Every year around Independence Day, an essay usually titled “The Price They Paid” circulates on the internet and in other media. It purports to list the sacrifices that the signers of the Declaration of Independence made: homes lost, prison terms, even death at the hands of the British military. The essay commonly starts:
Have you ever wondered what happened to those men who signed the Declaration of Independence?This is inaccurate on many counts. For example, only one Declaration signer died from wounds during the war: Button Gwinnett of Georgia. And he was killed by a fellow American officer in a duel.
Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or the hardships of the Revolutionary War.
I haven’t mentioned “The Price They Paid” before since it’s easy to find articles debunking it. But this year my stepmother received the essay from one of her colleagues.
So now it’s personal.
The Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution has archived the “Price They Paid” essay and a refutation that Prof. E. Brooke Harlowe of Susquehanna University wrote in 1998.
Snopes.com has a long refutation of the essay, started in 1999.
David Daley of the Hartford Courant wrote about the case in 2000, an article posted on H-Net and archived at the Kitsap Sun.
The most comprehensive debunking came from Jim Elbrecht, who isn’t a professional journalist or historian but got intrigued by the topic in 1998. Starting in 2000, he set up a website on his findings. Elbrecht tried to catalogue accurate facts about both the Declaration’s signers and the various versions of the essay.
Elbrecht’s research was helpful to Timothy Noah of Slate as he wrote a series of articles on the topic in 2000 and 2001.
In 2002, college student Kelley Duddleson wrote an article about the falsehoods and what their popularity says on History News Network. In typical fashion, the first comment in response to that article was “your a traitor.”
TOMORROW: The conflict over credit for this pile of bunk.