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Bodies of men sometimes become famous, irrespective of the distinction of the individuals who compose them. We all know of the barons who compelled King John to sign Magna Charta at Runnymede, but we know almost nothing of the personality of any particular baron. I am quite aware that in recent years some iconoclast has demonstrated, to his own satisfaction at least, that there is a doubt whether the Magna Charta story is altogether what we have always believed it to be. I shall not give up my faith in it lightly, but I shall not waste time in discussing the question now. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence have won a fame not unlike that of the Runnymede barons. It was almost a fortuitous circumstance that they happened to be the subscribers of the revered but faded document which, almost illegible, as to signatures at least, reposes in a sealed wrapper among our national archives. When most of them were chosen to their seats in the Continental Congress it was not foreseen that they would become the immortals of our history. Some of them were leaders, some were commonplace but worthy patriots, and some were mere accidents. Their autographs are sought for eagerly, command exalted prices, and are exhibited with pride by the conceited owners. The value of the autographs varies inversely with the notoriety of the writer, so that while John Adams and Benjamin Franklin are within the reach of the moderately wealthy, Thomas Lynch the younger and Button Gwinnett, of whom nobody ever heard except the burrower in American history, are attainable only by magnates and millionaires. A friend of mine was asked by the Librarian of Congress how much a collection of the autographs of the Signers would cost, and the answer was, that a complete collection of full autograph letters signed, all of the year 1776, would be worth a million dollars. He might well have said a billion, for such a collection never existed and can never exist. I confess that while I admit the peculiar value of a letter — an A. L. S. in the slang of the collector — beyond that of a mere document or of a “letter signed,” I am unable to understand why a Signer's letter of 1776 is more desirable than one written in 1777; yet the letter of 1776 is regarded as deserving the blue ribbon. In my judgment the interest of the contents is vastly more important than the mere date.

There were five members of the New Jersey delegation in the Continental Congress who were fortunate enough to have the privilege of affixing their names to the greatest document in American history; and few know how nearly they came to missing it altogether. The Continental Congress of the Revolutionary days was a casual sort of Congress, its membership changing continually according to the whims of the States and of the members themselves, most of whom were obliged to make many sacrifices in order to attend the sessions. On February 14, 1776, New Jersey took it into its sovereign head to resolve that William Livingston, John DeHart, Richard Smith, John Cooper and Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant “be delegates to represent this province in the Continental Congress, for the space of one year or until others shall be legally appointed in their stead;” and on the 20th of February, 1776, three of these gentlemen attended in Philadelphia and presented their credentials. The Public Journal of Congress, as printed, — a provoking record, – does not give the names of the faithful three, the compiler manifestly considering it a matter of no importance. A little more than four months later, the “province” made what is colloquially styled “a clean sweep” of all these delegates, and on June 21, 1776, the Provincial Congress at Burlington assembled, “proceeded to the election of delegates to represent this colony in Continental Congress, when Richard Stockton, Abraham Clark, John Hart, and Francis Hopkinson, Esqr., and Dr. John Witherspoon were elected by ballot to serve for one year, unless a new appointment be made before that time,” and followed its official announcement of the fact with a ringing resolution, saying to the newly chosen men: “The Congress empower and direct you, in the name of this Colony, to join with the delegates of the other colonies in Continental Congress assembled, in the most vigorous measures for supporting the just rights and liberties of America; and if you shall judge it necessary or expedient for this purpose, we empower you to join with them in declaring the United Colonies independent of Great Britain, entering into a confederation for union and common defence, making treaties with foreign nations for commerce and assistance, and to take such other measures as may appear to them and you necessary for these great ends; promising to support them with the whole force of this province.” The cautious Jerseymen, mindful of the autonomy of the “Colony,” added, however, this significant proviso: “Always observing that, whatever plan of confederacy you enter into, the regulating the internal police of this province is to be reserved in the Colony legislature.”

