John Hart of New Jersey was already 65 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. He had already enjoyed a successful career as a farmer (owning 600 acres at the dawn of the revolution), mill owner, Justice of the Peace, and militia leader for the Crown. He and his wife of 35 years had thirteen children, twelve of whom survived beyond childhood.
Hart was therefore known throughout western New Jersey for his competence in farming and in civic affairs. He was also known for his generosity in donating land to a group of Baptists to build a meetinghouse. Hart was a Presbyterian.
By the time, then, of the Second Continental Congress, Hart had enjoyed prosperity, comfort and responsibility.
Unfortunately, the Revolution would take much of this away. Shortly after signing the Declaration, Hart was elected to the New Jersey Assembly and chosen as its Speaker so great was that body’s respect for him. But even as he left Philadelphia to assume his new responsibilities in Princeton, the seat of the legislature, his farm and his livestock were being destroyed by Hessian mercenaries who had invaded from the north in advance of British regulars.
Hart was forced to flee from safe house to safe house for a time, and because of these hardships, his wife became ill.
On October 8, 1776, she died.
In November, a full scale invasion by the British followed and in mid-December, after hearing that the British were quite predictably trying to hunt him down, Hart escaped capture by hiding in the dense New Jersey forests and sleeping in caves.
Spending cold December nights in a cave was probably less than a pleasant experience for the 65-year-old man. But many in New Jersey suffered at the hands of the British, the Hessians and a substantial number of New Jersey loyalists. Master historian David McCullough quotes a letter from General Nathanael Greene to his wife:
They lead the relentless foreigners to the houses of their neighbors and strip poor women and children of everything they have to eat or wear; and after plundering them in this sort, the brutes often ravish the mothers and daughters and compel the fathers and sons to behold their brutality.
These were desperate times – for Hart, for New Jersey, and for the entire independence movement.
Finally, on Christmas night in 1776, Washington famously and daringly crossed the Delaware and won the Battle of Trenton. Freezing, fatigued, frostbitten, barefoot and starving, the Continentals of 2,500 were able to push back the British and the Hessians and reclaim New Jersey.
As the British troops and their Hessian mercenaries retreated, Speaker Hart called for a meeting of the New Jersey Assembly. Under his leadership, the New Jersey government began to function again.
In the fall of 1778, Hart, then in control of his estate once again, invited the Continental army to camp in his fields in preparation for yet another battle. In total, some 12,000 troops accepted Hart’s hospitality and in late June of that year, those troops fought the British to a standstill at the Battle of Monmouth – the final engagement in the northern theater.
Though it was not clear at the time, the failure of the British to hold on to New Jersey was a key turning point in the American Revolution. Thousands deserve credit for the Continental victory in New Jersey and for not allowing the hardship there to degenerate into anarchy. And John Hart is one man who can claim a share of that credit.
Sadly, John Hart lived on for only another two years, dying in 1780. Though he did not taste total victory in his lifetime, he certainly did not die in defeat.
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