Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who did not survive to witness the defeat of Great Britain and the establishment of the United States, John Morton was the first to die. Little did he know that his signature on August 2nd, at age fifty-two would be one of his last ones, for he would barely live to see fifty three years.
John Morton, born near Chester, Pennsylvania, received one hundred percent of his education from his step-father, his own dad dying just before John was born. Learning everything from mathematics to hand-writing, Morton was a quick study and applied his knowledge as a farmer and surveyor. He married and raised eight children with his wife Ann Justis. Appointed Justice of the Peace and thereafter elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, where he served as the Speaker of the House, Morton represented his state in the Stamp Act Congress. When the sheriff died, the good citizens appointed Morton to that office as well.
He was elected to serve in the Continental Congress while he was fulfilling his duties as an associate justice of the Pennsylvania superior court. Benjamin Rush described Morton as “just a plain farmer . . . but was well acquainted with the principles of government and of public business.” After Lee’s resolution for independence, Morton found himself in a tight spot. Pennsylvania leaned Tory and with the influence of Quakers in his district, definitely away from any actions that might presage violence. The conservative Dickinson faction opposed declaring independence at that time; they believed that not all efforts had yet been made to get the King and Parliament to cool the passions and see the situation in a calmer spirit.
When it came time to vote, Pennsylvania appeared ready to reject independence, with Morton holding the deciding vote. The home-schooled farmer/surveyor, moonlighting judge who represented a conservative district finally stood and voted his conscience and convictions with a firm aye, securing his state’s commitment to a clean break with the mother country. He later served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole in developing the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution to govern the new Republic.
His constituents were upset with Morton’s vote, which deeply wounded him in spirit. Etched on his grave are the words of a letter he wrote on his deathbed to his angry neighbors: “They will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service I ever rendered my country.”