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The Irish-born signatories of the American Declaration of Independence
By Chevalier William F. Marmion, M.A.
Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of July 4, 1776. Forty-eight were born in the American 'Colonies'. Of the eight foreign-born, three were born in Ireland. These men have been neglected in our history books.
Before the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960, the United States was long referred to by its own citizens as 'a Protestant country'. Catholics were often regarded suspiciously; in spite of shedding blood for the new republic from the very beginning, they were still not totally accepted on many levels of American life. Certainly, the election of Kennedy changed this — but that was when the Republic was already approaching its two hundredth year of existence. And even in 1928 the first Catholic candidate for President, Governor Al Smith of New York, had been overwhelmingly defeated arguably because of suspicion of his religion.
Therefore, in the Catholic schools of the United States and here in Ireland, it is no wonder that the one signatory of the Declaration of Independence who was a Catholic was emphasised: Charles Carroll of Carrollton in Maryland. This man was held up by Catholics as tangible proof of their patriotism and loyalty, for indeed Carroll was a great patriot and remarkable in many respects. Descended from the noble Ely O’Carrolls, princes in Tipperary, he was born in 1737 in Maryland which had been the only colony set up for Catholic emigration from England, thanks to Lord Baltimore. Carroll was a member of the Continental Congress and later served as the first US Senator from Maryland. A cousin, John, became the first United States Roman Catholic bishop in 1790, founded Georgetown College in 1791, and went on to become the first Archbishop (of Baltimore, 1808).
The defensiveness of Catholics and the non-ecumenical times led to three Irish patriots of the American revolution being almost totally neglected. For indeed among the fifty-five Protestants who signed the document which changed the course of freedom in the world were three men born in Ireland! The following is just a short capsule of each.
Smith was born in Northern Ireland in 1719 and went to the American colonies as a boy. A member of the Continental Congress 1776-1778, he served in the war of independence as a Colonel of Pennsylvania Militia 1775-1776. Smith died on 11 July 1806. He was also a lawyer and legislator. Obviously, Smith is the name of many English settler families in Ireland, but is also a synonym of the Irish surname 'MacGowan'.
George Taylor was born in Ireland in 1716. He went to America in 1736. Taylor operated a furnace and was an iron manufacturer in Pennsylvania, in Bucks County. He was a member of the Committee of Correspondence, 1774-1776, and of the Continental Congress, 1776-1777. He died on 23 February 1781. Taylor, of course, is an English occupational name, numerous in Ulster and Dublin since the fourteenth century.
Born in Ireland in 1714 Thornton went out to America as a child. He practised medicine in Londonderry, New Hampshire from 1740. Thornton was active in pre-revolutionary agitation and became a member of the Continental Congress in 1776 — a number of his letters and letters to him survive. He was also active in the war itself, as Colonel of New Hampshire Militia, 1775-1783. He died on 24 June 1803.
Thornton is an English name, but MacLysaght says it is used as a synonym for Drennan, Meenagh, Tarrant, Skehan. Some Thorntons were Elizabethan planters in Limerick.
These men, Irish-born, fought for human freedom and equality — and need to be rescued from the ashes and studied further. And certainly all Irish people and those of Irish descent in America can be justifiably proud of them. Especially those who bear their surnames.