light. The problem is that it is a gross distortion of the actual events of the Revolution and in many places the details are just completely wrong. While signing the Declaration of Independence was an obvious break with Great Britain and is seen as the point where Americans formally rejected their ties with Great Britain, the truth is that Americans had been in the process of eliminating British authority in 1775 throughout the colonies. The Declaration was the document that made the revolt official, but people had been in combat for over a year at that point and General George Washington was preparing to repel a British Army which landed at Staten Island on July 3rd.
|Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson|
Not a single signer was killed by the British during the American Revolution as the article states. In fact, there is no evidence that any signer was singled out for retribution by the British for that act. The idea of this article is that these signers were punished for their act of signing the Declaration. In reality, these men were for the most part wealthy men who suffered from the economic upheaval brought about by the war. They suffered crop and livestock losses from both armies who foraged supplies and sometimes paying and sometimes not. Actually, the signers from the South lost the most because they usually had slaves who took advantage of the situation to escape. However, these signers were not suffering any more than anyone else in the Revolution. They had wealth to use to alleviate their suffering. The people that paid the real price in this war were the common folk who literally sacrificed everything.
|Thomas Nelson, Jr.|
It was one thing for a wealthy man to suffer some losses. It was another for poor people to sacrifice things that they need. If the signers were singled out for punishment then why were so many of their properties left relatively unharmed? Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the original draft of the Declaration barely escaped capture at Monticello, his home, in 1781. Yet, the home was not destroyed. Neither was Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home during the year of British raiding in Virginia that year before Lord Cornwallis settled down at Yorktown awaiting reinforcements. One particular home the article claims was destroyed was that of Thomas Nelson, Jr., who it also claims died bankrupt after the war as a result.
|Thomas Nelson, Jr. House at the Yorktown NPS Battleground|
The tale of Thomas Nelson, Jr. and his home may be the biggest and easiest falsehood to prove out of the many in the article. Revolutionary War myth states that Nelson’s home was used by the British as a headquarters during the Siege of Yorktown and that Nelson urged General Washington to fire artillery at the house. This story exists in multiple forms and in at least one form the house was not Nelson’s but rather his uncle. In any event, it is easily proven that this part of the article is completely wrong because the house stands to this day as part of the Colonial National Historical Park maintained by the National Park Service. Some damage from cannon fire is evident on the southeast face of the house, but the house which was restored in 1976 along with the siege earthworks and is a National Historic Landmark.
As for the claim made that five signers were captured by the British and were tortured before they died, the historical record shows that while some signers were captured in the war, none were tortured and none died from wounds inflicted by the British. In fact, only nine signers died during the war and seven of those were older men who died from natural causes or disease. One signer, Thomas Lynch, Jr., was lost at sea when his ship disappeared on a voyage with all hands. The only signer to die of wounds was Button Gwinnet of Georgia. However, the wounds were not inflicted by the British, but rather a fellow American in a duel. Five signers were captured during the war, but the closest thing to torture any of them faced was Richard Stockton.
Stockton could be said to be singled out for capture because of his status, but he was captured by loyalists who sought favor with the British occupiers of New Jersey in 1776. He was placed among the rest of the American prisoners in the infamous prison ships anchored in New York City’s harbor where miserable conditions broke his health. He signed a parole in exchange for his release in 1777 which was a common and routine matter in that era. However, his treatment and ill health as a result of the imprisonment did not kill him. Stockton died from cancer in February, 1781 instead of the results of British torture. Of the other four men who were captured, one was captured at the Battle of Savannah (1778) and the rest when Charleston fell in 1780. None of them were mistreated during their imprisonment. All were exchanged in the year following their capture.
A few other allegations are made in this article such as two signers having their sons killed during the war. None of the signers lost a son during the war. Some of the claims about signers being hounded by the British and dying as a result are incorrect as well. John Hart of New Jersey is cited in one segment as being driven from his wife’s bedside. She had died the previous year. It claims his children had to flee with him. They were all adults. It then claims he died the following year. That would be difficult to do since John Hart was reelected two more times to the Continental Congress, once as Speaker of the House of New Jersey, and died in 1779 from his kidney stones.
By now, I’m sure you have decided for yourselves that the article is a fake. For those of you who wish to believe a myth instead of reality I invite you to do some investigation of your own. There are multiple sources of information available which tell the story of the American Revolution and the War of Independence as well as that of the Declaration of Independence. I consulted several sources in verifying the facts that prove “The Price They Paid” is an extremely inaccurate propaganda piece which contains nothing of factual value whatsoever. The story of the Revolution is a powerful one, and the men and women who participated in it deserve for the truth to be told.
Bell, J.L. Boston 1775 website. http://boston1775.blogspot.com/ Several articles. (accessed June 13, 2013).
Ferling, John. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
John Ferling. Independence: The Struggle to set America Free. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011.
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Ramsay, David. The History of the American Revolution, 2 vols. Edited by Lester H. Cohen. Philadelphia: R. Aitken & Son, 1789; Liberty Fund, 2010, http://oll.libertyfund.org (accessed November 14, 2011).
Snopes. “The Price They Paid.” http://www.snopes.com/history/american/pricepaid.asp (accessed June 13, 2013).