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,, 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.