The Myth About the Signers of the Declaration of Independence that Won't Die

Fact & Fiction

Ms. Duddleson is a student at George Mason University and an intern at HNN.

This article was first published in July 2002.

On July 4th, 2002, the Pentagon published an Independence day message from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B. Myers. In this message General Myers urged Americans to remember that the United States is at war with an enemy that "threatens the principles and values that freedom-loving people hold dear--equality, self-governance, religious tolerance, and rule of law." To inspire people, he reminded Americans of the sacrifices the Founding Fathers made on behalf of liberty:

When our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, they mutually pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to each other and to the world. During the course of the seven-year war that followed, nine of the signers died of wounds or hardships, 17 lost everything that they owned, and five were imprisoned or captured. They risked all they had, sacrificing everything for freedom -- they all kept their sacred honor.

Was this roster of sacrifices accurate? The short answer is no. General Myers--or his speechwriters--were taken in by a myth in circulation for at least half a century, and recently given wide circulation via an email first dispatched in 1999. The email includes a whopper General Myers overlooked: that signer Thomas McKean, who agreed to serve in the Continental Congress without pay, died broke after the British seized his fortune, his poor sons having to beg their neighbors to help finance the funeral.

The story has been debunked many times. In 1999 the myth-debunking website, Snopes.com, featured a lengthy refutation of the claims made in the email. In 2000 reporter David Daley set the record straight in an article published in the Hartford Courant:

The real story is that five signers were captured, but none for treason, and all were eventually released. Only two, it appears, were wounded in action,
and none died of war wounds. As for McKean, well, the Pennsylvania Historical Society confirms that he became the state's second governor and
died a wealthy man in 1817.

The myth first surfaced, according to James Elbrecht, creator of a website established expressly to refute the email's claims, in 1956 in a book by conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey, The Rest of the Story. Later others picked up the tale including Ann Landers, Oliver North, Pat Buchanan, and Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh claims that his father wrote a piece that inspired Harvey's story. The Limbaugh piece was reprinted by the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 2000 Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby debunked the myths in a column without mentioning that the source that inspired him was the bogus email account. His paper suspended him.



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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

One of the many great progressive Republican presidents in our history, the lineage from which extends to George W. Bush.

Les Castrios - 7/19/2004

You know, there is one comment here I am really boggled by: "all those big government advocates who simply can't stand the idea that the common man can decide how to live on his own without big brother deciding for him."

Since you are using the term "liberal machine" in your argument I must conclude you are a conservative, which begs the question: if conservatives are so against big government, why do they feel so compelled to monitor people's private lives? (For example, what's the rush to alter our CONSTITUTION to prevent two people who care about each other from getting married? Sheesh. Speaking of big government...don't we have anything more important to do?)

Spare us the double talk, please.

David Lion Salmanson - 7/7/2004

And yet, had they been Torries, they most likely would have lost everything (depending on whether they chose evacutation or not and a few other factors). Basically most Americans during the Revolution suffered from hardship, loss, deprivation, illness, injury, and financial reversals. It was a pretty lousy time to try to lead a normal life.

Chris Randall - 6/29/2004

Legally, they were guilty of treason and subject to prosecution as such.

However, once the colonists began taking British prisoners, theory was sacrificed to practicality and captured rebels were treated according to existing conventions as POWs, and exchanged or paroled accordingly.

Paul Noonan - 6/29/2004

The Brits might have been within their legal rights in hanging ordinary American soldiers (this was pre-Geneva convention after all) but, humanitarian considerations aside, they didn't want to furthur inflame the population with executions of low level rebels. Also, once it is known that you execute prisoners you are not going to get anyone to surrender.

Over a century later, in the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin, the Brits contented themselves with executing a dozen or so of the leaders. The rank and file were treated as prisoners and a few very young rebels (early teens) were simply sent home. Even the execution of the leaders is almost universally considered a political mistake in retrospect, as it inflamed resistance and helped lead to Irish independence.

John H. Lederer - 6/28/2004

in British eyes of a soldier in the Continental Army who was captured. Clearly he was in rebellion and presumably a traitor. What made the british not decide to hang them (Their own men who were pisoners of the Continentals? A hope for reconciliation?). What was the legal fiction?

What about a civilian "detained" as a rebel?

Anybody know?

John H. Lederer - 6/28/2004

Very illuminating. Thanks for the URL!

Graham Hick - 6/28/2004

β€œTo announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Michael Barnes Thomin - 6/28/2004

"You are not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it."
- Malcolm X

"Are we disposed to be of the numbers of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it."
- Patrick Henry

Seton - 9/22/2003

I'm sorry, but you have hit a nerve with the war thing. I'm sorry, but as far as I am aware of, we were not even looking at Afganistan when Bin-Laden decided to send followers to commit the atrocities on 9-11. Do you support those that would commit these atrocities because ideals are different? I am not forgiving the killer(s) of those who died that day that easily. Forgiveness and avoiding conflict gave Hitler a rise to power.

