Biographies and the Signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence

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Founding Fathers
Declaration of Independence

Biographies for the Signers of the Declaration of Independence

The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence included two future presidents, three vice presidents, and ten members of the United States Congress.
"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. 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. 

Declaration of Independence
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July 4, 1776

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. They were basically political non-extremists, and many initially 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 majority 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 Congressmen, 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 (North Carolina) 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 Benjamin's great-grandson with the same name. Other male progeny of the signers served as U.S. Congressmen, Governors, and State legislators.
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; the majority had 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.
 Eight, including all five from Massachusetts, attended Harvard.
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.

The majority of the signers, consequently, 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.

Certaintly 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 "signing the document," they earned a niche of honor in the annals of the United States. Whatever additional heights they reached or whatever else they contributed to history, the act of signing insured them immortality. They will forever be remembered as the Signers of the United States Declaration of Independence, and Founding Fathers of a new nation, the United States of America.

Sources: National Park Service, National Archives, Library of Congress

Recommended Reading: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Hardcover). Review: It is not uncommon to hear Christians argue that America was founded as a Christian nation. But how true is this claim? In this compact book, David L. Holmes offers a clear, concise and illuminating look at the spiritual beliefs of our founding fathers. He begins with an informative account of the religious culture of the late colonial era, surveying the religious groups in each colony. In particular, he sheds light on the various forms of Deism that flourished in America, highlighting the profound influence this intellectual movement had on the founding generation. Holmes then examines the individual beliefs of a variety of men and women who loom large in our national history. He finds that some, like Martha Washington, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson's daughters, held orthodox Christian views. Continued below...

 But many of the most influential figures, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, and James Monroe, were believers of a different stripe. Respectful of Christianity, they admired the ethics of Jesus, and believed that religion could play a beneficial role in society. But they tended to deny the divinity of Christ, and a few seem to have been agnostic about the very existence of God. Although the founding fathers were religious men, Holmes shows that it was a faith quite unlike the Christianity of today's evangelicals. Holmes concludes by examining the role of religion in the lives of the presidents since World War II and by reflecting on the evangelical resurgence that helped fuel the reelection of George W. Bush. An intriguing look at a neglected aspect of our history, the book will appeal to American history buffs as well as to anyone concerned about the role of religion in American culture. About the Author: David L. Holmes is Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, A Nation Mourns, other books, and numerous articles.

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Recommended Reading: The Declaration of Independence: The Story Behind America's Founding Document and the Men Who Created It (Hardcover). Description: The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of America's freedom, created a nation and launched a freedom movement the world had never seen. Today it seems inevitable that the thirteen colonies would declare their independence from Britain. And yet in 1776 it was not so. Here is the extraordinary story of drama and daring, sacrifice and selflessness, danger and potential death. The signers concluded their work with a plea for Providential protection and a selfless vow to sacrifice "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Continued below...

Many of them did just that to create a country in which "all men are created equal, . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Award-winning historian Rod Gragg brings to life the drama of 1776 like no other book. The removable artifacts, including a full-size (24-1/4" x 29-1/2") replica of the Declaration of Independence, bring to life the events of 1776 like no other presentation.

Recommended Viewing: Founding Fathers (A&E) (200 minutes). Description: The four programs from the History Channel in this set profile America's Founding Fathers, noting right at the outset they were a "mismatched group of quarrelsome aristocrats, merchants, and lawyers." The story of how these disparate characters fomented rebellion in the colonies, formed the Continental Congress, fought the Revolutionary War, and wrote the Constitution is told by noted historians, and the production is enhanced with beautifully photographed reenactments as well as intelligent use of period paintings and engravings. The story begins with Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Boston, whose protests against British taxation led to the Boston Tea Party. Moving on to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, the brilliant delegates from the South, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, appear on the scene, and the story is told of how an improbable cohesion between the colonies began. Continued below…

Other main characters, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, appear in turn, and each of the major participants is portrayed in a biographical profile. How these men all came to act together, despite the stark differences in their backgrounds and temperaments, becomes the main thread of the story. They were all quite human, as the historians who appear in interviews remind us. Some of them drank too much, some had illegitimate children, some owned slaves, and some could hardly get along with anyone. Yet these men with complicated private lives worked together and performed heroically. This is an intelligently rendered and captivating look at the men who formed the American nation.


Recommended Viewing: John Adams (HBO Miniseries) (2008) (501 minutes). Description: Based on David McCullough's bestselling biography, the HBO miniseries John Adams is the furthest thing from a starry-eyed look at America's founding fathers and the brutal path to independence. Adams (Paul Giamatti), second president of the United States, is portrayed as a skilled orator and principled attorney whose preference for justice over anti-English passions earns enemies. But he also gains the esteem of the first national government of the United States, i.e., the Continental Congress, which seeks non-firebrands capable of making a reasoned if powerful case for America's break from England's monarchy. The first thing one notices about John Adams' dramatizations of congress' proceedings, and the fervent pro-independence violence in the streets of Boston and elsewhere, is that America's roots don't look pretty or idealized here. Some horrendous things happen in the name of protest, driving Adams to push the cause of independence in a legitimate effort to get on with a revolutionary war under the command of George Washington. But the process isn't easy: not every one of the 13 colonies-turned-states is ready to incur the wrath of England, and behind-the-scenes negotiations prove as much a part of 18th century congressional sessions as they do today. Continued below...

