John Hart Signer of the Declaration of Independence
The context of this article was found on another web site and I thought it appropriate to include it as a preface to this little known history of "Honest John Hart". The history of the world probably furnishes not another instance in which there was a more noble exhibition of true patriotism, than is presented in the history of the American revolution. It was certain at its commencement, in respect to numerous individuals, whose talents, wisdom and enterprise were necessary to its success, that they could derive but little, if any, individual advantage. Nay, it was certain, that instead of gain they would be subjected to great loss and suffering.
The comforts of their families would be abridged, their property destroyed and their farms desolated. Their houses plundered or consumed. Their sons might fall in the field of battle and, should the struggle be in vain, an ignominious death would be their portion. But, then, the contest respected rights which God had given them; it respected liberty, that dearest and noblest privilege of man; it respected the happiness of generations yet to succeed each other on this spacious continent to the end of time. Such considerations influenced the patriots of the revolution. They thought comparatively little of themselves; their views were fixed on the happiness of others, on the future glory of their country; on universal liberty! These sentiments alone could have actuated John Hart, the subject of this biography, a worthy and independent farmer of New Jersey.
While the actual date of John Hart’s birth is unknown, biographers have put it in the year of 1713, in Hopewell Township, NJ while some others place it as early as 1706 in Connecticut. Unfortunately, few incidents of his life have been preserved. His grandfather, for whom he was named, was a carpenter, who came from Newtown, Long Island. His son Edward, was John Hart’s father.
Edward Hart was a Justice of the Peace, a Public Assessor, and a farmer. He arrived in Hopewell about 1710, at the age of twenty. He married Martha Furman (Firmin), on May 17, 1712 and they had five children, all raised in Hopewell New Jersey. John Hart was attracted to a young lady of considerable beauty named Deborah. She was the only child of Richard Scudder from Scudder Falls. John rode his horse approximately 30 miles round trip to court Deborah, and they were married in 1739. John and Deborah had 13 children, Sara, Jesse, Martha, Nathaniel, John, Susannah, Mary, Abigail, Edward, Scudder, a deceased Daughter, Daniel and Debra, who was born when her mother Deborah was 44 years old. Deborah’s great-grandfather, John Scudder, came to Salem, MA on the ship, the "James", in 1635. With his brothers Thomas and Henry, John Scudder moved from there to Southold, Long Island in 1651, to Huntington in 1657 and to Newtown in 1660 where he was prominent in town affairs.
John Hart inherited from his father a considerable patrimonial estate. To this he added, by purchase, a farm of about four hundred acres. He began acquiring property in 1740, buying the “homestead plantation” of 193 acres in the Town of Hopewell New Jersey. In 1751 he and his brother bought a mill that they named Daniel Hart’s Mill, and in the 1770’s he acquired land making him the largest land owner in Hopewell with over 600 acres. In 1773 he bought a substantial mill enterprise in Rocky Hill with his son-in-law John Polhemus, who would later become a captain in the militia, and then in the Continental Army. On his prosperous plantation Hart had many cattle, sheep, swine, horses and fowl, and he also owned four slaves. His adult children were doing well. The original part of his home was made of stone. The original small barn is still on the property which is now privately owned. The home stands on Hart Avenue in Hopewell, New Jersey.
He was well regarded for his common sense, was reasonably well read as proved by his understanding of the law, and showed acumen on business matters. John Hart learned to read, write and do figures, but like most men of his time, had little formal schooling. His spelling was not of the best, but he shared this problem with many of his fellow delegates in Congress. He was fond of agricultural pursuits; and in the quiet of domestic life, sought those enjoyments, which are among the purest which the world affords. The character which Mr. Hart sustained for wisdom, stability, and judgment naturally brought him into notice, and disposed the community to seek the aid of his counsel. He was often a member of the colonial assembly; and rendered important service to the section of country in which he resided, by suggesting improvements as to laying out new roads, the erection of bridges, the superior means of education, and the prompt administration of justice. He was able to continue his public service because he became a successful farmer and businessman. John Hart began his public service when he was elected to the Hunterdon County New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1750, and was elected Justice of the Peace in 1755. With this appointment he was considered a gentlemen and he was able to be called John Hart, Esquire. In his 29 years of public service, beginning in 1750, John Hart rode his Northumberland thoroughbred stallion and a Bulle Rock mare several thousand miles and received meager pay for his duties.
From 1761-1771, John Hart served on the Colonial Assembly, representing Hunterdon, Morris and Sussex counties. It was there that he first met Abraham Clark, who would later become a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas in 1768. By 1774, he was elected to a committee to “elect and appoint Delegates to the First Continental Congress, and to protest the Tea Act”. In 1775 he was elected to the New Jersey Committee of Correspondence, which communicated and touched base with the other colonies, and served on the Committee of Safety “to act in the public welfare of the colony in the recess of the Congress”. In 1776 he was elected to the New Jersey Provincial congress, and in the same year he was designated to sign the new “ Bill of Credit Notes”, money issued by the State of New Jersey. Hart signed each note himself for a total of 25,000. Hart was often called “Honest John”.
