Monday, July 4, 2016

Life of John Morton, the Signer and Pirate Day at the Colonial Plantation

The home of John Morton in todays Ridley Park. A state historical marker at E. Ridley Ave. and Cresswell St. marks the spot. He was born here in 1725 and built this brick house in 1764 on the site of his birthplace.


                Of the seven delegates allotted to the Province of Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration of Independence, two of the number were selected from that section which now constitutes the present county of Delaware, John Morton of Ridley, and Charles Humphreys of Haverford.  A man of ability, undoubted integrity and high social station, Charles Humphrey had within his grasp undying fame, but in error of judgment, not personal fear, he cast the laurel wreath aside.  From 1763 to 2776 he was a member of the Assembly of the Province and in 1774 was appointed one of the seven delegates representing Pennsylvania in the Congress of the Colonies, and was continued as such in the succeeding Congress.
                On Friday, the seventh of July, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, presented his famous resolution, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States,” and on that measure, when it assumed the final form of the Declaration of Independence, as did his distinguished kinsman, John Dickinson, Charles Humphreys voted in the negative.  When the great Charter of American liberty was adopted, he withdrew from public life, resigning his place in Congress and the Assembly alike.  At no time prior to or since his death at the conclusion of the revolutionary war, was the honesty of his opinion or the integrity of his purpose questioned.  He had only faltered when the crisis of his life came and comparative obscurity, where he might have secured immortality, became his fate.


                His colleague, John Morton of Ridley, takes high rank among the fifty-three men who gave to the world that Declaration of Independence, which made this nation the foremost of the earth.  He was of Swedish descent the grandson of Morton Mortonson of “Calking Hook,” the surname in time assuming the English form, as we now know it.
                John Morton was a posthumous child, his father, John Morton, having died prior to his birth, which occurred early in 1725, the exact day of the week or month not being recorded, at least to this time the diligent research of historians, has failed to ascertain the precise date.  His mother, after a brief widowhood, married John Sketchley, and Englishman, whose kindness to the orphan boy was recognized by the latter in giving his name to his son, Sketchley Morton, subsequently a Major in the Revolutionary Army and a man of sterling worth.  Mr. Sketchley, who appears to have received an educational training beyond that general among the early settlers, personally instructed his stepson in the common English branches, devoting particular attention to mathematics, as young Morton developed a peculiar aptness in that study which subsequently, in his avocation as a surveyor, as well as a husbandman, had much to do with his success in life.
                In 1756, at the age of thirty-one, he became a member of the Provincial Assembly, and continued to represent Chester County in that body until 1766, an uninterrupted period of eleven years.  While still a member of the Assembly, in 1765, he was designated one of the delegates from Pennsylvania to the “Stamp Act Congress” which convened in New York City in October of that year.

                In 1767 he was chosen Sheriff of Chester County and for three years discharged the duties of that office acceptably to the people, although the mutterings of the approaching conflict had already depressed trade and brought about much business disturbance.  At the expiration of his term of service, he was again returned to the Assembly, sitting as a member of that body until 1776, for which he was not elected in the latter year, the new representative had not yet been chosen.  During the last year of his service he was speaker of the Assembly, and was such when the Declaration of Independence was adopted and proclaimed.  Twelve years before he had been appointed in 1764, a Justice of the Peace – an office of great dignity in Colonial times – and was the Presiding justice of the several Courts of the County of Chester.  In 1774 he was commissioned by Governor John Penn an Associate Justice of the Colonial Supreme Court.  While discharging the duties of the two offices – member of the House and Judge – he was appointed by the Assembly in 1774 a delegate to the First Continental Congress and was re-appointed to the second – the memorable Congress, which adopted the Declaration of Independence.  By this vote in favor of that measure he achieved immortality.

                On his monument in St. Paul’s Churchyard, in this city, on the east face – for the shaft is erected so that its four sides face precisely the four cardinal points of the compass – is the inscription:  “In voting by States upon the question of Independence of the American Colonies, there was a tie until the vote of Pennsylvania was given, two members of which voted in the affirmative and two in the negative.  The tie continued until the vote of the last member, John Morton, decided the promulgation of the great diploma of American freedom.”
                A strict regard for the truth of history constrains me to declare that there is no contemporary evidence support the foregoing statement.  Shortly after the bicentennial historical sketches of Chester, Col. Frank M. Etting, the author of the most elaborate and authentic history of Independence Hall yet published, and the founder of the National Museum in that building; in a letter to the author, objected to the printing of the inscription just quoted in the historical sketches.  Col. Etting, among other matters wrote as follows:
                “Yet I cannot pass over one very grievous error or perversion of the facts in connection with John Morton and the ‘vote of the Stat.’  Not only is there absent a scintilla of evidence to support the whole statement, but the unquestioned evidence of the action of the colonies on June 7th and July 2nd, when every colony concurred in the vote, but New York shows the utter falsity of such details…I do believe Morton’s friends generally were adverse to independence ad doubtless upbraided him, as he was Speaker of the House.  He may have presided over the separate deliberations of Pennsylvania’s representatives as a colony, and may have given his own vote, last, but there is no evidence whatever to this effect, while every item built upon this in its various shapes is shown to be entirely baseless.”
                It seems to me that John Morton’s claim to greatness is built upon higher ground than the old tradition accords him, in as much that although he was Speaker of the Assembly that by resolution had instructed its delegates to vote against independence, yet he dared to disregard that mandate when the supreme moment of action came, placing himself in so doing on a plane with the best minds of the colonies and acting in unison with that class who recognized that the hour for extra measures had presented itself and to falter was to fail.  He saw the right, unhesitatingly dared to support if, and in so doing, he justly earned the lasting gratitude of the American people
                John Morton was the first of the signers to die.  His death occupied in the following April, at the comparatively early age of fifty-three.  It is a strange circumstance that the exact date of his death as with his birth, has not been recorded.  A good man and true, his life had been without stain or blemish, and he filled the measure of success that the world was better in that he had lived.

