The John Morton Project: Rediscovering a Founding Father

John Morton Biography

Born in Ridley, Pennsylvania, in 1725 to descendents of original Finnish immigrants to the Delaware Valley, John Morton led a life dedicated to public service and was among the most respected statesmen in Colonial America.

Both Morton and his wife, Anna Justis, were descended from Finns who were among the first to settle in the marshy area along the Delaware River, much of which is now suburban Philadelphia. In the mid-17th century, this area—known as New Sweden—was part of a larger colony controlled by the Swedish crown. Morton's father died before he was born, so the future statesman's stepfather John Sketchley, an Englishman, helped raise him.

Little is known about Morton's childhood and early life. As an adult, he was a qualified leader who quickly earned the respect and trust of his community by virtue of his election to various high posts. Morton was a member and Speaker of Pennsylvania's Provincial Assembly for nearly three decades. He also served as High Sheriff of Chester County (now Delaware County) and as a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In 1765, Morton attended the secretive Stamp Act Congress in New York as a delegate from Pennsylvania, placing him at the center of the controversy over unjust British taxation policies.

In July 1776, Morton joined other members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to approve and sign the most important political document in American history. Along with Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson, Morton voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, breaking the swing vote in the Pennsylvania delegation. Some say that without Morton's signature, the fate of our fledgling republic may have been jeopardized.

Morton chaired the Continental Congress committee that wrote the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor of the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, Morton was not able to enjoy the fruits of his great sacrifice. On April 1, 1777, at the age of 51, he became the first of the signers to die, most likely of tuberculosis. Legend has it that on his deathbed, Morton claimed that appending his name to the Declaration was the most important decision of his life—a brave and prescient sentiment, considering the success of the American Revolution was still uncertain.