18th Century American Metalworkers Declare Independence
When July comes to mind, it’s natural to think independence. When you think independence, it’s natural to think of the Declaration, which was adopted on July 4, 1776. But when you think of the Declaration, is it natural to think that more than 10% of its signers were metalworkers of the day?
As you may know from grade school, the committee appointed by Congress to draft the Declaration was comprised of five men – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman. Jefferson worked on the draft from June 11-28. After vetting by Adams and Franklin, it was presented to the Congress on July 2. Congressional revisions were made on July 3 and most of July 4, and the Declaration was adopted in the afternoon of July 4. Although Robert R. Livingston was on the drafting committee, he never signed the document. His cousin-once-removed, Philip, did sign it for New York.
Philip Livingston is thought to be one of seven metalworkers that signed the Declaration. In fact, although part of a metalworking family that owned the Ancram Furnace, it was Philip’s brother – another Robert – who actually ran the foundry. The name game gets very complicated with the Livingstons because there were five Roberts in four generations of this family.
Six of the 56 signers of the declaration were metalcasters. They were Charles Carroll, Carrollton Furnace (Md.); James Wilson, Hopewell Furnace (Pa.); Stephen Hopkins, Hope Furnace (R.I.); George Ross, Mary Ann Furnace (Pa.); George Taylor, Durham Furnace (Pa.); and James Smith, Cordorus Creek Forge (Pa.). One of the reasons metalcasters were perhaps more eager for independence was the Iron Act of 1750. While the Iron Act allowed the production of charcoal, pig iron and other raw materials in the colonies, it prohibited the manufacture of higher-value finished pieces.
As you will note, five of the six establishments were called “furnaces,” and one was a “forge.” Furnaces of the 18th century were much like the foundries of today. Furnaces would create castings and produce ingots to be used by the forges. By 1771, when the Hopewell Furnace went into blast for the first time, America’s iron industry was already producing more than 15% of the world’s supply of iron – more than Great Britain. Forges heated and hammered the pig iron turning the metal into stronger, more malleable wrought iron.
The mandates of the Iron Act meant that furnaces had not produced cast ordnance. For this reason, early in the American Revolution colonial ordnance inspector Daniel Joy conducted a “school” for Pennsylvania ironmasters on the proper method of casting cannon. In 1776-77 Hopewell Furnace alone produced 115 “great guns” for the Continental Navy. Some of these were used on the frigate Randolph and gunboat Delaware. Hopewell also provided shot and shells to the Continental Army and Navy throughout the war. The final major battle at Yorktown was won with the help of 10-inch mortar shells produced at Hopewell.
Like their fellow signers, several of the metal producers were also distinguished by their efforts to fight tyranny and injustice. Stephen Hopkins, for instance, was one of the first colonial legislators to be strongly opposed to slavery. In 1774, he authored a legislative bill prohibiting the importation of slaves to the colony of Rhode Island. Being the second-oldest signer, Hopkins’ signature on the Declaration is shaky due to palsy. He is quoted as saying, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”
Several of these metal-producing signers – like James Wilson of Hopewell Furnace – contributed to the war effort by producing ordnance. Unfortunately, these patriots were not adequately compensated, and several suffered business setbacks as a result. Other Declaration signers also suffered because they took the huge risk of signing a document that branded them as traitors to their country – Great Britain.
As we reflect on the freedoms we have in this great nation, these early patriots deserve our honor and respect. Let’s not forget, however, that many men and women – some famous and some not – sacrificed much in the great cause of “liberty and justice for all.” IH