I’ve been writing about the error-ridden “Price They Paid” essay on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. As detailed in many refutations, the essay greatly exaggerates the personal sacrifices that those Continental Congress delegates during the war. None were killed in battle, it turns out. Few, if any, suffered torture as prisoners, or died as paupers.
Even when the essay is rewritten to avoid those factual errors, however, I still think it distorts history by focusing on the very top tier of American society and ignoring the greater suffering of people at lower levels. The signers were well insulated from most difficulties by their wealth and by the values of their time.
Indeed, Congress delegates were sometimes literally insulated. When George Washington oversaw the siege of Boston in 1775-76, he lived in the large house shown above, now Longfellow National Historic Site. In contrast, Daniel Granger, who served a short time that winter as a thirteen-year-old private, recalled his housing this way:
The Barracks were then building, but were not finished. The Weather was extremely cold. . . .So who was paying the biggest price that winter—the general, who had represented Virginia at the Congress, or his men?
the Mess, my brother belonged to had excavated a place into the side of a Hill covered it with Timber & boards built up a fireplace & Chimney and a Door, had Straw for the flooring & bedding, where they were warm & comfortable, and were called a Mess of Cubs, who lived in a Den.
As soon as the Barracks were finished, we were obliged to quit the Den & go into the Barraks. but were not so warm & comfortable: the Barraks were hastily built only boarded & battened & without Windows excepting a square opening with a sliding shutter.
No one saw anything wrong with the vast difference between Gen. Washington’s mansion and Pvt. Granger’s den and barracks. American society in the 1770s was far more deferential to the upper classes than we behave (or acknowledge behaving) today. Washington and his officers were gentlemen, and therefore expected to enjoy comfortable quarters, while almost all enlisted men were yeomen (small farmers), mechanics, or laborers with no property at all.
Even when taken prisoner, gentlemen got better treatment than ordinary men. The essay notes that a handful of signers were captured by the British military, particularly South Carolinians caught in the fall of Charleston. However, most American gentlemen were held captive in mansions, or the better parts of jails; and paroled on their word of honor or exchanged for other gentlemen. It’s hard to find an American prisoner who suffered particularly for having signed the Declaration.
In contrast, enlisted men and sailors who became prisoners or war were usually held longer than officers and captains, and in worse conditions. Danske Dandridge’s American Prisoners of the Revolution states:
From printed journals, published in New York at the close of the war, it appeared that 11,500 American prisoners had died on board the prison ships.That estimate is probably high; I’ve seen a more recent number of 8,500 dead in all British prisons. Still, it’s clear that the prison hulks anchored off Brooklyn, holding tens of thousands of ordinary soldiers and sailors, were disease-ridden hellholes. Those men were held in those conditions not only despite the fact that they weren’t leading the rebellion but because they weren’t.
All told, about 25,000 American fighting men died of wounds and disease during the Revolutionary War—about 7% of the total enlisted. Of the fifty-six signers, eight died during the war, six of them from diseases at home. (Being established leaders of their communities, Congress delegates were probably older than the average gentleman.) Only two signers, or less than 4%, died unnaturally before the end of the war. Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel with a fellow American. Thomas Lynch, Jr., went on a voyage for his health and was lost at sea—along with all the sailors and other people on that ship, of course.
So in terms of physical suffering, the Declaration’s signers appear to have paid a significantly smaller price than ordinary, non-wealthy American soldiers.
TOMORROW: The matter of property.