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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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Tale of Benjamin Harrison and Elbridge Gerry’s Signatures

In its description of the Continental Congress’s main signing of the Declaration of Independence on 2 Aug 1776, the Course of Human Events blog listed “a number of quotations from the signing for which we have no evidence.” Among them is a story about Benjamin Harrison joking with Elbridge Gerry about long it would take each of them to hang.

Likewise, in a recent Weekly Standard essay Richard Samuelson repeated that same story (it’s too good to ignore) but called it “probably apocryphal.”

In fact, we have strong evidence that anecdote is true. As I noted a few years back, Dr. Benjamin Rush recounted that story in a letter to John Adams dated 20 July 1811:
Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? The Silence & the gloom of the morning were interrupted I well recollect only for a moment by Col: Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr Gerry at the table, “I shall have a great advantage over you Mr: Gerry when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” This Speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the Solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.
Rush and Adams were both at the signing. Adams’s reply took no issue with the tale (though he disliked Harrison and came to see Gerry as a political foe).

In addition, Dr. James Thacher published a version of the story in 1823 in his Military Journal, which appears to combine his actual notes from the war years with later recollections and material from other sources. In a 1776 entry Thacher wrote:
I am credibly informed that the following anecdote occurred on the day of signing the declaration. Mr. Harrison, a delegate from Virginia, is a large portly man—Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts is slender and spare. A little time after the solemn transaction of signing the instrument, Mr. Harrison said smilingly to Mr. Gerry, “When the hanging scene comes to be exhibited I shall have the advantage over you on account of my size. All will be over with me in a moment, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.“
Thacher might well have heard the story from Rush, with whom he corresponded. In 1824 Adams told Thacher: “I have had read to me, your valuable Journal of your Campaigns in the American revolutionary war, and I have no hesitation in saying, that it is the most natural, simple, and faithful narration of facts, that I have seen in any history of that period.” Once again, Adams didn’t quibble with this anecdote.


Mary Jean Adams said...

I love this story. Really shows that these men were well aware of the potential consequences of their signatures. They really could have been signing their lives away!

J. L. Bell said...

This story, the anecdote about Stephen Hopkins from John Adams, and the Richard Penn joke (all discussed this week) all seem to confirm that the Continental Congress delegates feared the possibility of being hanged as traitors.

We should also acknowledge that the Crown didn't hang any of those delegates when they fell into British hands. Richard Stockton was released after a promise to stay out of the conflict, for instance. Henry Laurens was locked up in the Tower. Given how Button Gwinett died in a duel, we might say the Continental forces ultimately proved to be a bigger danger to delegates' lives!