On the 28th of June, 1776, less than a week before the adoption of the Declaration, Francis Hopkinson appeared in Congress with these resolutions, and was forthwith made a member of the committee for preparing the plan of confederation; and on the same day the committee to prepare the Declaration submitted its “draught.” The exasperating Public Journal does not disclose the presence of any other New Jersey delegate at any time on or before July 4th. The “Declaration,” as there set forth in full, purports to have been signed by all five, and it is prefaced by the statement that “the following Declaration was by order of Congress, engrossed and signed by the following members,” but when they actually signed it does not appear. It is now a matter of general knowledge that in the statement I have quoted, the printed Journal is misleading and inaccurate, and that the signatures were not affixed until some later time, – Matthew Thornton, of New Hampshire, signing as late as November 4, 1776, and Thomas McKean, of Pennsylvania, not until 1781. Indeed, the Secret Journal under date of August 2, 1776, contains this record: “The Declaration of Independence being engrossed, and compared at the table, was signed by the members.” Those who are curious about the subject will find it exhaustively considered by Mellen Chamberlain in his paper on “The Authentication of the Declaration of Independence,” in the proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, November, 1884, reprinted in the volume of Mr. Chamberlain's essays entitled “John Adams, with Other Essays,” published in 1898.

But it is not my purpose to enter upon an historical study with respect to the Declaration, or of the circumstances attending its adoption; I intend only to say a few words about the New Jersey Signers, whose autographs are now before me, bringing to my mind and to my imagination the personality of each one of the lucky individuals who came in at the eleventh hour, but who achieved as much as all the others.

At the head of the delegation was Richard Stockton, of Princeton, one of the most eminent lawyers in the Colony, whose ancestors as early as 1680 owned several thousand acres of land in New Jersey, including the site of the present town of Princeton. He was a leader at the bar and in Colonial politics; he was the man who, while in Scotland, persuaded John Witherspoon to reconsider his refusal to become the President of Princeton College, and for his services received the thanks of the Trustees of that famous institution. He did his best to keep peace between the Colonies and the mother country, and in 1774 he sent to Lord Dartmouth a paper containing An Expedient for the Settlement of the American Disputes. It proved to be about as useless as most of the fair and reasonable suggestions which were made at the time by cool and sagacious patriots who, in spite of their sagacity, indulged in the illusion that the quarrel between the Colonies and the Crown could be settled without bloodshed. I do not find in this attempt to make peace any justification for the assertion, made by careless observers, that he was lukewarm in his patriotism. It has been said that “his silence during the opening debates on the question of independence leads to the conclusion that at first he doubted the expediency of the Declaration.” When it is remembered that he did not become a member of Congress until the day the draft of the Declaration was submitted and only six days before its adoption, the futility of the “conclusion” is so manifest that the accusation needs no refutation. It affords another instance of the tendency of thoughtless persons to arrive at “conclusions” on premises utterly insufficient. The cruel injustice of the “conclusion” is abundantly demonstrated by the story of Stockton's life. On November 30th, 1776, at night, Tories took him prisoner at Monmouth, his temporary home. He was thrown into prison in New York, was abused and severely treated, and he never regained his health. His fine library was burned by the English and his lands were laid waste; his fortune was annihilated, and he died at Princeton in 1781, when he was only a few months past the age of fifty, — a great man, an honor to New Jersey, and deserving of the admiration of his countrymen for all time. His portrait is preserved in the gallery of which Princeton University is justly proud. It is said that the head of this portrait was. cut out by an English officer during the Revolution, and for a long time it was supposed to have been lost, but it was discovered at last behind the picture where it had fallen when the decapitation took place. Fortunately it was not so injured that it could not be restored. Many years later it was reproduced in an etching by H. B. Hall, after a likeness furnished to Dr. Emmet by Mrs. George T. Olmsted, of Princeton, Stockton's granddaughter; and the portraits of the Signer extant in the present time are all founded upon this likeness.

