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Signers of the Constitution
Biographical Sketches

LIKE THE 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention, the 39 signers as a whole were a distinguished body of men who represented an excellent cross section of 18th-century American leadership. Almost all of them were well-educated men of means who were dominant in their communities and States, and many were also prominent in national affairs. Virtually every one had taken part in the Revolution; at least 23 had served in the Continental forces, most of them in positions of command.

The practical political experience of the group was extensive. At the time of the Convention, more than four-fifths, or 33 individuals, were or had been Members of the Continental Congress. Mifflin and Gorham had served as President of the body. The only ones who lacked congressional experience were: Bassett, Blair, Brearly, Broom, Paterson, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Six men (Clymer, Franklin, Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, and Wilson) had signed the Declaration of Independence. Five (Carroll, Dickinson, the two Morrises, and Sherman) had affixed their signatures to the Articles of Confederation. But only two, Sherman and Robert Morris, underwrote all three of the Nation's basic documents. Practically all the 39 individuals enjoyed experience in colonial and State government, Dickinson, Franklin, Langdon, Livingston, Read, and Rutledge as Governors, or State executives, and the majority had held county and local offices.

Among the signers, the range of occupations was wide, and many men simultaneously pursued more than one. Twenty-two were lawyers or had benefited from legal training, though not all of them relied on the profession for a livelihood. In this category were Baldwin, Bassett, Bedford, Blair, Brearly, Dayton, Dickinson, Few, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Johnson, King, Livingston, Madison, Gouverneur Morris, Paterson, the two Pinckneys, Read, Rutledge, Sherman, and Wilson. Some had become judges.

At the time of the Convention, 11 individuals were businessmen, merchants, or shippers: Blount, Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gilman, Gorham, Langdon, Robert Morris, Sherman, and Wilson. Six were major land speculators: Blount, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gorham, Robert Morris, and Wilson. Eleven speculated in securities on a large scale: Bedford, Blair, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Franklin, King, Langdon, Robert Morris, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Sherman. Eleven owned or managed slave-operated plantations or large farms: Bassett, Blair, Blount, Butler, Carroll, Jenifer, the two Pinckneys, Rutledge, Spaight, and Washington. Madison also owned slaves. Broom and Few were small farmers.

Nine of the men received a substantial part of their income from public office: Baldwin, Bedford, Blair, Brearly, Gilman, Jenifer, Livingston, Madison, and Rutledge. Three had retired from active economic endeavors: Franklin, McHenry, and Mifflin. Franklin and Williamson were scientists, among their array of other activities. McHenry and Williamson were physicians, and Johnson was an educator-university president. Baldwin had been a minister, and Williamson, Madison, and possibly others had studied in this field but had never been ordained.

A few of the signers were rich. Washington and Robert Morris ranked among the Nation's wealthiest men. Carroll, Jenifer, and Mifflin were also extremely well-to-do. The financial resources of the majority of the rest ranged from good to excellent. Among those with the most straitened circumstances were Baldwin, Few, Brearly, Broom, Madison, Paterson, and Sherman, though they all managed to live comfortably.

A considerable number of the men were born into leading families: Blair, Butler, Carroll, Ingersoll, Jenifer, Johnson, Livingston, Mifflin, Gouverneur Morris, both Pinckneys, Rutledge, and Washington. Others were self-made men who had risen from humble beginnings: Few, Franklin, Gorham, Hamilton, and Sherman.

Most of the group were natives of the 13 Colonies. Only seven were born elsewhere: four (Butler, Fitzsimons, McHenry, and Paterson) in Ireland, one (Robert Morris) in England, one (Wilson) in Scotland, and one (Hamilton) in the West Indies. But, if most of the signers were native-born, many of them had moved from one State to another. Reflecting the mobility that has always characterized American life, 13 individuals had already lived or worked in more than one State or colony. They were: Baldwin, Bassett, Bedford, Dickinson, Few, Franklin, Ingersoll, Livingston, the two Morrises, Read, Sherman, and Williamson. Others had studied or traveled abroad.

The educational background of the Founding Fathers was diverse. Some, Franklin for example, were largely self-taught and had received scant formal training. Others had obtained instruction from private tutors or at academies. About half of the individuals had attended or graduated from college, in the present United States or abroad. Some men held advanced and honorary degrees. All in all, the signers were a well-educated group.

Most of them were in the prime of their lives during the Convention, and as a whole they were relatively youthful. The average age was about 45 years. The youngest, Dayton, at 26, was one of three men in their twenties, the others being Spaight and Charles Pinckney. Eleven were in the thirties, 13 in the forties, and 8 in the fifties. Jenifer, Livingston, and Sherman were in the sixties, and Franklin was in his eighties.

For their era, the signers of the Constitution, like those of the Declaration of Independence, were remarkably long-lived. The average age at death was almost 67. Johnson reached 92 years; and Few, Franklin, Madison, and Williamson lived into their eighties. Passing away in their eighth decade were 10 or 11 (because Fitzsimons was either 69 or 70 at the time of his death); and in the sixties, 13 or 14. Seven lived into the fifties, and three into the forties—two of the latter (Hamilton and Spaight) dying as the result of duels. The first to succumb, in 1790, was Franklin; the last, Madison, in 1836.

Several signers of the Constitution attended the College of New Jersey (present Princeton University), shown here about 1764. Nassau Hall, the main building, is on the left; the President's House, on the right. (Engraving (undated) by Henry Dawkins, after W. Tennant, in An Account of the College of New Jersey (1764). Library of Congress.)

Most of the individuals married and fathered children. Sherman sired the largest family, numbering 15 by two wives. At least seven (Bassett, Brearly, Johnson, Paterson, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Sherman, and Wilson) married more than once. Three (Baldwin, Gilman, and Jenifer) were lifetime bachelors. In terms of religious affiliation, the men mirrored the overwhelmingly Protestant character of American religious life at the time and were members of various denominations. Only two, Carroll and Fitzsimons, were Roman Catholics.

The later careers of the signers reflected their abilities as well as the vagaries of fate. Most were successful, though five of the men (Fitzsimons, Gorham, Mifflin, Robert Morris, and Wilson) suffered serious financial reverses that left them in or near bankruptcy. Two, Blount and Dayton, were involved in possibly treasonable activities. Yet, as they had done before the Convention, most of the group continued to render outstanding public service, particularly to the new Government they had helped to create.

Washington and Madison became Presidents of the United States, and King and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were nominated as candidates for the office. Hamilton, McHenry, and Madison attained Cabinet posts. Sixteen men became U.S. Senators: Baldwin, Bassett, Blount, Butler, Dayton, Few, Gilman, Johnson, King, Langdon, the two Morrises, Paterson, Charles Pinckney, Read, and Sherman. Eleven served in the House of Representatives: Baldwin, Carroll, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gilman, Madison, Charles Pinckney, Sherman, Spaight, and Williamson. Of these, Dayton served as Speaker. Four men (Bassett, Bedford, Brearly, and Few) served as Federal judges, and four more (Blair, Paterson, Rutledge, and Wilson) as Associate Justices of the Supreme Court; Rutledge also held the position of Chief Justice. Four others, King, the two Pinckneys, and Gouverneur Morris, undertook important diplomatic missions for the Nation.

Many other persons held important State positions, including a large number as Governors (Blount, Franklin, Langdon, Livingston, Mifflin, Paterson, Charles Pinckney, and Spaight) and legislators. And most of the signers contributed in many ways to the cultural life of their cities, communities, and States. Not surprisingly, many of their sons and other descendants were to occupy high positions in U.S. political and intellectual life.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004