Little is known about the early life of John Hart. Even the date of his birth is in question. The earliest claim is about 1707 while the latest appears to be 1714.[i] All sources agree that his birth was in the small coastal town of Stonington, Connecticut and that he moved with his parents at an early age to Hopewell Township in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Young John became a farmer and married Deborah Scudder in 1740.[ii] The couple would have thirteen children - helpers on their 380 acre farm in Hopewell.[iii]
Hart entered into politics in 1761, at which time he became a member of the Provincial Assembly of New Jersey. He served in this capacity until 1771. Hart also served as a judge in the Hunterdon County Courts from 1768 until 1775, despite his lack of schooling in law. He opposed the policies of the royal government and attended the New Jersey Provincial Congress from 1774 to 1776, and was elected Vice President of that body on 16 June 1776. During this time, Hart also served as a member of the Committee of Safety on two separate occasions.[iv] About the time of his appointment to Vice President of the New Jersey Provincial Congress, Hart and four others were chosen to replace the New Jersey delegates at the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia. Hart arrived in time to vote for independence, and signed the Declaration of Independence in August before returning to New Jersey.[v]
Upon his return to New Jersey, Hart was elected to the state’s first General Assembly under their new constitution, where he accepted the speakership. Hart was forced to flee very soon thereafter, however, as the British marched across New Jersey, chasing General Washington’s army to the Delaware River. The British captured Patriots and destroyed property along the way, and Hart did not escape their wrath. Hart’s family escaped and he went into hiding in the hills surrounding his land until the Battles of Trenton and Princeton had been decided in favor of the Americans, and the British army was vanquished from that part of the state. When Hart returned to his estate, he found his house standing, but much of his property was otherwise destroyed. Furthermore, Hart learned that his wife had taken ill in his absence and died.[vi]
Hart remained in the service of his country as speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly until 1778, while simultaneously serving on the New Jersey Council of Safety. He retired in ill health and died shortly thereafter, on 11 May 1779, at Hopewell. Hart is buried at the Baptist Meeting House in Hopewell, New Jersey. An obituary published in the New Jersey Gazette of 19 May 1779 noted that his death was “regretted and lamented” and that his character and contributions would “ensure lasting respect to his memory.”
The grave marker of John Hart in the Baptist Meeting House Cemetery in Hopewell, New Jersey.
Photos by: Dan Silva
[i] The earliest claim is found on the website Colonial Hall, on the page John Hart by John Vinci, http://colonialhall.com/hart/hart.php (accessed February 18, 2012) while the latest is found in Lossing, Benson J. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859 on page 87.
[ii] National Park Service. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence - John Hart. July 4, 2004. http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/declaration/bio17.htm (accessed February 18, 2012).
[iii] Cunningham, John T. Five Who Signed. Trenton: NJ Historical Commission, 1975; 17.
[iv] Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=H000288 (accessed February 18, 2012) and Cunningham, 17.
[v] National Park Service.