John Hart Biography
The history of the world probably furnishes not another instance in which there was a nobler exhibition of true patriotism, than is presented in the history of the American revolution. It was certain at its commencement, in respect to numerous individuals, whose talents, wisdom and enterprise were necessary to its success, that they could derive but little, if any, individual advantage. Nay, it was certain, that instead of gain they would be subjected to great loss and suffering. The comforts of their families would be abridged; their property destroyed their farms desolated; their houses plundered or consumed their sons might fall in the field of battle and, should the struggle be vain, an ignominious death would be their portion. But, then, the contest respected rights which God had given them; it respected liberty, that dearest and noblest privilege of man; it respected the happiness of generations yet to succeed each other on this spacious continent to the end of time. Such considerations influenced the patriots of the revolution. They thought comparatively little of themselves; their views were fixed on the happiness of others on the future glory of their country; on universal liberty!
These sentiments alone could have actuated John Hart, the, subject of the present memoir, a worthy and independent farmer of New Jersey. He was the son of Edward Hart, of Hopewell, in the county of Hunterdon, in New Jersey. The time of his birth is unknown to the writer; and unfortunately few incidents of his life have been preserved. He inherited from his father a considerable patrimonial estate. To this he added, by purchase, a farm of about four hundred acres. He married a Miss Scudder, a respectable and amiable lady, by whom he bad a numerous family of children. He was fond of agricultural pursuits; and in the quiet of domestic life, sought those enjoyments, which are among the purest which the world affords.
The character which Mr. Hart sustained for wisdom, stability, and judgment naturally brought him into notice, and disposed the community to seek the aid of his counsel. He was often a member of the colonial assembly; and rendered important service to the section of country in which he resided, by suggesting improvements as to laying out new roads, the erection of bridges, the superior means of education, and the prompt administration of justice.
At the commencement of the aggressions of the British ministry upon the rights of the colonies, Mr. Hart perceived, in common with many of the thinking men of the day, that the only alternative of the latter would be a resort to arms, or absolute slavery. Although he was not one of the most zealous men, or as easily roused to adopt strong measures, as were some of those around him, still he was not backward to express his abhorrence of the unjust conduct of the mother country, nor to enter upon a well matured system of opposition to her designs. He was particularly disgusted with the stamp act. Not that he feared pecuniary loss from its exactions; it was an inconsiderable tax; but trifling as it was, involved a principle of the greatest importance. It gave to the crown a power over the colonies, against the arbitrary exercise of which they had no security. They had in truth, upon the principles claimed by the British government, little or no control over their own property. It might be taxed in the mariner, and to the extent, which parliament pleased, and not a single representative from the colonies could raise his voice in their behalf. It was not strange, therefore, that the setting up of such a claim, on the other side of the water, should have been severely felt in the American colonies, and that a spirit of opposition should have pervaded all classes, as well the humble as the elevated, the farmer in his retirement as well as the statesman in his public life.
This spirit of opposition in the colonies kept pace with the spirit of aggression in the mother country. There were few men in the community, who did not feel more intensely each succeeding month the magnitude of the subject; and who were not more and more convinced of the necessity of an united and firm opposition to the British government.
When the congress of 1774 assembled, Mr. Hart appeared, and took his seat; having been elected by a conference of committees from several parts of the colony. The precise share which he took in the deliberations of this august and venerable body, is unknown. If his habits and unambitious spirit led him to act a less conspicuous part than some others, lie rendered perhaps no less valuable service, by his moderation and cool judgment.
During several succeeding sessions, Mr. Hart continued to represent the people of New Jersey in the continental congress. When the question respecting a Declaration of Independence was brought forward, he was at his post, and voted for the measure with unusual zeal. It was a distinguished honor to belong to this congress, under any circumstances; but the appointment of Mr. Hart must have been peculiarly flattering to him. A little time previous, the provincial congress of New Jersey had made several changes in their delegation to the general congress. Their confidence was not entire in some of their representatives, especially in regard to that bold and decisive measure, a declaration of independence, which was now occupying the thoughts of many in the country. But the firmness of Mr. Hart, or, as he was afterwards called, "honest John Hart," they could safely trust. They knew him to be a man of tried courage, and never inclined to adopt temporizing or timorous measures. He was accordingly retained, while others were dismissed; and was instructed, "to join with the delegates of the other colonies in continental congress, in the most vigorous measures for supporting the just rights and liberties of America; and if you shall judge it necessary or expedient for this purpose, to join with them in declaring the United Colonies independent of Great Britain, entering into a confederation for union and common defense, making treaties with foreign nations for commerce and assistance, and to take such other measures as may appear to them and you necessary for those great ends, promising to support them with the whole force of this province; always observing, that whatsoever plan of confederacy you enter into, the regulating the internal police of this province is to be reserved to the colonial legislature."
Sometime during the latter part of the year 1776, New Jersey became the theater of war. The distress which the people suffered in consequence, was very great; and a wanton destruction of property was often occasioned by the enemy. In this destruction, the property of Mr. Hart largely participated. His children were obliged to flee, his farm was pillaged, and great exertions were made to secure him, as a prisoner. The situation of Mrs. Hart was at the time peculiarly distressing. She was afflicted with a disease, which prevented her removal to a place of safety, and eventually caused her death. Mr. Hart continued by her side, until the enemy had nearly reached the house, when he made his escape, his wife being safer alone than if he were present. For some time, he was hunted and pursued with the most untiring zeal. He was scarcely able to elude his enemies, was often in great want of food, and sometimes destitute of a comfortable lodging for the night. In one instance, he was obliged to conceal himself, during the night, in the usual resting place of a large dog, who was his companion for the time.
The battles of Trenton and Princeton led to the evacuation of New Jersey by the British. On this event, Mr. Hart again collected his family, and began to repair the desolation of his farm by the hand of the enemy. His constitution, however, had received an irreparable shock. His health gradually failed him; and though he lived to see brighter prospects opening before his country, he died before the contest was ended. His death occurred in the year 1780. Although the domestic peace and tranquillity of few men had been move disturbed than those of Mr. Hart, he never repented the course he had taken. He enlisted himself in a good cause; and in the darkest periods, still believed that a righteous Providence would ultimately enable that cause to prevail, and finally to triumph.
The personal appearance of Mr. Hart was uncommonly interesting; in his form he was straight and well proportioned. In stature, be was above the middling size, and, when a young man, was said to have been handsome. In his disposition he was uncommonly mild and amiable. He was greatly beloved by his family and friends, and highly respected by a large circle of acquaintance, who often appealed to his wisdom and judgment in the settlement of their local affairs. In addition to this, he enjoyed the reputation of being a sincere and humble Christian. He was exceedingly liberal to the Baptist church of Hopewell, to which community he belonged; and greatly assisted them in the erection of a public house of worship; the ground for which he presented to the church, as also the ground for a burial place. Such was the life, and such the last end, of "honest John Hart."
SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich