This Day in History: John Morton, Signer of the Declaration
On or around this day in 1777, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. Pennsylvania’s nickname, “the Keystone State,” may have originated from John Morton’s decisive vote.
Many details of Morton’s early childhood are lost to history, but we know that he was raised by his mother and a stepfather whom he admired. He didn’t have much in the way of formal schooling, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped him. He held many public offices during his life, beginning when he was about 30 years old. As tensions rose with England, he served in the Stamp Act Congress. He was later elected to the Continental Congress and served for a few years, beginning in 1774.
Some have argued that Morton was not originally a supporter of independence. They look to a 1775 letter in which he said: “I sincerely wish a Reconciliation, the Contest is horrid. Parents against Children, and children against Parents. the longer the wound is left in the present state the worse it will be to heal at last.” But in the same letter, he also declared: “You have declared the New England People Rebels, and the other Provinces Aiders and Abettors. this is putting the Halter about our Necks, and we may as well die by the Sword as be hang’d like Rebels. this has made the People desperate.”
Either way, he was a firm supporter of independence by the summer of 1776. And his decision ended up being critical. The Pennsylvania vote was otherwise divided, but Morton cast the deciding vote that ensured Pennsylvania’s support of the cause. But for Morton, we might not have had unanimous support for our Declaration of Independence—some have even wondered if a negative vote from Pennsylvania would have doomed the Declaration to failure.
Indeed, some people believe that Pennsylvania’s motto, the “Keystone State” can be traced back to Morton’s decisive vote. A “keystone” is defined as “a central stone at the summit of an arch, locking the whole together.” As a keystone is critical to holding an arch together, many believed that Pennsylvania was critical to holding the American colonies together at that moment in time.
Unfortunately, Morton did not live long after he cast his important vote. Instead, he became very ill and passed away in April 1777. He’d put his life on the line for American independence, yet he never saw the American colonies earn their freedom.
Another nearly forgotten hero who deserves to be remembered.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Benson John Lossing, Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence (1866)
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (John Morton)
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)
Letter from John Morton to Thomas Powell (June 8, 1775)
Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (Robert T. Conrad ed. 1865)