Founding Fathers Friday: John Morton

by Derrick G. Jeter

And the yeas have it . . . thanks to John Morton.
History has passed him by, but that is unfortunate because if it weren’t for John Morton the United States of America wouldn’t be the United States of America; we’d be Her Majesty’s Colonies in America.
Morton was the only son of his father and mother. Orphaned, even before his birth, he had the good fortune of a good stepfather. His mother married an English gentleman who took a shine to the infant boy. As Morton grew, his stepfather, John Sketchley, taught him mathematics and the science of surveying, a profession Morton practiced all his life.
However, when Morton wasn’t surveying a nation he was helping to create one. He entered politics sometime in his thirties and shot up like a rocket. Under royal rule he served as justice of the peace, then as a member of the General Assembly. And when Pennsylvania became an independent state he served as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In 1765, he was elected to the “Stamp Act Congress” and sent back in the Continental Congress in 1774, 1775, 1776, and 1777. And though he presided over the debate which formed the Articles of Confederation, his moment of greatness came on July 2, 1776.
The Pennsylvania delegation was split on the question of independence. Quaker John Dickinson led the fight for diplomacy and reconciliation with King George. His wit and eloquence was only matched by John Adams of Massachusetts, who was the leading voice for independence. On the other end of the Pennsylvania spectrum was the worldly Benjamin Franklin, supporting Adams and his call for independence. And right smack-dab in the middle—riding the fence, as it were—was John Morton. Personally, Morton supported Richard Henry Lee’s resolution, but his constituents were against it. What was the man to do?
The day before the momentous vote the Pennsylvania delegation was leaning heavily toward nay. On the nay side was Dickinson (of course), Robert Morris, Thomas Willing, and Charles Humphreys. On the yea side was Franklin (naturally) and judge James Wilson. And there was Morton, right where you’d expect: sitting on the fence. When an informal nose-counting was conducted, on July 1, Morton didn’t exactly jump off the fence but he was leaning a little toward his constituents’ side, making the vote five to two—hardly the stuff of a resound revolution.
But over the course of the evening, with a lot of arm twisting and horse trading by Franklin and Adams, the Pennsylvania deadlock began to give way. Dickinson and Morris decided to step out of the way and let history takes it course by excusing themselves from the July 2 vote. This left Willing and Humphreys in the nay column, with Franklin and Wilson in the yea column, and Morton . . . in the middle.
The musical 1776 portrays Wilson as the Pennsylvania swing vote, not only to throw the colony into the yea column but to throw the thirteen colonies into the independence column. The musical characterizes Wilson as a milquetoast and mousy man, seeking anonymity. And yet, here the fate of the nation and the weight of history rests with his vote. Well, the musical is great fun and much of it is historically accurate, but it misses the point on this one. Wilson was a staunch supporter of independence and the fate of the nation and the weight of history waited on Morton’s vote.
As the seconds ticked by and all eyes were upon him, Morton gave his yea for independence. And therein the United States of America was born.
Morton didn’t live long enough to see the final outcome of his vote—he died about nine months after signing the document he made possible. His friends and constituents were angry—he came from a large loyalist area of the state—but they grieved him gone when he died.
On his deathbed Morton dictated a final message for his neighbors and friends, predicting that they will come to see the rewards of his yea. “Tell them,” he said, “that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service I ever rendered to my country.”
And so it was. It’s fitting, then, that these words are engraved on the obelisk over his grave. For without his vote the United States of America wouldn’t be the United States of America. We should all be grateful for the man in the middle who jumped off his fence and landed on the right side of history by speaking one little word: yea.