John Morton was born in 1725 in Ridley Township, Pennsylvania and died April 1, 1777 at the age of 51 of tuberculosis. He was the son of John Morton senior and Mary Archer. Mary Archer’s family is traced back to Bartle Eschellson, whose name was first found in the records of 1644. He may have immigrated to Pennsylvania earlier making him one of first settlers in this region. The Morton side of the family arrived shortly thereafter. His great, great grandfather Martti Martitsen, or as in Swedish style, know as Martin Martinsen was born in Rautalampi, Finland and arrived in Pennsylvania on the ship the Eagle in the 1650’s. Both sides of John Morton’s family immigrated from “Sweden and/or Finland”. He was the first of the fifty-six signers to die and cut short what was promising to be a much greater role in Pennsylvania and national politics.
John Morton’s father died in 1725 the same year in which John Morton was born. His mother remarried an Englishman, John Sketchley. It was his stepfather who played an important role in John Morton’s youthful development. John Morton had little formal education, perhaps as little as three months. It was his stepfather who gave him the schooling he needed which included surveying, reading, math, and moral training. This enabled him to lead a very successful and productive life. John Morton thought so highly of Mr. Sketchley that he named one of his sons after him, Sketchley Morton. There are few written records of John Morton’s childhood other than that he was highly involved in his church. There is evidence, however, that as an adult John Morton, assisted neighbors by overseeing their books and maps as well as surveying their property. He also acted as an advocate and advisor for them when necessary. It is remarkable that a man with such little formal education would play such an important role Pennsylvania’s legal affairs and in our country’s development.
In 1756 at the age of 31, John Morton was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. This was due to citizen trust in his sound judgment and pleasant temperament. After ten years of service as a representative, John Morton’s good friend, Phillip Ford, the sheriff of Chester County, died. John Morton was appointed to take his place, thus voluntarily giving up his Assembly position. He was re-elected to the sheriff’s position in 1767 and again in 1768. In 1769, after he had fulfilled all of the obligations placed upon him by Phillip Ford, he gave up the sheriff’s position and was re-elected as a representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly from Chester County.
John Morton’s legal career commenced in 1757 and continued through 1774. His positions included Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of the County of Chester, presiding Judge of the Court of General Quarters Session, Common Please of the County of Chester and Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In 1770 John Morton’s name appears as the Justice of Orphan’s Court where he was the presiding officer until March 25, 1774. It would appear that John Morton’s common sense approach to legal matters bought him the necessary public respect that these positions required.
As the Chester County representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly John Morton served in a variety of position. In 1765 John Morton was one of three delegates appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to attend the Stamp Act Congress and it was he who brought that report back. In 1774, while serving as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he was voted to be a delegate to the First Continental Congress held in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia. On November 4, 1775 he was elected to the Second Continental Congress which was held in the State House, later renamed Independence Hall. The delegation to the Second Continental Congress, with Robert Morris and John Dickenson, absenting themselves and with Willing and Humphreys voting nay and with Franklin and James Wilson voting aye, it fell upon John Morton to cast the deciding vote for independence and he did so on July 4, 1776. He returned to the statehouse on August 2, to affix his name to the Declaration of Independence. It is said that Pennsylvania, because of John Morton’s deciding vote is nicknamed the “Keystone State”. For without Pennsylvania’s vote for independence the probability of it being adopted was doubtful. In 1776 and 1777 John Morton became Chairman of the Committee of the Whole and was heavily involved in writing the Articles of Confederation, the new nation’s first form of government. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his efforts realized.
Although Philadelphia was approximately 14 miles from his farm in Ridley Township it required at least half a day to make that trip thus adding to his many burdens. Serving on so many colonial and then national committees Mr. Morton had to have spent many days and weeks away from home.
During his long tenure as a public official of Pennsylvania he was also heavily involved in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chester as well as in the Swedish church. When John Morton died he was buried St. Paul’s Church yard.
