John Hart is one of those lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, historians can’t even agree on his exact year of birth, which is unusual for the Signers. There is, in fact, a wide range of possible birth dates, and even places, for John. Most historians can agree that he was born sometime between 1706 in Stonington, Connecticut, and 1713 in Hopewell Township, Burlington County, New Jersey (the township is today part of Mercer County).
Whatever his birthdate or place, John was definitely baptized on December 31, 1713, at the Maidenhead Meetinghouse in Lawrenceville, New Jersey (this meetinghouse is today the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville). Also known as definite facts are that John was the son of Captain Edward Hart and a grandson of John Hart. John’s father was a farmer with political leanings, serving as a public assessor, Justice of the Peace, and as the leader of a local militia during the French and Indian War. John’s grandfather was a carpenter who moved as a young man to Hopewell from Newton, Long Island, New York.
After an apparently standard childhood for the times, as historians know little about what John actually did as a child, he married Deborah Scudder in 1741. Together, they had thirteen children. Deborah died three years before John, on October 8, 1776. When John died later, their youngest two children, a son named Daniel and a daughter named Deborah, were still minors. As John had previously donated some land from his front meadow to the local Baptists who were looking for a place to build a church in 1747, it came to be that a cemetery was also established on the church’s new land. That cemetery is where John Hart is buried, on land he once owned.
John began his political career in 1750 when he was elected to the Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Later, he was elected to the New Jersey Colonial Assembly in 1761, and he served on that assembly until 1771. While on the Colonial Assembly, he was appointed to the local Committee of Safety and to the Committee of Correspondence. He also became a judge on the Court of Common Pleas. He gained a reputation for impeccable honesty in everything he did. In fact, in the local area where he lived, people often called him Honest John.
In 1776, the colony of New Jersey formed a revolutionary assembly, and John was elected to it. In fact, he served as its Vice President. Just before June of 1776, the New Jersey delegation at the First Continental Congress was against the idea of independence from Great Britain. Because of this stance, the entire New Jersey delegation was recalled and replaced with a new one. John was one of the new delegates selected to attend the Second Continental Congress. John arrived just in time to vote in favor of and sign the Declaration of Independence, thus securing his place in American history.
John served at the Second Continental Congress until August of 1776, making him one of the shorter serving Congressional members, having only arrived there in June. But, in August of 1776, he was selected as Speaker of the brand new New Jersey General Assembly. Later, John became the Treasury of the Council of Safety, the President of the Joint Meetings of the New Jersey Congress, and the Commissioner of the State Loan Office.
John was out of the Continental Congress by the time the Revolutionary War was in full swing, and his participation in it and the signing of the Declaration made him a marked man as far as the British army was concerned. John had to escape the city and hide a short while in the nearby Sourland Mountains. John’s farm was raided by British and Hessian troops in his absence, but they left the property intact and unharmed. When the American army captured the city of Trenton, New Jersey in December of 1776, John was able to safely go home.
At one point in the war, John invited George Washington and his army to make camp on his farm. George Washington accepted the offer, and he and his army camped out on John’s farm from June 22 to 24, 1778. There were 12,000 soldiers who occupied John’s fields during that time, and George Washington dined with John at least once during his stay on John’s land.
On November 7, 1778, John went home from attending a session of the New Jersey Assembly in Trenton. John was supposed to only be on a short break from the assembly and to return shortly after his trip home. But, two days after arriving at his home, he sent word to the assembly that he was too debilitated with “gravel” (the old-fashioned word for kidney stones) to come back to the assembly just then. In actuality, John would not return to the assembly at all, though, at the time, he thought his return to it was just delayed. Instead, John suffered in pain from the gravel for six months and then crossed over to the other side on May 11, 1779. Depending on the accepted birthdate one uses for him, this would have made John between 66 and 73 years old.
John’s obituary in the New Jersey Gazette reads thusly:
“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.”