Founding Fathers Friday: George Ross

by Derrick G. Jeter

Yes, George Ross was related to the most famous seamstress in America. His nephew, John married Betsy. And no—no matter what your elementary schoolteacher told you—Betsy didn’t meet with General Washington, Robert Morris, and her uncle-in-law, George late one evening to discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of five-pointed stars over six-pointed stars while designing the first American flag. The first flag was designed by Ross’s fellow signer, Francis Hopkinson.
Unfortunately for Ross, history remembers the name of his niece, for something she never did, more readily than it remembers his name, for something he actually did—sign the Declaration of Independence. But such are the fortunes and misfortunes of historical memory and myth-making.
So, just in case you’ve forgotten who George Ross was, here’s a reminder.
Ross, like many of his fellow signers, was a successful attorney; but unlike his fellow signers, Ross had pro-Tory (pro-British) leanings, even as a delegate to the first Continental Congress. Ross had served as Crown prosecutor, the colonial equivalent of a district attorney, and, like most people, even those who were unhappy with British taxation and the various acts placed on the colonies in America, he didn’t desire separation from England. As late as 1774, when he attended the Congress, he hoped for a way to reconciliation with Great Britain.
His attitude changed, however, when the war began, in April 1775. Now a committed patriot, Ross served as a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia, until he was sent back to Congress in late July 1776. Although he didn’t cast a ballot for independence, he supported measure and signed the engrossed Declaration on August 2.
Ross gave up politics a year later, in 1777, apparently due to illness. He, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Benjamin Harrison, and Samuel Chase, had gout—a arthritic-like condition caused from uric acid build up in the joints, usually the feet and toes. Gout is usually brought on by eating too much rich food to drinking too much alcohol. Gout attacks are usually extremely painful, but they aren’t fatal—though they might exacerbate preexisting medical conditions.
For whatever reason, Ross intended to leave the rough-and-tumble world of politics and return to the calm waters of the law. It was a plan that didn’t work out according to plan. Ross became a judge and immediately became embroiled in a case that would pit him against the federal government. In fact, he presided over one of the very first cases, of what would later become known as federalism, involving a dispute over the rights of the state of Pennsylvania and the rights of the federal government. The case was about prize money awarded for the capture of the British sloop Active in 1778. Gideon Olmsted, an American privateer captain who had been taken captive by the British aboard the Active, incited a mutiny. Olmsted took over the sloop and began sailing her toward a Pennsylvania port when she was overtaken by two American privateers, who escorted Olmsted and the Active to port. According to the state’s and Ross’s division, Olmsted was awarded a quarter of the prize money, with the rest going to the state of Pennsylvania and the two other privateers. Olmsted, believing he was cheated, appealed to Congress who voted in his favor, ordering Judge Ross to pay Pennsylvania’s share to Olmsted. Ross refused. And therein began a thirty year battle between the state of Pennsylvania (before it was even a state) and the federal government (before there was a federal government—America hadn’t won her independence yet and the Constitution hadn’t been written or signed). The case wasn’t settled until 1809, long after Ross had died, when the Supreme Court ruled on behalf of Olmsted.
Unfortunately, and maybe why Ross was soon forgotten by history, was the fact that he had barely gotten his feet wet on the Olmsted case when he suffered a severe attack of gout in 1779. This must have triggered some other ailment, because it was after this gout attack Ross lay dying in bed, where he was reported as saying that he was about to take “a long journey to a cool place where there would be most excellent wines.” And one would presume a place where he could drink those wines gout free.