At the commencement of the aggressions of the British ministry upon the rights of the colonies, Mr. Hart perceived, in common with many of the thinking men of the day, that the only alternative of the latter would be a resort to arms, or absolute slavery. Although he was not one of the most zealous men, or as easily roused to adopt strong measures, as were some of those around him, still he was not backward to express his abhorrence of the unjust conduct of the mother country, nor to enter upon a well matured system of opposition to her designs. He was particularly disgusted with the stamp act. Not that he feared pecuniary loss from its exactions; it was an inconsiderable tax; but trifling as it was, involved a principle of the greatest importance. It gave to the crown a power over the colonies, against the arbitrary exercise of which they had no security. They had in truth, upon the principles claimed by the British government, little or no control over their own property. It might be taxed in the mariner, and to the extent, which parliament pleased, and not a single representative from the colonies could raise his voice in their behalf.
It was not strange, therefore, that the setting up of such a claim, on the other side of the water, should have been severely felt in the American colonies, and that a spirit of opposition should have pervaded all classes, as well the humble as the elevated, the farmer in his retirement as well as the statesman in his public life. This spirit of opposition in the colonies kept pace with the spirit of aggression in the mother country. There were few men in the community, who did not feel more intensely each succeeding month the magnitude of the subject; and who were not more and more convinced of the necessity of an united and firm opposition to the British government.
When the congress of 1774 assembled, Mr. Hart appeared, and took his seat; having been elected by a conference of committees from several parts of the colony. The precise share which he took in the deliberations of this august and venerable body, is unknown. If his habits and unambitious spirit led him to act a less conspicuous part than some others, lie rendered perhaps no less valuable service, by his moderation and cool judgment.
During several succeeding sessions, Mr. Hart continued to represent the people of New Jersey in the continental congress. When the question respecting a Declaration of Independence was brought forward, he was at his post, and voted for the measure with unusual zeal. It was a distinguished honor to belong to this congress, under any circumstances; but the appointment of Mr. Hart must have been peculiarly flattering to him. A little time previous, the provincial congress of New Jersey had made several changes in their delegation to the general congress. Their confidence was not entire in some of their representatives, especially in regard to that bold and decisive measure, a declaration of independence, which was now occupying the thoughts of many in the country.
But the firmness of Mr. Hart, or, as he was afterwards called, "Honest John Hart," they could safely trust. They knew him to be a man of tried courage, and never inclined to adopt temporizing or timorous measures. He was accordingly retained, while others were dismissed; and was instructed, "to join with the delegates of the other colonies in continental congress, in the most vigorous measures for supporting the just rights and liberties of America; and if you shall judge it necessary or expedient for this purpose, to join with them in declaring the United Colonies independent of Great Britain, entering into a confederation for union and common defense, making treaties with foreign nations for commerce and assistance, and to take such other measures as may appear to them and you necessary for those great ends, promising to support them with the whole force of this province; always observing, that whatsoever plan of confederacy you enter into, the regulating the internal police of this province is to be reserved to the colonial legislature."
In June 1776 he was elected as one of five New Jersey delegates to the Second Continental Congress with authorization to vote for independence. His fellow delegates and future signers were Abraham Clark, Francis Hopkinson, Richard Stockton and John Witherspoon. When John Hart arrived in Philadelphia, in June 1776 to attend the Congress, he strongly supported the idea of Independence. John Hart was the thirteenth delegate to put his signature on the historic document. He was willing to pledge his life his fortune, and his sacred honor in doing so. In August of 1776 New Jersey elected a General Assembly under their new state constitution. Hart was elected to that body, and was selected to be Speaker. He soon returned home to attend to family matters.
Sometime during the latter part of the year 1776, New Jersey became the theater of war. As Washington’s army retreated across New Jersey, the British and Hessians ravaged the Hopewell area. Hart’s home and property suffered severe damage, two young children fled to the homes of relatives and Hart himself took refuge wherever he could in the woods, hiding in caves and in the Sourwood mountains. The distress which the people suffered in consequence, was very great; and a wanton destruction of property was often occasioned by the enemy. His farm was pillaged, and great exertions were made to secure him, as a prisoner. The situation of Mrs. Hart was at the time peculiarly distressing. She was afflicted with a disease, which prevented her removal to a place of safety. Sadly, his wife Deborah died on October 8, 1776, with Mr. Hart by her side. He remained until the enemy had nearly reached the house, when he made his escape, his wife being safer alone than if he were present. For some time, he was hunted and pursued with the most untiring zeal. He was scarcely able to elude his enemies, was often in great want of food, and sometimes destitute of a comfortable lodging for the night. In one instance, he was obliged to conceal himself, during the night, in the usual resting place of a large dog, who was his companion for the time.
