The Irish-American Signers of the Declaration of Independence

As the July 4th holiday approaches, sadly as with many of our other holidays, the true meaning of the day is lost a midst ballgames, cookouts, and fireworks. We forget that on that hot July of 1776 fifty six men came together to pledge their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to form a new country where “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. We forget that, in an 18th century where aristocracy was the norm, what a radical statement this was, even if we are still working to fulfill its promises. We forget these men were publicly taking on the largest Empire in the world; prior history predicting they had little prospect of success and the risk of a hangman’s rope if they failed. Even among those that do remember the meaning of the day, very few remember that nine of the men who signed the document that is arguably the greatest statement of freedom ever penned were Irish Americans.

  • Charles Carroll (right) of Carrolton represented the state of Maryland and, as a Catholic, was the only non-Protestant member of the Continental Congress. The grandson of immigrants from County Offaly (then known as Kings County), he was also the cousin of the first Catholic Bishop in America John Carroll. The Carrolls were one of the most prosperous families in America; it was claimed that a person could not cross the state of Maryland without stepping on Carroll land. Charles Carroll certainly had much to lose if the attempt for independence failed, yet he still signed in a bold signature only surpassed by John Hancock’s; a defiant “Charles Carroll of Carrolton,” leaving no doubt who was taking a stand for freedom. He would be the last of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence to die at age 94.

  • Matthew Thornton represented New Hampshire. Born in County Derry, he immigrated to America as a child. A prominent physician, he more than once stepped away from his lucrative practice to serve the people of his community; prior to joining the Continental Congress he had previously volunteered as an Army Surgeon during the French and Indian War.

  • John Hart represented New Jersey and was of Irish descent. His notoriety as a signer of the Declaration of Independence cost him dearly when his farm was raided and ransacked by British and Hessian troops later in 1776.

  • James Smith represented Pennsylvania. He was born in Dublin and is an example of how some historians “miss” (perhaps not unintentionally)  the Irish contribution to America’s history due to his English sounding last name. His family name was originally MacGowen, Mac being “Son of” and “Gow” meaning a blacksmith/smith thus becoming “Smith” when anglicized under the pressures of English law. Smith would, after signing the Declaration, command a regiment of the Pennsylvania Line in the Revolution, a unit which was so heavily Irish that General “Light Horse Harry” Lee once quipped should more properly be designated as “the Line of Ireland“.

  • George Taylor also represented Pennsylvania. Born in Ireland, he came to the United States as a “redemptioner” (indentured servant) who was first employed in the backbreaking task of stoking coal into a blast furnace at an Iron foundry. As would be typical of succeeding generations of Irish immigrants, Taylor through his own efforts and hard work prospered,eventually becoming a foundry master himself. Amidst the gentleman farmers and professionals of the Continental Congress, Irish American George Taylor was a self made working man. His Durham Furnace would be a major supplier of shot and shell for George Washington.

  • George Reed was the son of John Reed of Dublin and represented Delaware. In addition to signing the Declaration of Independence, he also represented Delaware at the Constitutional Convention and led the ratification movement in Delaware with the result that Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution.

  • Thomas McKean, whose parents were Irish immigrants, was another representative of Delaware. After signing the Declaration of Independence he served as a colonel with George Washington, and later as president of Congress, a Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and the Governor of Pennsylvania.

  • Edward Rutledge, whose father immigrated from Ireland, represented South Carolina and was at 26 the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence.

  • Thomas Lynch also representing South Carolina was the grandson of Thomas Lynch of Galway, who fled Ireland after the failed Irish Revolution of 1691.

If that was not enough of an Irish connection:

  • The Secretary of the Continental Congress who incorporate the final revisions to Jefferson's Declaration was an immigrant from County Derry: Charles Thomson.

  • The Declaration was first printed by an Immigrant from County Tyrone, John Dunlap.

  • It was first read in public by the son of an immigrant from Wexford: Lt. Col. John Nixon

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Tags: History, Independence, United States

Comment by James Francis Smith on July 3, 2014 at 7:10pm

Neil

Excellent and very timely.  Delighted to see the name Smith recognized as being Irish.On my next update, I'll add the names Carroll, Thornton, etc to the "List of Irish-Americans of Renown.

James Francis Smith

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on July 4, 2014 at 7:18am

Glad to help. One has to remember that the English made persistent attempt, starting with the Statutes of Kilkenny to eliminate Gaelic identity and culture and this included names. Under the statutes anyone within English controlled Ireland (the Pale) had to foresake their Irish names for an English one based on a color (Brown, Black, etc), a profession (Smith, Cooper, Butler) or a geographic feature like a river(Shannon).

Should point out that our other Celtic cousins received the same treatment. In Scotland the Clan names were outlawed, see the Poem "MacGregor despite them" and the "Dunce Cap" actually traces back to the "Welsh Cap" which would be used in schools to humiliate a student who slipped into speaking Welsh in class.

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on July 4, 2014 at 7:25am
One correction "MacGregor despite them" is enshrined in the poem "MacGregor's Gathering" by Sir Walter Scott and was Rob Roy's motto and is inscribed on his grave
Comment by Gerry Regan on July 9, 2014 at 10:11am

Neil, what was the source for the 19th century effort to write out the Irish from the history of America's War of Independence? After all, this was the 'New World,' and not the world of privilege that colored the colonies before 1783?

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on July 11, 2014 at 12:10pm

Gerry:

If you look at the histories written at the time of America's Centennial and immediately  after (which in many ways still the sources today's textbooks start from) you will note a very Puritanical telling of Americas story.  We see the Pilgrims and the Massachusetts Bay Colony take pride of place over Jamestown (though Jamestown was the first settlement) and we also see figure such as Commodore John Barry omitted from the history books (though his combat record is better than Jones' and he organized the US Navy after the Continental Navy passed from existence) along with the numerous Irish born generals and large component of the the Continental Army.Specifically look at the Book "The Irish Contribution to America's Independence" by Thomas Hobbs  Maginniss  where he refutes the still referenced claim by Henry Cabot Lodge that there was no sizable Irish population in the United States prior to the 19th Century.

Unfortunately, I would argue that we have made great (and necessary and just) strides in expanding America's story to now realize the role of Women, Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans, the Irish American contribution is still under reported.   

Comment by James Francis Smith on July 11, 2014 at 5:21pm

I agree with Neil.  That's the reason why I wrote the Irish-American series and am now developing the listing of exploits by Irish Americans. I want people to say they are proud to be Irish-Americans, and this will only come about when they know their history.

James Francis Smith

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