Two and a half months after his death on June 18, 1777 Benjamin Rush wrote a letter to Anthony Wayne in which he discussed problems concerning the state’s new Constitution. In that letter he wrote “Honest John Morton, your old correspondent, it is said, died of grief at the prospect of the misery he foresaw would be brought upon Pennsylvania by her present form of government”. Many historians have misinterpreted this quote as a rejection of his vote for independence as well as his signing of the Declaration of Independence. A careful reading of the entire letter deals with Pennsylvania’s new form of government and this new government is about which John Morton was referring. Also, the claim that John Morton had a death bed scene in which he purportedly said “tell them that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service that I ever rendered my country”. This alleged quote began to appear sometime in the early 1900’s. However, there is no factual foundation for this alleged quote made by him.
John Morton showed his fervor for independence in a letter written by him to Thomas Powell, a merchant in London, dated June 8, 1775. In this letter he expressed not only his resolves for independence but his concerns for the coming war. These sentiments reflected the feelings of many people in the colonies. “We are really preparing for the worst that can happen viz, a civil war”. He goes on to say “I hope Time will manifest to the World that a steady Perseverance in the Cause of Freedom will triumph over all the deep lay’d Schemes of Tyranny, & that Britain & America will again be united on the solid Foundation of Commerce & the Constitution.” In what appears to be righteous anger John Morton writes, “You have declared the New England People Rebels, & the other Provinces Aiders & Abettors, this is putting the Halter about our Necks, & we may as well die by the Sword as be hang’d like Rebels, this has made the People desperate.” These same sentiments are reflected in the Declaration of Independence.
Some individuals have suggested that the concluding sentence “I sincerely wish a Reconciliation, the Contest is horrid, Parents against Children, & Children against Parents, the longer the wound is left in the present state the worse it will be to heal at last” indicates a lack of support for the road leading to independence. However, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence harbored the same concerns and fears, as in fact civil war did break out in many of the colonies during the Revolutionary War.
John Morton, as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, on April 6, 1776, in further testimony to independence signed a resolution appointing Ludowick Sprogle as “muster master of the forces of this province for the protection there of against all hostile enterprises and for the defense of American Liberty.” This suggests a man who is leading cautiously, but inexorability towards afixing his signature on the Declaration of Independence.
In September 1777 after the Battle of Brandywine which the British won, Anne Morton, John Morton’s wife fled across the Delaware River with what valuables she could take to Billingsport, New Jersey. It was during this time that many of the papers that belonged to John Morton, as well as household possessions were destroyed. In November 18, 1782 Anne Morton filed an accounting of the losses she suffered in compliance with an act of the General Assembly. This is unfortunate because this documentary evidence could have broadened our understanding of John Morton’s private and public life.
John Morton with his wife, Ann, had nine children: Aaron, the eldest child, Sketchley, a major in the Pennsylvania line of the Continental Line, Rebecca, John, who became a surgeon and died while a prisoner of war on the British ship, Falmouth in New York Harbor, Sarah, Lydia, Elizabeth, Mary, and Ann, whose husband, Captain John Davis fought in the Revolutionary War as an officer in the Pennsylvania line.
On July 5, 2004 in recognition of John Morton’s role in signing the Declaration of Independence a plaque was placed at his gravesite by the Descendents of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was the first of the fifty-six signers to receive this honor. Many of the descendents of John Morton including the Ward and Stromberg families were in attendance as well as Grace Staller, the Plaque Committee chairperson. John Morton’s vote for independence from England helped to assure America’s future as a free and independent country.
Richard Stromberg – 2007
- Barthelmas, Della Gray, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 1997
- Collins, Gene, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Resurrection Resources, Woodbury, MN, 2000
- Ferris, Robert G. and Richard E. Morris. Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Interpretive Publications, Arlington, Va., 1982
- Force, Peter. American Archieves Fourth Series Volume V. 1840
- Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, web edition, New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 282 – 284.
- Colonial Hall, accessed 4 August 2007.
- Green, Harry Clinton. Green, Mary Wolcott, “Wives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.” Wallbuilders Press, Aledo, TX., 1997
- Michollen, Hirst, Malone, Dumas. “The Story of the Declaration of Independence” , Oxford Press, NY., 1954.
- Springer, Ruth L. “John Morton in Contemporary Records”, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pa, 1967
- Stromberg, Richard H. Descendent
- Ward, Donald Descendent