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Signers of the Declaration
Biographical Sketches

LIBERALLY ENDOWED as a whole with courage and sense of purpose, the signers consisted of a distinguished group of individuals. Although heterogeneous in background, education, experience, and accomplishments, at the time of the signing they were practically all men of means and represented an elite cross section of 18th-century American leadership. Every one of them had achieved prominence in his colony, but only a few enjoyed a national reputation.

The signers were those individuals who happened to be Delegates to Congress at the time. Such men of stature in the Nation as George Washington and Patrick Henry were not then even serving in the body. On the other hand, Jefferson, the two Adamses, Richard Henry Lee, and Benjamin Rush ranked among the outstanding people in the Colonies; and Franklin had already acquired international fame. Some of the signers had not taken a stand for or against independence in the final vote on July 2. For example, Robert Morris of Pennsylvania had purposely absented himself. Others had not yet been elected to Congress or were away on business or military matters. Some were last-minute replacements for opponents of independence. The only signer who actually voted negatively on July 2 was George Read of Delaware.

Patrick Henry
Fervid Revolutionary Patrick Henry numbered among those patriots of national reputation who were not Members of Congress at the time of the signing of the Declaration. (Oil, before 1897, by an unknown artist, after Thomas Sully, Independence National Historical Park.)

THE signers possessed many basic similarities. Most were American born and of Anglo-Saxon origin. The eight foreign-born—Button Gwinnett, Francis Lewis, Robert Morris, James Smith, George Taylor, Matthew Thornton, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon—were all natives of the British Isles. Except for Charles Carroll, a Roman Catholic, and a few Deists, every one subscribed to Protestantism. For the most part basically political nonextremists, many at first had hesitated at separation let alone rebellion. A few signed only reluctantly.

The majority were well educated and prosperous. More than half the southerners belonged to the planter class and owned slaves, though Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and others heartily opposed the institution of slavery, as did also several of the signers from the North. On the other hand, William Whipple, as a sea captain early in his career, had likely sometimes carried slaves on his ship.

Although the signers ranged in age at the time from 26 (Edward Rutledge) to 70 (Benjamin Franklin), the bulk of them were in their thirties or forties. Probably as a result of their favored economic position, an amazingly large number attained an age that far exceeded the life expectancy of their time; 38 of the 56 lived into their sixties or beyond and 14 into the eighties and nineties.

With few exceptions, those who subscribed to the Declaration continued in public service under the new Federal and State Governments. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became President; they and Elbridge Gerry, Vice President. Samuel Chase and James Wilson won appointment to the Supreme Court. Others served as Congress men, diplomats, Governors, and judges. Six of the signers—George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, George Read, Roger Sherman, and James Wilson—also signed the Constitution. Sixteen of them underwrote the Articles of Confederation. Only two, Roger Sherman and Robert Morris, affixed their signatures to the Declaration, Constitution, and Articles.

Caesar Rodney and Joseph Hewes were the only bachelors in the group. All but five fathered children. Carter Braxton sired no fewer than 18, but 10 others each had at least 10 offspring. The average number was about six. Some of the sons of the signers attained national distinction. John Adams' son John Quincy became President; the son of Benjamin Harrison, William Henry, won the same office, as did also Benjamin's great-grandson with the same name. Other male progeny of the signers served as U.S. Congressmen, Governors, and State legislators.

George Washington with troops
George Washington inspecting his troops at Valley Forge. Busy serving as commander in chief of the Continental Army, he did not sign the Declaration. (Oil, date unknown, by W. Trego, Valley Forge (Pa.) Historical Society.)

YET the group manifested diversity. Each man tended to reflect the particular attitudes and interests of his own region and colony. Fourteen represented New England; 21, the Middle Colonies; and 21, the South. The largest number, nine, came from Pennsylvania; the least, two, from Rhode Island. All those from three Colonies (Georgia, New Hampshire, and North Carolina) were born elsewhere. About half of the men received their higher education in colonial colleges or abroad; most of the others studied at home, in local schools or private academies, or with tutors. A few were almost entirely self-taught.

In wealth, the signers ranged from Charles Carroll, one of the wealthiest men in the Colonies, to Samuel Adams, whose friends supplied money and clothes so he could attend Congress. About one-third were born into wealth; most of the others acquired it on their own. Some were self-made men. A few were of humble origin; one, George Taylor, had come to America as an indentured servant.

Many pursued more than one vocation. More than half were trained in the law, but not all of them practiced it. Some won a livelihood as merchants and shippers. Roughly a quarter of the group earned their living from agriculture, usually as wealthy planters or landed gentry, but just a few could be called farmers. Four—Josiah Bartlett, Benjamin Rush, Lyman Hall, and Matthew Thornton—were doctors. Oliver Wolcott also studied medicine for awhile, but never entered the profession. George Taylor's occupation was iron-master. Of the four trained as ministers—Lyman Hall, William Hooper, Robert Treat Paine, and John Witherspoon—only the latter made it his lifetime vocation. William Williams received some theological training. Samuel Adams followed no real occupation other than politics.

Harvard College
Harvard College, about 1725. Indicative of the favored economic circumstances of the signers, about half of them enjoyed a higher education. Eight, including all five from Massachusetts, attended Harvard. (Engraving, ca. 1725-26, by William Burgis, Library of Congress.)

FOR their dedication to the cause of independence, the signers risked loss of fortune, imprisonment, and death for treason. Although none died directly at the hands of the British, the wife of one, Mrs. Francis Lewis, succumbed as a result of harsh prison treatment. About one-third of the group served as militia officers, most seeing wartime action. Four of these men (Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge, and George Walton), as well as Richard Stockton, were taken captive. The homes of nearly one-third of the signers were destroyed or damaged, and the families of a few were scattered when the British pillaged or confiscated their estates.

Nearly all of the group emerged poorer for their years of public service and neglect of personal affairs. Although a couple of the merchants and shippers among them profited from the war, the businesses of most of them deteriorated as a result of embargoes on trade with Britain and heavy financial losses when their ships were confiscated or destroyed at sea. Several forfeited to the Government precious specie for virtually worthless Continental currency or made donations or loans, usually unrepaid, to their colonies or the Government. Some even sold their personal property to help finance the war.

CERTAINLY most of the signers had little or nothing to gain materially and practically all to lose when they subscribed to the Declaration of Independence. By doing so, they earned a niche of honor in the annals of the United States. Whatever other heights they reached or whatever else they contributed to history, the act of signing insured them immortality.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004