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Fates of Declaration signers info came from discredited essay

  • Published in Letters
To The Daily Sun,
On July 5, you published a letter conveying a stirring account of the fates endured by the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Many of your readers may have experienced a feeling of déjà vu as they read the essay. Little wonder. Fourteen years ago, the essay was widely circulated. Since then, scholars have diluted and refuted the essay's claims.
For the record: The person who submitted the essay to you did not write it. She was simply passing on material from what she reasonably thought was a reliable source, an old Ann Landers's column. The actual author is unknown.
To that original author: Is it necessary to embellish and create history to make America admirable? The country often comes off quite well when scrutinized and better than okay in the grand scheme of things. If pride depends on fantasy, what is the price of loyalty and glory?
Some examples of the essay's claims versus reality follow.
Claim: The British captured five signers as traitors and tortured them before they died.
Reality: Yes, the British captured five, but not as traitors (except for one) and none died in captivity. Four of the five were actively engaged in military operations at the time of their capture. The British took them as prisoners of war.
Claim: Nine "died from wounds or hardships" of war.Reality: Yes, nine died during the time of the war, but not from wounds or hardships inflicted by the British. Only one died from wounds. A fellow officer inflicted those in a duel.
Claim: Carter Braxton ". . . saw his ships swept from the seas. . . . He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in rags."
Reality: The British appropriated some of Braxton's ships because they flew British flags. They captured or sunk others in the conduct of war; i.e., not because Braxton signed the Declaration. He sold assets (land holdings mostly) to cover the losses.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Braxton recouped most of his losses. In subsequent years, however, he again lost considerable wealth through bad business decisions. Consequently, his wealth at death was considerably less than it was before the war, but he was not impoverished.
Claim: The British hounded Thomas McKean and forced his family to move and hide constantly. They took his possessions, "and poverty was his reward."
Reality: McKean kept his family on the run for about five months. Attributing this to his signature on the Declaration of Independence does not pass the smell test. His name is not on the documents authenticated in 1777. He evidently signed later. The British were more likely after him because he was a militia leader. "Poverty was his reward" is an outright fabrication. McKean had a long, distinguished and lucrative career. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress (serving for a time as its president), president (equivalent to governor) of Delaware, and Pennsylvania's chief justice and governor. At his death in 1817, his estate consisted of "stocks, bonds and huge tracts of land in Pennsylvania," according to contemporary accounts.
Claim: The British drove John Hart from the bedside of his dying wife. Their 13 children fled for their lives. He lived in forests and caves for more than a year. When he returned home, his wife was dead, his children were gone. He died shortly thereafter heartbroken.
Reality: There is a nugget of truth. The British looted Hart's New Jersey farm in November 1776 (probably because he was the speaker of the assembly). The rest of the claim is hogwash. A month after the raid, the Continental Army liberated the area; that is, Hart hid in the mountains for about a month (not more than a year). The British did not drive him from his dying wife. She had died weeks before the raid. Most of the fleeing children were adults. He died neither "shortly thereafter" nor "heartbroken." He died of kidney stones more than two years later. In the interim, NJ voters reelected him to the state assembly.
Robert Moran