Fourth Of July Ethics: The Signers, Snopes, And Fact-Checking

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I received  this inspiring bit of Americana from an old friend, a Marine and lawyer with a love of history. It’s a screed of unknown origin that has been circulating the internet since the 20th Century. Maybe you’ve seen it too:

The Price They Paid

Have you ever wondered what happened to the 56men who signed the Declaration of Independence?

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died.

Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.

Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured.

Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.

They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

What kind of men were they?

Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists.

Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners; men of means, well-educated, but they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags.

Thomas McKean was so hounded by British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him – poverty was his reward.

Vandals or soldiers looted properties of Ellery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Rutledge, and Middleton.

At Battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson,Jr., noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months.

John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his  gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished.

So, take a few minutes while enjoying your 4th of July holiday and silently thank these patriots.  It’s not much to ask for the price they paid.

Remember: freedom is never free! We thank these early patriots, as well as those patriots now fighting to KEEP our freedom!

I hope you will show your support by sending this to as many people as you can, please. It’s time we get the word out that patriotism is NOT a sin, and the Fourth of July has more MEANING to it than beer, fireworks, HOT DOGS,  and picnics……

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The purpose and primary message of the post is irrefutably true. Those who signed the Declaration did so at great personal risk and sacrifice. Had the new nation failed in its revolution—and really, it is amazing that it didn’t—all of them would have been hanged as traitors. It was an act of principle and courage, and what happened later is entirely moral luck. The signers would have been no less honorable, remarkable and heroic if every single one of them, by various strokes of good fortune, had become wealthy, powerful, prospered in everything they did and died in advanced years, like Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. Unfortunately, most citizens lack the education, acumen and tools to figure this out, so we get stuff that equates random and uncontrollable misfortune with enhanced virtue.

Furthermore, the e-mail irresponsibly urges readers to circulate it widely, though neither the author nor those passing it on checked the facts. This makes the web, the public and the culture more ignorant, which none of these can afford to be. The thing is riddled with errors. It reads like it’s riddled with errors, with the various misspellings of names (McKean, not “McKeam”; Ellery, not “Dillery,” and Rutledge, not “Ruttledge,’ and yes, I fixed these above) being one clue and the careless rhetoric being another.

Thus I checked to see if Snopes.com had checked the facts in the e-mail, and was not surprised to find that it had, back in 1999, even before “fact-checking” had become a tool of the left-wing media to present advocacy as fact, and to condemn opinion as dishonesty.

I have recently become aware that Snopes is sliding into partisan punditry under the guise of objective fact-checking. The evidence is pretty clear in this post, about the recent brownies incident, and the engine of Snope’s destruction is clearly recent Snopes addition Kim LaCapria, who either doesn’t try to hide her bias or is incapable of doing so. However, 17 years ago the seeds of Snopes’ current rot  were clearly visible.

In an otherwise thorough and well-researched piece by Snopes founder David Mikkelson, we get this…

  • Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.

It is true that a number of signers saw their homes and property occupied, ransacked, looted, and vandalized by the British (and even in some cases by the Americans). However, as we discuss in more detail below, this activity was a common part of warfare.

So “everybody does it,” and it’s fine, and not a misfortune! This comes perilously close to minimizing genuine hardship, and trying to reduce respect for those signers who suffered is as unethical as is the careless  e-mail trying to enhance it.

Here Snopes paves the way for typical PolitiFact mischief. The original e-mail never claimed that “this activity” wasn’t common or typical. Would Mikkelson have made the same point if the factoid was “Twelve saw their wives and daughter raped”? Why not? That “activity” was also “a common part of warfare.”

On Braxton’s financial losses during the Revolution, Snopes scoffs….

“Although Braxton did lose property during the war and had to sell off assets (primarily landholdings) to cover the debts incurred by the loss of his ships, he recouped much of that money after the war but subsequently lost it again through his own ill-advised business dealings.”

 

The statement was “Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags.”  That statement is true, except that he may not have “died in rags.” The fact that after the war he recouped his losses was not necessary information in a piece designed to show that the signers suffered personal hardship from the war their actions launched.

On the assertions about Thomas McKean, Snopes cavils…

However, it is problematic to assert that McKean’s treatment was due to his being a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (His name does not appear on printed copies of that document authenticated in January 1777, so it is likely he did not affix his name to it until later.) If he was targeted by the British, it was quite possibly because he also served in a military capacity as a volunteer leader of militia.

Thomas McKean’s “treatment” was due to the fact that the Colonies were rebelling against the British, a condition he helped to bring about. That’s what the e-mailed screed asserts. Again, this decree of nitpicking—“Well, maybe he was treated badly by the British because he was fighting the British in a war that he took responsibility for starting, but he wasn’t specifically targeted for signing the Declaration, only for what he did because he signed the Declaration”-–is called “spin.”

