As the July 4th holiday approaches, sadly as with many of our other holidays, the true meaning of the day is lost amidst ballgames, cookouts, and fireworks. We forget that in that hot July of 1776 fifty six men came together to pledge their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to form a new country where “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. We forget that, in an 18th century where aristocracy was the norm, what a radical statement this was (though academics will be quick to point out that the execution of that vision was, and in some ways still is, imperfect). We forget these men were publicly taking on the largest Empire in the world; prior history predicting they had little prospect of success and the risk of a hangman’s rope if they failed. Even among those that do remember the meaning of the day, very few remember that nine of the men who signed the document that is arguably the greatest statement of freedom ever penned were Irish Americans.
- Charles Carroll of Carrolton represented the state of Maryland and was the Protestant dominated Continental Congress. The grandson of immigrants from County Offaly (then known as Kings County), he was also the cousin of the first Catholic Bishop in America John Carroll. The Carrolls were one of the most prosperous families in America; it was claimed that a person could not cross the state of Maryland without stepping on Carroll land. Charles Carroll certainly had much to lose if the attempt for independence failed, yet he still signed in a bold signature only surpassed by John Hancock a defiant “Charles Carroll of Carrolton,” leaving no doubt who was taking a stand for freedom. He would be the last of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence to die at age 94.
- Matthew Thornton represented New Hampshire. Born in County Derry, he immigrated to America as a child. A prominent physician, he more than once stepped away from his lucrative practice to serve the people of his community; prior to joining the Continental Congress he had previously volunteered as an Army Surgeon during the French and Indian War.
- John Hart represented New Jersey and was of Irish descent. His notoriety as a signer of the Declaration of Independence cost him dearly when his farm was raided and ransacked by British and Hessian troops later in 1776.
- James Smith represented Pennsylvania. He was born in Dublin and is an example of how some historians “miss” (perhaps not unintentionally) the Irish contribution to America’s history due to his English sounding last name. His family name was originally MacGowen, Mac in Irish being “Son of” and “Gow” meaning a blacksmith/smith thus becoming “Smith” when anglicized under the pressure of English law. Smith would, after signing the Declaration, command a regiment of the Pennsylvania Line in the Revolution, a unit which was so heavily Irish that General “Light Horse Harry” Lee once quipped should more properly be designated as “the Line of Ireland“.
- George Taylor also represented Pennsylvania. Born in Ireland, he came to the United States as a “redemptioner” (indentured servant) who was first employed in the backbreaking task of stoking coal into a blast furnace at an Iron foundry. As would be typical of succeeding generations of Irish immigrants, Taylor through his own efforts and hard work prospered,eventually becoming a foundry master himself. Amidst the gentleman farmers and professionals of the Continental Congress Irish American George Taylor was a self made working man. His Durham Furnace would be a major supplier of shot and shell for George Washington.
- George Reed was the son of John Reed of Dublin and represented Delaware. In addition to signing the Declaration of Independence, he also represented Delaware at the Constitutional Convention and led the ratification movement in Delaware with the result that Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution.
- Thomas McKean, whose parents were Irish immigrants, was another representative of Delaware. After signing the Declaration of Independence he served as a colonel with George Washington, and later as president of Congress, a Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and the Governor of Pennsylvania.
- Edward Rutledge, whose father immigrated from Ireland, represented South Carolina and was at 26 the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence.
- Thomas Lynch also representing South Carolina was the grandson of Thomas Lynch of Galway, who fled Ireland after the failed Irish Revolution of 1691.
While the dedication of Irish Americans to the United States is manifest from the very birth of our nation to the present today, too often it is overlooked and under appreciated even. We as Irish Americans never should forget these men nor fail to be proud of them.