While the actual date of John Hart’s birth is unknown, biographers have put it in the year of 1713, in Hopewell Township, NJ. His grandfather, for whom he was named, was a carpenter, who came from Newtown, Long Island. His son Edward, was John Hart’s father. Edward Hart was a Justice of the Peace, a Public Assessor, and a farmer. He arrived in Hopewell about c.1710, at the age of twenty. He married Martha Furman (Firmin), on May 17, 1712 and they had five children, all raised in Hopewell New Jersey.
John Hart learned to read, write and do figures, but like most men of his time, had little formal schooling. His spelling was not of the best, but he shared this problem with many of his fellow delegates in Congress. He was said to have been a man of medium height and well proportioned, with black hair and light eyes and was characterized as handsome in his youth. He was well regarded for his common sense, was reasonably well read as proved by his understanding of the law, and showed acumen on business matters.
John Hart was attracted to a young lady of considerable beauty named Deborah. She was the only child of Richard Scudder from Scudder Falls. John rode his horse approximately 30 miles round trip to court Deborah, and they were married in 1739. John and Deborah had 13 children, Sara, Jesse, Martha, Nathaniel, John, Susannah, Mary, Abigall, Edward, Scudder, Daughter deceased, Daniel and Debra, who was born when her mother Deborah was 44 years old. Deborah’s great-grandfather, John Scudder, came to Salem, MA on the James in 1635. With his brothers Thomas and Henry, John Scudder moved from there to Southold, Long Island in 1651, to Huntington in 1657 and to Newtown in 1660 where he was prominent in town affairs.
John Hart began acquiring property in 1740, buying the “homestead plantation” of 193 acres in the Town of Hopewell New Jersey. In 1751 he and his brother bought a mill that they named Daniel Hart’s Mill, and in the 1770′s he acquired land making him the largest land owner in Hopewell with over 600 acres. In 1773 he bought a substantial mill enterprise in Rocky Hill with his son-in-law John Polhemus, who would later become a captain in the militia, and then in the Continental Army. On his prosperous plantation Hart had many cattle, sheep, swine, horses and fowl, and he also owned four slaves. His adult children were doing well. The original part of his home was made of stone. The original small barn is still on the property which is now privately owned. The home stands on Hart Avenue in Hopewell, New Jersey.
In his 29 years of public service, beginning in 1750, John Hart rode his Northumberland thoroughbred stallion and a Bulle Rock mare several thousand miles and received meager pay for his duties. He was able to continue his public service because he became a successful farmer and businessman.
John Hart began his public service when he was elected to the Hunterdon County New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1750, and was elected Justice of the Peace in 1755. With this appointment he was considered a gentlemen and he was able to be called John Hart, Esquire. From 1761-1771, John Hart served on the Colonial Assembly, representing Hunterdon, Morris and Sussex counties. It was there that he first met Abraham Clark, who would later become a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas in 1768. By 1774, he was elected to a committee to “elect and appoint Delegates to the First Continental Congress, and to protest the Tea Act”. In 1775 he was elected to the New Jersey Committee of Correspondence, which communicated and touched base with the other colonies, and served on the Committee of Safety “to act in the public welfare of the colony in the recess of the Congress”. In 1776 he was elected to the New Jersey Provincial congress, and in the same year he was designated to sign the new “ Bill of Credit Notes”, money issued by the State of New Jersey. Hart signed each note himself for a total of 25,000. Hart was often called “Honest John”.
In June 1776 he was elected as one of five New Jersey delegates to the Second Continental Congress with authorization to vote for independence. His fellow delegates and future signers were Abraham Clark, Francis Hopkinson, Richard Stockton and John Witherspoon. When John Hart arrived in Philadelphia, in June 1776 to attend the Congress, he strongly supported the idea of Independence. John Hart was the thirteenth delegate to put his signature on the historic document. He was willing to pledge his life his fortune, and his sacred honor in doing so.
In August of 1776 New Jersey elected a General Assembly under their new state constitution. Hart was elected to that body, and was selected to be Speaker. He soon returned home to attend to family matters. Sadly, his wife Deborah died on October 8, 1776 with John at her side.
In December of 1776, as Washington’s army retreated across New Jersey, the British and Hessians ravaged the Hopewell area. Hart’s home and property suffered severe damage, two young children fled to the homes of relatives and Hart himself took refuge wherever he could in the woods, hiding in caves and in the Sourwood mountains. When the British began their withdrawal from the area after the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, Hart returned to his home.
John Hart was re-elected twice as Speaker of the Assembly and served until November 7, 1778.
In June 1778, John Hart invited the American army to camp at his farm. Washington accepted his offer, and 12,000 men camped in John Hart’s field during the growing season, and refreshed themselves with the cool water that flowed on the property. The troops left on the 24th of June, and four days later fought and won the Battle of Monmouth.
John Hart died of kidney stones after a long and very painful suffering. He was in his home surrounded by family, and died on Tuesday, May 11th 1779, at the age 66. John Hart died owing money, and most of his property was sold for a pittance. His sons later moved from Hopewell, but his daughters married men from the surrounding area.
Part of John Hart’s land called the lower meadow was donated to the Baptists in 1747 to build a church and cemetery, which is located on Broad Street in Hopewell New Jersey. John and Deborah’s remains were transferred to this cemetery. The obelisk marking John Hart’s Grave has the date of John Hart’s death as 1780, but most biographers and the NJ Gazette say that he died on May 11, 1779. John’s will was dated April 16, 1779.
On May 19, 1779 The NJ Gazette wrote: 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.
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, described John Hart as “a plain, honest, well meaning Jersey farmer, with but little education, but with good sense and virtue enough to pursue the true interests of his country.
Author Cleon E. Hammond, who became the owner of the Hart homestead in 1955, summed up in his book what came to his mind while looking through the windows of John Hart’s home, which Hammond owed at the time of writing his book in 1977. ” To look upon his gently-sloping hillside where the American Army once camped, drink from his lusty old spring, and tread upon soil that was his, instilled a sense of identification with Mr. Hart that at times seemed very real. Far from a legend, he was a very human being, moved by the same forces that influence the lives and fortunes of all men. As one becomes acquainted with John Hart, there emerges a capable, personable, ambitious, yet dedicated man…. essentially conservative, but heroically liberal. In his world there were pioneers of land, of enterprise, and of political philosophy. From a good but modest beginning, John Hart embodied all three, and attainments qualify him, unreservedly, to be described as a self-made man in his time. ”
On July 3, 2006, the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Inc. dedicated a bronze plaque to John Hart and his wife Deborah Scudder Hart. Many descendants were at the Baptist Meeting House on Broad Street in Hopewell New Jersey for the dedication. It is very fitting that John and Deborah are now buried and honored on the very land that he gave to the Baptists.
Grace Keiper Staller, Descendant
member of D.S.D.I.
Thornton C. Lockwood (D.S.D.I.)
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- The Hart Family Bible, Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- John Hart obituary, (Emporium & True American, Trenton, NJ, June 20, 1845)
- John Hart’s Will: New Jersey Wills, LIB-21: 128, NJSL
- Lossing, B.J., Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, (1848)
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- Waln, Robert Jr., Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, (John Sanderson, Philadelphia, PA, 1820-1827)