Why is Snopes spinning against the Founders?

Then this…

  • Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Ellery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Rutledge, and Middleton.

…this sentence is misleading in that it implies a motive that was most likely not present (i.e., these men’s homes were looted because they had been signers of the Declaration of Independence).

The need to forage for supplies in enemy territory has long been a part of warfare, and so it was far from uncommon for British soldiers in the field to appropriate such material from private residences during the American Revolution. (Not only were homes used as sources of food, livestock, and other necessary supplies, but larger houses were also taken over and used to quarter soldiers or to serve as headquarters for officers.) In some cases, even American forces took advantage of the local citizenry to provision themselves. Given that many more prominent American revolutionaries who were also signers of the Declaration of Independence (e.g., Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, Benjamin Rush, Robert Morris) had homes in areas that were occupied by the British during the war, yet those homes were not looted or vandalized, it’s hard to make the case that the men named above were specifically targeted for vengeance by the British rather than unfortunate victims whose property fell in the path of an armed conflict being waged on American soil.

That sentence in the e-mail implies nothing of the sort, and Snopes has no idea if those men were targeted or not.

The conclusions here are…

…..that the old e-mail is bad history, though well-intentioned bad history

…..that nobody should send or circulate unchecked “facts,” historical or otherwise

…..that not having checked them, nobody sending such a piece should vouch for its accuracy or urge others to similarly circulate a document of dubious origins

…..that when fact-checkers stop using facts and begin using rationalizations, speculation and their own biases instead, they eventually make themselves useless as fact-checkers

…..that at the moment they signed the Declaration of Independence, every one of the 56 knew that they were placing their lives, their family members’ lives, their communities and their colonies in dire peril and that they would be held accountable for whatever happened as a result. They knew they were in effect declaring war on the mightiest nation on earth, with a poorly trained and overwhelmed force to oppose them. They knew that many Americans and many British would die because of their decision…

…and yet they signed, and because they signed, we are here today.

That’s plenty.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Fourth Of July Ethics: The Signers, Snopes, And Fact-Checking

  1. Fact-checking is a tool of the left-wing media? Do ANY of Fox News or Breitbart or Daily Caller or Washington Times or Washington Examiner or whoever of their ilk also fact-check? Better fact-check yourself, Captain Ethics! Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    • I think this is the key takeaway:

      “Why is Snopes spinning against the Founders?”

      Why do left wingers (on average) take a stance against the very people who defined and secured the very values of liberty and civic philosophy that made our nation great and free?

      Why?

    • I don’t know why this is so hard to grasp, Phil. The major Fact-check features are, in FACT, creatures of the liberal media. Fox News has no “Fact-check” website or page. Brietbart is a right wing advocacy site, and doesn’t pretend to be objective. The major Fact-check ognams are the Post, PolitiFact, and Fact-Check.org, with the latter being the most objective, and PolitiFact being the worst. Since the newsmedia overwhelmingly left biased, so is the Fact-check device. The rest are right-biased.

      You are really getting good at progressive distortion. My statement was, “before “fact-checking” had become a tool of the left-wing media to present advocacy as fact”, which is undeniably true. I made no assertion pro or con regarding the right’s use of the device, because the Fact Chck deceit has now crept onto CNN, where two biased young women allegedly “checked” a recent Donald Trump speech by defending Hillary Clinton. How did you become so corrupt that you deny this stuff, which is so flagrantly dishonest? I’ve criticized right-biased Factchecks…they are nowhere near as common.

  2. I usually take claims about the Founder with a grain of salt, as any email that does a chain blitz like this one is usually riddled with errors or lies. What I found most interesting was the comments in the frame: ‘Fourth of July has more MEANING to it than beer, fireworks, HOT DOGS, and picnics……’

    What makes hot dogs more frivolous and meaningless than fireworks and picnics that it has to be in caps/shouted?

  3. I have to disagree, Jack.
    The key is, as you said, moral luck.

    The original post implies a causal connection between the signing and the misfortune that followed. Critiquing that connection does not diminish the noble act of signing, but drawing the connection when one might not be there is all that snopes appears to be doing.

    Regarding the 12 who lost their homes: the original post implies that they lost their homes because they signed the Declaration (as if they were targeted for that reason). Snopes simply suggests that many others lost their homes too and that, except for the fact that there was a war going on, there was no connection between this signature and that house getting destroyed, as houses were lost by people who did not sign the Declaration.

    Regarding Braxton: the critique simply says that the original post was deceptive. Everything stated in the original post is true, but it is deceptive because it implies a connection between the confiscation of the ships and Braxton’s ultimate failure. It omitted significant intervening events in order to imply a connection between his downfall and the signing of the Declaration. You should be on Snopes side with this critique.

