A Natural Curiosity :: Henry Wisner and the Declaration of Independence
Monday, May 12, 2008

Henry Wisner and the Declaration of Independence

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My ancestor Henry Wisner is described in The Wisners in America as the only New Yorker to have voted for the Declaration of Independence. The following is from Franklin Burdge’s 1878 essay on Henry Wisner, quoted in the book. I enjoy the fact that a Tory journalist found “old Wisner” so irritating.

Henry Wisner was a tall man, vigorous and erect even in old age. Like his neighbors, he had little learning, but had natural abilities and pleasing address, and was appointed justice of the peace.

He married, probably about 1740, Sarah Norton, of Queen’s county, and received with her a farm there. He owned a few slaves and considerable land about Goshen. His house was a mile south of the village, on the Florida road. It was a stone house, but is no longer standing. It is said to have once entertained George Washington and Baron Steuben.

Wisner was prominent in the boundary war between New Jersey and Orange country, and in 1754 it seems there was a company of Jerseymen formed to take him and Colonel De Kay “dead or alive.”

Wisner served in the New York Colonial Assembly from 1759 to 1769. The only Bill of any interest introduced by him was on December 12, 1759, to enable himself, John Alsop, John Morin Scott, John Van Courtlandt and Joseph Sacket, part proprietors of the patent of Wawayanda, to sell enough of the undivided land to obtain 1500 pounds to be applied in draining the Drowned Lands. They were an extensive cedar marsh annually submerged by the rise of the Wallkill. Drainage has since largely rendered them capable of cultivation to the profit and health of the inhabitants....

Wisner strenuously espoused the side of Colonial rights and warmly opposed the pretensions of the English Parliament. Rivington’s Tory paper (in 1781) put “old Wisner” among the “tyrants” and “unfeeling malefactors” of whom the Loyalists complained the highest.

On August 15, 1774, Orange county chose Wisner and [John] Haring to attend the Continental Congress, then about to be held in Philadelphia, to concert measures of resistance to British aggressions. The Congress began in Carpenter’s Hall on September 5, but Wisner did not take his seat until the fourteenth....

The Second Continental Congress met in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, May 10, 1775, but Wisner did not appear until the fifteenth. He was not a prominent member of this body, but took part in its patriotic measures, including the wonderfully fortunate selection of a commander-in-chief of the American armies. [Wisner’s signature appears to the left of Washington’s on this document.]

Wisner’s attention was early directed to a humble but very important subject, of which, in a letter dated Philadelphia, December 21, 1775, he writes:

“Having for many months been seriously affected with the great disadvantage the colonies labor under for want of ammunition, I thought it my duty to apply myself to the attainment of those necessary arts of making saltpetre and gunpowder, and having far exceeded my expectations in both manufactures, I think myself further obliged to communicate the so much needed knowledge to my country at large.”…

He was otherwise serviceable to the patriotic cause by having spears and gun flints made, and by repairing roads in Orange county by which provisions and other necessaries were transported to the American army. He also attended to collecting lead and to the manufacture of salt, and to fortifying the Hudson against the passage of the British vessels.

Burdge then takes up the question of whether Wisner and the other members of the New York delegation to the Second Continental Congress voted for independence, and if so, why their names did not appear on the Declaration. The delegates wrote home for instructions on June 8, 1776, and were apparently told they had no authority to vote for a break with England. In a second letter dated July 2, 1776, the delegates said they intended to refrain from voting, but a postscript showed that events had overtaken them:

It is probable that this letter was written by Wisner, as he sent it to the New York Provincial Congress with a note of his own saying:

“Since writing the inclosed, the question of Independence has been put in Congress and carried in the affirmative without one dissenting vote.”

This means [Burdge comments] that no colony voted against it, but that on July 2, 12 colonies, acting for 13, resolved that the united colonies are free and independent states. This then is the genuine national birthday....

Now we have neglected testimony of the intelligent and honorable Thomas McKean, a Delaware member present on July 4, that Henry Wisner voted for Independence. It is contained in four letters, one dated September 26, 1796, and printed in Sanderson’s Biographs, another dated August 22, 1813, and lithographed in Brotherhead’s Book of the Signers, a third dated January, 1814, and printed in volume 10 of John Adam’s Works, and a fourth dated June 16, 1817, and printed in the appendix to Christopher Marshall’s diary....

It is discreditable that there is no monument or other record bearing the names of the voters of Independence. The so-called signers of the Declaration are members of the Congress after August 2, who were then required to commit themselves to the cause.

On July 4, about 12 of them were not at the Congress, and two and probably more of them, refused to vote for Independence. These 14 gentlemen have had immortality given them by the carelessness of history, to the exclusion of Henry Wisner, who better deserves it.

Wisner’s duties called him to New York, (July 12) before the Declaration of Independence was engrossed on parchment and ready for signing, but he continued an unattending member of the Continental Congress until May 13, 1777, when a new delegation was elected by New York.

Posted by geoff on 05/12 at 05:55 PM
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