We honor the signers of the Declaration of Independence in many ways. There are statues of many of them. Their names appear as names of counties, cities, and schools. A skyscraper in Boston bears John Hancock's name. A beer is called Samuel Adams. But in the Sourlands of New Jersey, there is a pile of boulders named John Hart's Cave, where the signer hid out from the British after helping his country secede from the United Kingdom.
No one ever collected the price placed on his head, but John Hart paid dearly for signing that document.
Hart was baptized at the Maidenhead Meetinghouse in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on December 31, 1713. That likely is the year of his birth as his parents married on May 17, 1712, in Hopewell, New Jersey. The 1713 date would make him 62 or 63 when he signed the declaration. However, the exact date of his birth is unknown. He was the oldest of five children.
His father was Captain Edward Hart, who led the local militia unit during King George's War from 1744 to 1748. Royal Governor John Hamilton considered the company "by far the most likely and able-bodied men that had been raised." However, as the governor had already sent his quota of five companies to the front, he did not need Hart's men and so Hart was stuck with the cost of paying them.
Captain Hart was a successful farmer and community leader, working as assessor and as a justice of the peace in Hopewell, New Jersey. He named his son after his father, who was a carpenter.
John Hart was a handsome young man with dark hair and light eyes. He married Deborah Scudder in 1741. They had 13 children until her death. He not only would inherit his father's farm, but his community spirit as well. John Hart donated land for the building of a Baptist church, where he is buried. He expanded his father's farm and in 1751, along with his brother, bought a mill, which they called Daniel Hart’s Mill. By 1776, John Hart was the largest landowner in Hopewell, with over 600 acres of land. He had a stone house. His adult children were well on their way to success.
However, his service to the community would strip him of everything.
In 1750, Hart held his first elected office as a member of the Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders. In 1761, voters elected him to the New Jersey Colonial Assembly. He won re-election until the Crown dissolved the assembly in 1771. He returned to office in 1776 as a member of New Jersey's provincial congress. His reputation for honesty -- people called him Honest John Hart -- made him the choice as speaker. One of his duties was to sign 15,583 Bill of Credit notes issued as money by the newly independent state.
New Jersey did not send him originally to the Second Continental Congress in 1776, but he went in June as part of a replacement team as the original representatives, who dithered over declaring independence. Congress wanted unanimity and Hart provided that, as a strong advocate of independence.
While in Philadelphia, Hessians mercenaries ravaged his land and burned everything they could. His wife died with him at her bedside on October 8, 1776. In November, the British overran New Jersey and he was forced into hiding, never spending more than one night at any place. It is very likely one of those nights was in John Hart's Cave. Fellow New Jersey signer, Richard Stockton, was captured and later signed a loyalty oath to the Crown. These indeed were times that tried men's souls.
But on Christmas Night 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware, winning back Trenton and Princeton. Emboldened, Speaker Hart called the state assembly back into session on January 22, 1777, at Pickford. At home, he rebuilt his farm. He was at least 63 years old, but he was determined to rebuild his home -- and his state.
On June 22, 1778, with crops in the field after struggling for two farm seasons, John Hart nevertheless invited the American army to encamp on his farm. Washington had lunch with him, and held his Council of War at the nearby Hunt House. For two days, 12,000 men camped on his fields. They marched off on June 24, 1778, and headed for the Battle of Monmouth four days later. The battle would be a draw, but an American military forged in the snows of Valley Forge proved their mettle. Washington got to see in action with the many of the men who would win the war: Mad Anthony Wayne, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox and Lafayette. However, his indecision and incompetence ended the career of Major General Charles Lee. Hearing the news later at home surely delighted John Hart, who knew he made the right decision in turning his farm over to the troops.
Hart would survive that summer but not the next. As with his birth, the date of his death on his farm is unknown today. The newspaper said he died on May 11, 1779, but his will said April 16, 1779. My years as a newspaper writer suggest the will is the correct source.
Author Cleon E. Hammond purchased the farm in 1955 and wrote 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."
A cave is a fitting tribute, then, for it is natural, simple, and a symbol of the sacrifices that Hart was not only willing to make, but which he actually made.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.