Stockton inherited from his father the lovely mansion known as “Morven,” which is still preserved in almost its original condition, in spite of the iconoclasm of these bustling days; a beautiful example of the simple and dignified architecture of the eighteenth century. The boasted wealth of the plutocrats could never duplicate it. It must never be permitted to fall into decay, for it is even better than an autograph, and if the throngs of visitors who year after year frequent the Princeton Inn, standing within a stone's- throw of the Signer's home, will look upon it as they ought to do, it will always be an object lesson in patriotism. It is fortunate that it has remained in the possession of loyal descendants of the Stockton family, who know its historical value; and we may rely confidently on them to see to it that it shall never be destroyed. It would have been a great thing if all of the representatives of our Revolutionary leaders had been as mindful of the worth of their possessions as have been the Stocktons of to-day, justly esteemed and distinguished in our contemporary history.

I cannot, in justice to my own sex, refrain from referring to Annis, the wife of Stockton and the daughter of Elias Boudinot. She was lovely in person and, for those days, a literary light. She addressed a poem to Washington after the surrender of Yorktown, which he acknowledged in his stately fashion. She also wrote the ode beginning “Welcome, Mighty Chief, Once More,” which the young ladies of Trenton sang as they scattered flowers before the “Father of his Country” on his way to his inauguration in 1789. If the verses are not of the highest poetic order, we must remember that the men could not or did not do much better.

I am not ashamed of my Stockton autograph. He is what the dealers call “rare,” and few of his letters survive. Mrs. Olmsted had one, reproduced in Brotherhead’s “Book of the Signers,” and Mr. Dreer had one, also reproduced in one of Brotherhead's books. But almost all of us must be content with the documents. My own is a long bill of costs in the suit of Woodward vs. Allen, filed May 27, 1775 — a paper thirteen inches by four. The bill amounts to the disproportionate sum of £5, 14s, 6d; and at the end, in Stockton's hand, is written: “I Tax this Bill of Costs at five pounds fourteen shillings Proclamation Money.” It is amusing to think of the Signer busying himself with such trifles as “bills of costs.”

John Witherspoon's name follows Stock ton's on the roll, and I might easily devote a volume to the story of his honorable life. The fact that he was President of Princeton gave him a fame apart from that which he enjoys as a Signer. Descended from John Knox, he was prominent in Scotland as a Presbyterian minister and author; and in 1766 he declined to come to Princeton. In 1768 he yielded to Stockton's persuasive powers, and he was inaugurated to fill the seat of Burr and Edwards just one hundred years before that other distinguished Scotchman, James McCosh, came to fill the chief office in the College of New Jersey. The story of his life is too well known to need recital; I will not dwell upon it. He was “as high a son of liberty as any man in America.” No one ever had a shadow of a doubt about his attitude concerning independence. It has been well said of him that if the greatness of a man is to be measured by the influence he has exerted on other minds, John Witherspoon must be remembered as one of the foremost men of the Republic during its heroic period. He presided at the Commencement in September, 1794, but eight weeks later, on November 5, he passed from life; “veneratus, dilectus, lugendus omnibus,” as you may read upon his tombstone in the quiet cemetery where repose so many of the men who have given lustre to the fame of Princeton. His colossal statue stands in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. There was no more distinguished Signer. For two years before his death he was blind, but he enjoyed his farm near Princeton, which he called “Tusculum,” in the old-fashioned classical manner of the day. The house still stands, somewhat altered and modified, but it is substantially the same as it was in the days of its builder. I have only an ancient deed executed by him in 1786, but I have seen with pleasure a number of his autographs, including a letter in the possession of a graduate of Princeton, in which he speaks kindly of my friend’s great-great-grandfather, and offers to be his surety to the extent of sixty pounds sterling, which in those days was a goodly sum.

Francis Hopkinson, statesman, lawyer and poet, was more identified with Philadelphia and Pennsylvania than with New Jersey, but he lived for some years at Bordentown, and during that period he was one of New Jersey's . Congressmen. With this exception and a service in the Provincial Congress for a short time, he was not at all identified with New Jersey. Hopkinson was not only a lawyer and a judge, but he was familiar with the science of his day — rather a funny sort of science — and also with music and painting. He composed airs for his own songs, and I love him most for his humorous ballad “The Battle of the Kegs,” published in 1778, descriptive of the alarm caused by the attempt of certain Bordentown patriots to destroy the English ships at Philadelphia by means of torpedoes inclosed in kegs and floated down the Delaware. He died in 1791, at the age of fifty-four. We always think of the Signers as venerable men, but Hopkinson was under forty when the Declaration was fulminated. He was a versatile man, and notwithstanding his Pennsylvanian proclivities, New Jersey may well be proud of him. I am glad to have an autograph letter of his, even if it is dated September 20, 1786, addressed to the President of Pennsylvania, asking for payment of his salary as Judge in Admiralty.

