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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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Mythical “Price They Paid”

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?

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.
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.

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.



Mr. Bell, Your blog is MOST interesting, indeed!

I also find it amusing how many Americans have no idea that the music of "The Star Spangled Banner" is from another song, that's why I did this video.


Stay on groovin' safari,

Robert S. Paul said...

"Your a traitor"?

Yes, we should all live in ignorance of the truth, because that's what liberty is all about, right? Being mindless sheep?

It isn't like any of this says the signers were somehow less courageous for doing what they did. They didn't "lose everything", but that's largely because we won the war.

Had we lost, I'm pretty certain every last signer would've been hunted down and made examples of. Just ask William Wallace.

J. L. Bell said...

There was more than four centuries of history between William Wallace and George Washington, and British values had changed a lot in that time. The London government cracked down on Scottish opponents after Charles Stuart’s march on London in 1745, but it didn’t get medieval on them.

We have a pretty good idea of what the British authorities of the 1700s would have done with the Declaration’s signers because the army did capture some of them: Richard Stockton of New Jersey in late 1776, and some South Carolina delegates in the siege of Charleston in 1780. The British military held them prisoner, asked them to sign an oath to stop helping the rebellion, and let them go.

It’s possible that the policy would have been different for a few individuals the British government saw as the worst instigators. For example, John Hancock and Samuel Adams were excluded from Gov. Thomas Gage’s offer of amnesty in 1775. But there’s little evidence that the government wanted to try and/or hang Americans as traitors.

Certainly Continental Congress delegates feared losing their lives or their property, and were willing to risk those fates. But those fears were extreme, not realistic.

fibrowitch said...

I'm not really sure if the reason the British were so lenient of the American's were the assumption that they were 'British'. Each signer was a white wealthy Protestant of higher social class than the British generals taking them prisoner.

Considering the very same country treated the Irish as little better than vermin just a few short years later during the famine years, I have to wonder. Would the Irish been treated as well (as the Americans) had they not been Catholic?

J. L. Bell said...

You’re getting ahead of me, Fibro! I’m going to post about the class issue tomorrow.

One Declaration signer, Charles Carroll of Maryland, was Catholic. But yes, almost all the rest were both Protestant and English, and definitely of the genteel class.

British generals were from the same class as the signers, however, or even higher. Gen. Cornwallis and Col. Percy were earls. Gage, Howe, and Clinton were knighted before the war was over. And they all probably looked on the Americans as provincials, not quite on the same footing as British country gentlemen. (That attitude was part of the colonists’ grievances.)

But I think your broad point is correct: the British military treated the signers they did capture, and would have treated those they didn’t, gently and genteelly. They were far less nice to common men, and even worse to people they perceived as less civilized (i.e., Irish, Native American, African, Indian, &c.).