    Regarding McKean, I don’t think that is spin. The original post attempts to imply a causal connection between the signing of the document and the misfortune that followed. But, if it was not known that he signed it, how could he be targeted. Again, that is not to diminish the nobility of signing. It just says there is not a causal connection. In fact, your response appears to be a rationalization. He was harmed by fighting in a war he helped to start? Does that make him better than all the people who suffered as a result of the war he helped to start? Again, Snopes is just suggesting that it is moral luck that he suffered what he did, not some direct causal connection between his signing and the harm suffered.

    Regarding the vandals, etc., your point is Snope’s point. The entire e-mail suggests that the Signers put their fortune and their sacred honor on the line when they signed that document (and they did), and that misfortune befell all of them because of that. Had they not signed it, would there houses have been spared? Who knows? That is part of Snopes point: there is no clear causal connection. But the original post implies there is one. Otherwise, why mention them and not Joe Schmoe, who was out of town for the 4th of July weekend, missed the signing, and lost all of his holding in the war that followed.

    Your point is valid: the signing itself was the noble and courageous act. The fact that some of the signers suffered in the years that followed is not the issue. They all knew that hardship was a definite possibility. On the other hand, some of the signers wound up as leaders of the new country. They knew that was a possibility too. Whatever happened to the signers after the signing was simply moral luck.

    I would think you would agree with Snopes’ critique.

    -Jut

    • I agree with the factual critique. I do not agree that the thrust of the original post was that the names on the document were literally the cause of all their subsequent hardships. The fact that they signed put everything at risk, and they suffered as a direct result of that act. Snopes just ignores that entirely by focusing on te trees rather than the forest. Coincidentally, I saw this today, which is my point (but not Snopes’)…here is a section:

      The Internet is full of exaggerated accounts of what happened to the original signers, and that’s a shame. Because the truth of what really happened back in that exclusive Men’s Club in Philadelphia – also known as The 2nd Continental Congress – is remarkable enough with no embellishment.

      These 56 men – these one-percenters of 1776 – could have easily paid whatever new tax was being demanded by their King. They could have easily lived out their lives in comfortable peace. But they didn’t. They chose liberty over safety. When they signed that troublesome manifesto, they weren’t just declaring their independence – they were signing their own death warrant. And when they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, they weren’t just making a promise to The King of England, or to each other, or to the rest of their fellow colonists –

      They were making a promise to you and me.

      • Jack: I do not agree that the thrust of the original post was that the names on the document were literally the cause of all their subsequent hardships.

        We may have to agree to disagree on that. I have read that post many times and that has always been my takeaway. And, frankly, every one of them knew that signing was doing so at great personal risk. By highlighting the misfortunes of some of them, the implication was clear to me: they suffered because they signed (ignoring that others suffered just as much even though they did not sign). Then, why not highlight all of the other signers, ones that profited greatly from the War and its aftermath: Washington, Franklin, Adams Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, etc. Some of the signers were luckier than others.

        I don’t know: if this post were not about drawing a direct line between signing and suffering, it would seem to be dwell in the realm of trivia, as in “hmmm, I wonder what happened to all of those signers. I guess they did not all grow up to be President; some of them had hard lives too.

        Jack: The fact that they signed put everything at risk, and they suffered as a direct result of that act.

        Wait, you don’t agree that the thrust of the post was that the names on the document were “literally” the cause, but they suffered as a “direct result”? Does that mean you agree with me: they and many, many others suffered great harm as a direct result of these 56 people signing that document. So, while I agree that by signing they put their lives at risk, they also put the lives of many others at risk.

        And, that read does not play out for Braxton. Yes, he took a risk, yes he suffered for it. But, a la Kipling, he made a comeback. He just played pitch and toss one time too many and died a poor man.

        -Jut

        • Are you serious? “they and many, many others suffered great harm as a direct result of these 56 people signing that document. So, while I agree that by signing they put their lives at risk, they also put the lives of many others at risk. .

          Yes. And?

          Your “disagreements” are with extensions of statements you have appended as if they had been presented already; in other words, inventing a new argument, in this case about “the many others”.

          I have a new synonym for persnickety hairsplitting: “jut-picking.”

          • Pennagain,
            What do you think the point of the original post was?
            I stand by my position that The Braxton case may have been true in every respect, but was deceptive in what it concealed.
            Or, did you miss that? Maybe you should do more jut-picking.
            -Jut

            • You make a position with your back turned to it. There is no other way to view the words of the post than as “literal” — that’s what they say, and how they say it. The cause ran to meet the effect. It’s what makes the post questionable in known fact, absent full biographical details, but not necessarily deceptive in intention. Pithy, dramatic descriptions don’t usually achieve truth without exception. But there, you nearly caught me up in your web of semantic sidelining …. No, I think I’ll retire while I still understand the clear intent of the commentary on the post, Snopes, and what we owe the revolutionaries.

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