These men — Stockton, Witherspoon, and Hopkinson — you may find described fully in all the encyclopaedias and Dictionaries of Biography, whose details I do not care to reproduce; but there are scant memorials of John Hart and Abraham Clark. They are the obscure signers, with whom no one except the expert is well acquainted. Many of the other signers are in the same category; few of our day can remember even their names.

John Hart was a plain and honest farmer, who dwelt in Hopewell Township. He won the title of “Honest John Hart,” and he was an early patriot. When the New Jersey delegates faltered in 1776, and their faltering was the cause of the new election of June, 1776, to which I have referred, he was named for Congress because he was known to be an enthusiastic advocate of independence. Hart suffered sore trials by reason of his patriotism. His stock and farm were destroyed by the Hessians, his family was forced to fly, and he hid in the forest, never venturing to sleep twice in the same place, and suffered the greatest distress until Washington won at Trenton and at Princeton in 1777. Then he returned to his farm. He was tall and well-proportioned, with very black hair and blue eyes, and he was much loved by his neighbors. Hart had a grist, saw and fulling mill at Rocky Hill, which were all destroyed by the British. He died in 1780, and was buried in what is called “John P. Hunt's burial ground,” about two and a half miles from his residence; but I believe there is no stone, except a red square one, said to have been placed at the head of the grave by General James P. Hunt.

The only grudge I have against Hart is that his autographs are so scarce and that he never had a real portrait. Only five Hart letters are known to be extant. Dr. Emmet, the dean of autograph collectors, is under the impression that no genuine letter or document of Hart is in existence “that does not show his lack of scholarship, either in spelling, misuse of capital letters, or want of punctuation, and that his signed letters appear to have been written by some one writing a very similar hand to that of the Signer, without betraying his deficiencies.” Mr. Gratz, the great Philadelphia collector, to whom we humble persons pay much reverence, says: “Hart was a poor speller, using capitals at his pleasure, and in utter disregard of rules. These errors are numerous in both of the letters I have of his writing. I have seen some orders of the Assembly of New Jersey that were signed by Hart, but written by a clerk, whose handwriting does bear some resemblance to Hart's. I can scarcely believe that he ever had a private secretary, but when he was Speaker of the Assembly of New Jersey, and Chairman of the Council of Safety, it is likely that he utilized the services of the clerk and his assistants. I have one such specimen, and have seen several others, the bodies of which are written respectively by different persons.”

I have in my possession two autographs of Hart. One is a bill rendered by Andrew Robinson to the Province in 1761, upon which is endorsed “Ex & al’d John Hart.” The other is quite unique, because it is a document signed by both Abraham Clark and John Hart — two Signers. It appears to be in Clark's handwriting, and it reads thus:

“These are to Certifie that Hendrick Fisher Esq. hath attended the Committee of Safety two days since the 20th Instant for which he is to receive twelve shills. dated the 22d of April 1776.

Abra. Clark
John Hart


To either of the Treasurers appointed by Congress.”

It is endorsed “Examined and allowed — Jesse Hand, Silas Condict.” Notwithstanding my professed indifference to 1776 autographs, I cannot refrain from calling attention to the date.

The few autograph documents of Hart, like the five letters, adorn the most choice collections. Those who care for more detailed information about Hart's autographs will find much lore in Dr. Lyman C. Draper’s “Essay on the Autographic Collections of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution,” published in 1889.

