J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

“You will be very apt to hang separately”

Before leaving the topic of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I want to address one more popular anecdote about that event. That’s the story of Benjamin Franklin saying, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The Course of Human Events blog recently listed that story among “a number of quotations from the signing for which we have no evidence.” Richard Samuelson’s Weekly Standard article seems more certain of the tale, though without citing a reliable source.

I agree that we have no strong evidence linking this witty remark to the day of the signing, 2 Aug 1776. Nor to Franklin, much as we like to ascribe witty sayings to him.

But in 1811, retired Continental Army officer Alexander Graydon (1752-1818) wrote in his Memoirs of His Own Time about a former lieutenant governor of colonial Pennsylvania:
Mr. Richard Penn, having no official motives for reserve, was even upon terms of familiarity with some of the most thorough-going whigs, such as General [Charles] Lee and others:

An evidence of this was the pleasantry ascribed to him, on occasion of a member of Congress, one day observing to his compatriots, that at all events “they must hang together:”

“If you do not, gentlemen,” said Mr. Penn, “I can tell you that you will be very apt to hang separately.”
Graydon didn’t claim to have heard this story directly, but he was in Philadelphia in 1774 and 1775 during the early Continental Congress meetings. Penn left the city in the middle of 1775, carrying the Olive Branch Petition to Britain. He settled there and later became a Member of Parliament. In 1808 Penn returned to Philadelphia for a visit, an occasion when this story might have been repeated.

Thus, we have no contemporaneous or first-hand evidence of Penn voicing this witticism. But seeing it in print as early as 1811, when several members of the Continental Congress were still alive and able to respond, constitutes some pretty good evidence in its favor. The exchange would have had to happen before mid-1775, however, and Franklin didn’t get to deliver the punch line.

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