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The penalty for committing an act of treason against the Crown in 1775, as read by British judges sentencing Irish rebels, was as follows:

You are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for, while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the King’s disposal; and may the Almighty God have mercy on your souls.1

Those who signed the Declaration of Independence were well aware of the fact that, by virtue of their signatures, they would be endorsing a treasonous act and, if caught, their punishment would be as described above. Because of the horrendous nature of this punishment, it is not surprising that over the years the 56 delegates who signed this document were often said to be among the most heroic of the early patriots. The evidence to be reported, however, shows that the events that took place prior to the issuing of the Declaration may have encouraged the signers to voluntarily engage in this act without any fear of punishment. Some further evidence reported below also provides a possible answer to a question raised by Meier (1997) who asked why the delegates even bothered to sign the Declaration.


A preliminary version of this material was present at a meeting of the Society for Learning in Retirement, London, Ontario. Address all correspondence to msimner@uwo.ca