There is no real portrait of him. In 1870 Mr. Burns published a set of portraits of the Signers, copied, engraved, or etched by H. B. Hall, the famous engraver, for Doctor Emmet. Emmet said that the Hart portrait was taken from Hunt's American Biographical Panorama. After the issue of the Burns portrait, Mr. Paschal, of West Philadelphia, a great-grandson of Hart, said of it: “His (Hart's) descendants know by tradition there was, years ago, a portrait of him in existence, and as one of them I am willing to accept this engraving as from the long lost picture, because the family likeness is seen distinctly in the descendants. I believe, therefore it is correct and am willing to accept it as authentic and will do all in my power to prove the same, while some of my relatives still live to assist me, though at an old age.”

The Burns portrait is before me now, and I am bound to say that notwithstanding Mr. Paschal's pardonable willingness to accept it, I am not convinced by it. This handsome, courtly, well-dressed, aristocratic personage was never John Hart, the Jersey farmer, the sturdy patriot. I can understand how the great-grandson, with pardonable pride, might “accept” it, because of a fancied resemblance to contemporaneous descendants, but to me it is very much in the same category as the celebrated autograph of John Phoenix, which was “written by one of his most intimate friends.” I am reminded of the portrait of Robert Smith, Attorney General, in the Department of Justice in Washington, which is reproduced by Mr. Rosenthalin his admirable series of etchings, but of which he says: “No portrait of Robert Smith exists. The picture by St. Memin, we are assured by Mr. J. Donell Smith, of Baltimore, a grandson of the Attorney General, is a portrait of Isaac Smith, of Accomac County, Virginia, and that which purports to be his portrait in the office of the Attorney General was painted entirely from his imagination by the artist employed.” Still, it is pleasant to have even a pseudoportrait; for we cannot be content with merely a view of Hart's monument and one of a church which he built at Hopewell, all that Brotherhead condescends to give.

And finally we come to Abraham Clark, whose autograph I have already mentioned. Clark's three portraits, now under my eyes, have very little resemblance one to another. He lived in Elizabeth, and the pictures of his modest little house are familiar to the students of the Signers. He must have been a man of power. Born in Elizabethtown in 1726, he had a fine education, was devoted to mathematics and civil law, and engaged in surveying and conveyancing. It is said that he gave legal advice gratuitously and was called “the poor man's counsellor,” but I doubt if that sort of advice is worth any | more than is paid for it. He was Sheriff of Essex County and served in the Continental Congress for many years. He was an influential member of the Legislature of his State for several years — a leader, as they call it now — and he was responsible for what was known as “Clark's law,” which regulated court practice and excited the angry passions of all the real lawyers of the State. He was called the “Father of the Paper Currency,” which leads me to believe that he may have been a sort of Bryan of the eighteenth century. He was a delegate to the Convention which framed the Federal Constitution in 1787, but he did not attend, and he was opposed to the adoption of the Constitution. He served in Congress from 1791 until his death, and moved a resolution to prohibit all intercourse with Great Britain until full compensation was made to our citizens for the injuries sustained by them from British armed vessels and until the western ports should be delivered up. He died from sunstroke in 1794. Somehow he impresses one with a doubt as to his wisdom — but not as to his sincerity. That he meddled with practice acts, although not a lawyer, that he advocated a paper currency, that he antagonized the Constitution, and that he committed himself to the absurdity of “non intercourse” as a remedy for wrongs, indicate to me that he was more positive than reasonable. I can imagine what sort of man he was — forceful but erratic, honest and patriotic but wrongheaded — and he has reaped his reward in being practically forgotten by succeeding generations.

Compared with the representatives from the other states, the New Jersey Delegation of Signers is, to speak modestly, extremely respectable — even distinguished, when placed side by side with the delegation from New York — William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, and Lewis Morris — none of whom could rival either Stockton or Witherspoon in the matter of intellectual power. But New York was almost a Tory province, and its most eminent men were disposed to hesitate about declaring independence. The New Jerseymen were all of them chosen with independence clearly in view. They were sent to Congress for the purpose of making a final announcement of the perpetual severance of the bonds which had linked us to the mother country. They were distinctly the apostles of the new dispensation, and every one of them deserves a lofty seat in the national hall of fame.


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