                No wonder that Morton felt keenly the responsibility of his act.  It must be remembered that his immediate friends and the leaders of opinion in this section, particularly that part which was constitutionally the county of Delaware, were not in accord with his views.  Less than a year before, General Wayne, dashing “Mad Anthony,” in the old Court House, In Chester, offered a resolution declaring that its idea of separation from the mother country was abhorrent and “pernicious in its nature.”  Nathaniel Vernon, of Nether Providence, the then Sheriff, was an avowed Tory, afterward proclaimed a traitor, and his son Gideon had a price on his head and immunity from punishment promised to anyone who might slay him.  Charles Humphreys of Haverford, his associate in Congress, had declined to vote for the Declaration.  Nathaniel Newlin, of Darby, the wealthiest land owner and an affluent citizen had declared that “King George’s government was good enough for him.”  Henry Hale Graham, the deputy Register General, and afterward the first President Judge of the Courts of Delaware County, by reason of his religious convictions, was opposed to war, and that was the prevailing sentiment of the neighborhood.  Apart from this, the continued reverse that had overtaken the American forces, bringing as their results that period known as “the dark days of ‘76” doubtless weighed heavily on his sensitive mind and increased the burden of his accountability for the disasters that seemed to flow upon his associates and friends as the immediate consequences of his act.  No wonder then is it that when he felt approaching death, his mind, filled with these thoughts, should give utterance to the memorable words:  “Tell them they shall live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service I ever rendered to my country.”  Today the world, not the circumscribed community he then addressed, acknowledges with praise the grandeur of his deed.


                Although it may not be directly germane to this theme, yet I cannot refrain from alluding to an incident connected with the story of American independence, which has not received that attention from poets and historians that is justly its due.  The most picturesque figure in the Continental Congress on Thursday, July 4, 1776, it seems to me, was Caesar Rodney.  An ardent Whig, in the discharge of his duties as Brigadier General of Delaware, he was necessarily absent from Congress much of the time while the question of independency was pending.  When it became apparent that a final vote on the measure would be reached in the near future, Thomas McKean, then a delegate from Delaware, afterwards Chief Justice and Governor of Pennsylvania, on the evening of the 2nd, dispatched a courier to Rodney to apprise him of that fact.  The messenger reached him at St. James’ Neck, below Dover, eighty miles away, about noon on the 3rd.  The urgency of the summons could brook no delay, and with expedition Rodney set out on horseback For Philadelphia, notwithstanding a heavy downpour of rain which, for a few hours, lessened the intense heat then prevailing.
                The inhabitants of the little hamlet of Chester had dispatched their evening meal, when a mud splashed horse and rider clattered over the rickety bridge at the creek, galloped to the Washington House, where the rider requested William Kerlin, a fervent Whig, well known to Rodney, to bait his horse, and he himself would sup while the animal was feeding.  The rider was a tall man of massive frame, attenuated by disease, a green silk patch shading the right eye to conceal the ravages of the cancer, which, within seven years thereafter, terminated his life.  Only a brief period did Rodney tarry, when, remounting his steed, he started under whip and spur, reaching Philadelphia at a late hour that night.  Next morning when his colleague, McKean, approached the State House, he met on the doorstep Rodney, booted and spurred, just as he had ridden from his country home to declare in favor of independence, when a final vote was taken late in the evening of July the fourth.
                To me history furnishes hardly a parallel to this scene.  “Tottenham is his boats,” the member from county Wexford, who rode in the night time sixty miles from Ballycarug and entered the old Parliament House in Dublin in his big jack boots to cast his vote – the Mayoral vote – in favor of home rule, and two decades before the Union destroyed Ireland’s government, became the standing toast at the table of all the Irish patriots.  The famous midnight ride of Paul Revere, to arouse the yeomanry of Middlesex, and Sheridan’s ride to Winchester to turn disaster into triumph, were not so great in their results so that of Caesar Rodney’s, which was largely instrumental in founding a nation with possibilities the greatest ever known to man.

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