This Day in History: A Signer of the Declaration forced to flee
On this day in 1779, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. He’d risked everything for the Patriot cause, yet he did not even live to see the end of the war.
In many ways, John Hart’s story is rather simple. There was no flashy moment of heroism during a critical battle, nor was there a stunning “Give me liberty or death”-type moment that stirred a crowd. Instead, Hart’s story is similar to that of so many of our nation’s unsung heroes: He simply stayed the course. He persevered when things got difficult. He made deliberate decisions, knowing that he was putting his life on the line.
If it weren’t for men and women like Hart, our Revolution never could have been won.
Hart was born in Hopewell, New Jersey. Many details of his early life are hard to pin down, but his father was reportedly a farmer, a justice of the peace, and a public assessor. Hart followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. He inherited his father’s property, but he also built upon it. He reportedly ended up with about 600 acres and an interest in a mill business. Before the American Revolution, Hart was a member of the state’s assembly and a justice of the peace. He was so well trusted in the community that he was sometimes known as “Honest John.”
By the time the Revolution rolled around, Hart was prosperous and doing well. He was also somewhat older than you might expect—he was in his 60s. Nevertheless, he jumped in to help. He was a member of the Committees of Safety and Correspondence, and he served in the New Jersey Provincial Congress and the Continental Congress. He signed the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be too long before he would pay for that decision. The war came to New Jersey during the last part of 1776. Washington’s army was then retreating out of New York and fleeing across New Jersey. Many properties in New Jersey suffered. Hart’s was no exception. His livestock, farm, and mills were badly damaged or destroyed. Worse, the British specifically wanted to capture him, as they had several other prominent Patriots in New Jersey. Hart was forced to hide in the Sourland Mountain area, possibly spending much of his time in a remote rock formation. Other accounts say that he may have moved around among friends’ houses. Either way, he was on the run at least until the British left the area after the Battles of Princeton and Trenton.
Unfortunately, Hart had lost more than just his home during the fall of 1776. His wife also fell ill and passed away.
By the time Hart returned home, he had limited time to rebuild his business. (Accounts vary on how successful he was at rebuilding his farm.) He was twice re-elected Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly before passing away in 1779 after a bout with kidney stones.
He had risked everything for American independence, but he would never live to see it.
Benson John Lossing, Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence (1866)
Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress (John Hart)
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1832)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (Robert T. Conrad ed. 1865)