Seton - 9/22/2003

Ummm...If it was legal to violently overthrow the goverment, wouldn't that be kind of pointless?

Current Ruler: "Oh, sorry General, looks like my troops have beaten yours, Will you be back to overthrow me again? Same day next month?"

Leader of coup: "Yes, sir. Next time though, I will be ruler!"

Cody - 9/9/2003

where is the pictures

Another Jeff - 7/3/2003

Some of the facts in this essay may be stretched a bit, but the thrust is correct. Take a closer look at the following web site, which lays out some of the subtleties:


Gary - 9/16/2002

An open letter to knuckle draggers.

If you take offense to this term, then you must have been called it before; Take heed!

History is an indisputable fact. If a statement is made about history and it is not an indisputable fact, then it is not history, it is a story. Stories entertain and history teaches.

This is as basic an interpretation of what history is, as I can make. If this is not satisfactory, then truth doesn't much matter to you. To complain about correcting erroneous statements about historical information, begs the question; How do you think a lie servers one's love of country, and his willingness to make a sacrifice for it?

Vietnam started as a political lie, and it only created deep feelings of hate and mistrust. It made a criminal out of me; I knew the truth about Vietnam, and chose to dodge the draft, instead of putting my life on the line for no reason other than, the war machine needed something to do.

To this day, I carry my draft card in my wallet. I don't ever want to forget the faces of those people I cared about, who where forever harmed by that 'Regime Change' (Which by the way, is spin for a 'coup d'etat', and under any term or condition, is an illegal act.).

Gary - 9/16/2002

You forget the U in your name DUMB

Loki - 9/11/2002

Chris, Chris, Chris...if there was anything that made the USA deserving of those attacks that put in this "state of war" as you put (which there isn't) it's morons like you. You hate anyone that isn't blindly behind America, right or wrong. If you ever need to wonder why America is hated, look in a mirror.

The article is true. History cannot be trusted. This has been proven.

I can definately say this about you, Chris. Given your mentality, if we were to rewind time about 230 years, you would have put on the Redcoat and gone to war against the "traitors" that defied the British government.

DMB - 9/11/2002

You can't even spell. Come on!

John Horst - 8/7/2002

I believe Chris's comment is grounded in the frustration many folks have with the historical/academic elite today. Historical hereos, particularly the great white men of our past are perfect targets for the politically correct in that they feel that they can make blanket statements and disparage them without feeling like bigots. The reality is that the founding fathers' actions does not need embellishment. The significance of their actions and sacrifices stand alone. It is good to debunk myths about history, but it is the way in which the liberal machine goes about it that is so disturbing. Those of us who find comfort in the American experience will continue to be labeled "slack-jawed morons", steeped in sentimentality. But at least this Deliverence clone will take solace in the fact that the Revolution is and will continue to be a stick in the eye to all those big government advocates who simply can't stand the idea that the common man can decide how to live on his own, without big brother deciding for him. At least for a while, the American experiment was alive. But it is certain that you culturally and intellectually superior beings will ensure not for long.

Jeff - 8/5/2002

I am very familiar with the essay "The Price They Paid" and have seen it roll into my in box on several occasions. It is an emotionally stirring essay - but according to what I have read here and in other places, it is a flawed inaccurate document. So my question is this. How could you possibly call someone a traitor for speaking the truth? No one is trying to change American History - they are trying to preserve it by dispelling a widely spread untruthful document. What if I told you that many of the signers of the declaration didn't even sign the document on the 4th of July? Surprising as it may be, that is a truthful statement. However, following your logic it makes me a traitor because it goes against what you were taught to believe all these years. I also can not even begin to concieve where you got the message that any of the writing here said anything about "Hating America". My friend, I think you need to work on your communications skills.

J Johnson - 7/20/2002

Hey Phil, well said! Mega-dittoes!

Phil - 7/19/2002

What a genius to compose such a missive ! If you agree : you are linked to what appears to be an ignorant, slack-jawed, inbred, mouth breather caricature from "Deliverance" or perhaps a George II (Bush) voter.
If you disagree: you are supporting the viewpoint that freedom of expression shouldn't be permitted this far below the surface of the genetic pool.
(Is sarcasm still alive?)

Marty - 7/18/2002

It is obvious from your misuse of the English language and logic that you have no business entering the conversation of rational men.

dtf - 7/18/2002

Since when has telling the truth about American history made someone a traitor. If you think this information is false, then provide accurate references and sources to demonstrate that. Otherwise, all you have is bluster and insult to offer.

Perhaps YOU should find a country where freedom of expression and a willingness to research and learn the actual facts of history is discouraged and punished. Fortunately, that's not yet the case in THIS country......though not for lack of trying by folks like yourself.


Chris - 7/17/2002

If you hate america so much why don't you leave it, you people are always trying to change history to fit your politically correct view..well i have to say now is not the time to be spreading your diease we are at a state of war.