The battles of Trenton and Princeton led to the evacuation of New Jersey by the British. On this event, Mr. Hart again collected his family, and began to repair the desolation of his farm by the hand of the enemy. John Hart was re-elected twice as Speaker of the Assembly and served until November 7, 1778. In June 1778, John Hart invited the American army to camp at his farm. Washington accepted his offer, and 12,000 men camped in John Hart’s field during the growing season, and refreshed themselves with the cool water that flowed on the property. The troops left on the 24th of June, and four days later fought and won the Battle of Monmouth. His constitution, however, had received an irreparable shock. His health gradually failed him; and though he lived to see brighter prospects opening before his country, John Hart died of kidney stones after a long and very painful suffering. He was in his home surrounded by family, and died on Tuesday, May 11th 1779, at the age 66. He died before the contest was ended.
John Hart died owing money, and most of his property was sold for a pittance. His sons later moved from Hopewell, but his daughters married men from the surrounding area. Part of John Hart’s land called the lower meadow was donated to the Baptists in 1747 to build a church and cemetery, which is located on Broad Street in Hopewell New Jersey. John and Deborah’s remains were transferred to this cemetery. The obelisk marking John Hart’s Grave has the date of John Hart’s death as 1780, but most biographers and the NJ Gazette say that he died on May 11, 1779. John’s will was dated April 16, 1779. On May 19, 1779 The NJ Gazette wrote: On Tuesday the 11th instant, departed this life at his seat in Hopewell, John Hart, Esq. the Representative in General Assembly for the county of Hunterdon, and late Speaker of that House. He had served in the Assembly for many years under the former government, taken an early and active part in the present revolution and continued to the day he was seized with his last illness to discharge the duties of a faithful and upright patriot in the service of his country in general and the county he represented in particular. The universal approbation of his character and conduct among all ranks of people, is the best testimony of his worth, and as it must make his death regretted and lamented, will ensure lasting respect to his memory. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, described John Hart as “a plain, honest, well meaning Jersey farmer, with but little education, but with good sense and virtue enough to pursue the true interests of his country.
Author Cleon E. Hammond, who became the owner of the Hart homestead in 1955, summed up in his book what came to his mind while looking through the windows of John Hart’s home, which Hammond owed at the time of writing his book in 1977.
”To look upon his gently-sloping hillside where the American Army once camped, drink from his lusty old spring, and tread upon soil that was his, instilled a sense of identification with Mr. Hart that at times seemed very real. Far from a legend, he was a very human being, moved by the same forces that influence the lives and fortunes of all men. As one becomes acquainted with John Hart, there emerges a capable, personable, ambitious, yet dedicated man…. essentially conservative, but heroically liberal. In his world there were pioneers of land, of enterprise, and of political philosophy. From a good but modest beginning, John Hart embodied all three, and attainments qualify him, unreservedly, to be described as a self-made man in his time.”
On July 3,
2006, the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Inc. dedicated a bronze plaque to John Hart and his wife Deborah Scudder Hart. Many descendants were at the Baptist
Meeting House on Broad Street in Hopewell New Jersey for the dedication. It is very fitting that John and Deborah are now buried and honored on the very land that he gave to the Baptists.
Although the domestic peace and tranquility of few men had been more disturbed than those of Mr. Hart, he never repented the course he had taken. He enlisted himself in a good cause; and in
the darkest periods, still believed that a righteous Providence would ultimately enable that cause to prevail, and finally to triumph. The personal appearance of Mr. Hart was uncommonly
interesting; in his form he was straight and well proportioned. In stature, he was above the middling size, and, when a young man, was said to have been handsome. In his disposition he was
uncommonly mild and amiable. He was greatly beloved by his family and friends, and highly respected by a large circle of acquaintances, who often appealed to his wisdom and judgment in the
settlement of their local affairs. In addition to this, he enjoyed the reputation of being a sincere and humble Christian. He was exceedingly liberal to the Baptist church of Hopewell, to
which community he belonged; and greatly assisted them in the erection of a public house of worship; the ground for which he presented to the church, as also the ground for a burial place.
Such was the life, and such the last end, of "Honest John Hart."
While this biography is taken mainly from "A Biography of John Hart, Signer of the Declaration of Independence", by Cleon E. Hammond, some additional facts have been gleaned from the
website of John Vinci, Colonial Hall. I urge you, if you have interest in the biographies of other signers
of the Declaration of Independence, to check both of these links, and read the articles. There exists significant biographies of other "Signers".
Another of our ancestors is included in those biographies and you will find that article under the page for John Morton.