Besides this peek into a less-romanticized version of the past, John Adams is also a story of the man himself. Adams' frustration at being forgotten or overlooked at critical junctures of America's early development--sent abroad for years instead of helping to draft the U.S. Constitution--is detailed. So is his dismay that the truth of what actually transpired leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence has been slowly forgotten and replaced by a rosier myth. But above all, John Adams is the story of two key ties: Adams' 54-year marriage to Abigail Adams (Laura Linney), every bit her husband's intellectual equal and anchor, and his difficult, almost symbiotic relationship with Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) over decades. Giamatti, of course, has to carry much of the drama, and if he doesn't always seem quite believable in the series' first half, he becomes increasingly excellent at the point where an aging Adams becomes bitter over his place in history. Linney is marvelous, as is Dillane, Sarah Polley as daughter Nabby, Danny Huston as cousin Samuel Adams, and above all Tom Wilkinson as a complex but indispensable Ben Franklin.


Recommended Reading: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Review: In retrospect, it seems as if the American Revolution was inevitable. But was it? In Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis reveals that many of those truths we hold to be self-evident were actually fiercely contested in the early days of the republic. Ellis focuses on six crucial moments in the life of the new nation, including a secret dinner at which the seat of the nation's capital was determined--in exchange for support of Hamilton's financial plan; Washington's precedent-setting Farewell Address; and the Hamilton and Burr duel. Most interesting, perhaps, is the debate (still dividing scholars today) over the meaning of the Revolution. Continued below...

In a fascinating chapter on the renewed friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at the end of their lives, Ellis points out the fundamental differences between the Republicans, who saw the Revolution as a liberating act and hold the Declaration of Independence most sacred, and the Federalists, who saw the revolution as a step in the building of American nationhood and hold the Constitution most dear. Throughout the text, Ellis explains the personal, face-to-face nature of early American politics--and notes that the members of the revolutionary generation were conscious of the fact that they were establishing precedents on which future generations would rely. In Founding Brothers, Ellis (whose American Sphinx won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1997) has written an elegant and engaging narrative, sure to become a classic. Highly recommended.


Recommended Viewing: The American Revolution (History Channel) (482 minutes). Description: Revisit the birth of a nation in this truly definitive look at America's fight for independence and its world-changing rise to glory. The American Revolution features ten powerful documentaries--more than eight hours of essential programming by THE HISTORY CHANNEL® and A&E on DVD for the first time. From the Declaration of Independence to the Treaty of Paris, these are the stories and events surrounding the remarkable achievements of heroic individuals seized by the epic forces of history. Continued below...

Hear the words of the founding fathers and other key figures, as read by leading actors such as Kelsey Grammar (TV’s Frasier) and Michael Learned (TV’s The Waltons). Thrilling re-enactments of great battles, compelling period images, rare archival material, and commentary by leading historians bring the past vividly alive. Between Bunker Hill and Yorktown, from Ben Franklin's masterful diplomacy to Benedict Arnold's deceit and tragedy, The American Revolution presents a sweeping canvas of historical programming at its comprehensive best.

Recommended Reading: Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, by Cokie Roberts (Hardcover). Review: In Founding Mothers, Cokie Roberts paid homage to the heroic women whose patriotism and sacrifice helped create a new nation. Now the number one New York Times bestselling author and renowned political commentator—praised in USA Today as a "custodian of time-honored values"—continues the story of early America's influential women with Ladies of Liberty. In her "delightfully intimate and confiding" style (Publishers Weekly), Roberts presents a colorful blend of biographical portraits and behind-the-scenes vignettes chronicling women's public roles and private responsibilities. Comtinued below... 

Recounted with the insight and humor of an expert storyteller and drawing on personal correspondence, private journals, and other primary sources—many of them previously unpublished—Roberts brings to life the extraordinary accomplishments of women who laid the groundwork for a better society. Almost every quotation here is written by a woman, to a woman, or about a woman. From first ladies to freethinkers, educators to explorers, this exceptional group includes Abigail Adams, Margaret Bayard Smith, Martha Jefferson, Dolley Madison, Elizabeth Monroe, Louisa Catherine Adams, Eliza Hamilton, Theodosia Burr, Rebecca Gratz, Louisa Livingston, Rosalie Calvert, Sacajawea, and others. In a much-needed addition to the shelves of Founding Father literature, Roberts sheds new light on the generation of heroines, reformers, and visionaries who helped shape our nation, giving these ladies of liberty the recognition they so greatly deserve. About the Author: Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. From 1996 to 2002, she and Sam Donaldson co-anchored the weekly ABC interview program, This Week. In addition to broadcasting, Roberts, along with her husband, Steven V. Roberts, writes a weekly column syndicated in newspapers around the country by United Media. Both are also contributing editors to USA Weekend, and together they wrote From This Day Forward, an account of their now more than forty-year marriage and other marriages in American history. The book immediately went onto the New York Times bestseller list, following a six-month run on the list by Roberts's first book on women in American history, We Are Our Mothers' Daughters. Roberts is also the author of the bestselling Founding Mothers, the companion volume to Ladies of Liberty. A mother of two and grandmother of six, she lives with her husband in Bethesda, Maryland.


Recommended Reading: Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, by Cokie Roberts. From School Library Journal: Focusing mainly on the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of the Founding Fathers, this lively and engaging title chronicles the adventures and contributions of numerous women of the era between 1740 and 1797. Roberts includes a surprising amount of original writings, but uses modern language and spellings to enable readers to enjoy fully the wit and wisdom of these remarkable individuals. While their men were away serving as soldiers, statesmen, or ambassadors, the women's lives were fraught with difficulty and danger. Continued below...

They managed property, and raised their children and often those of deceased relatives, while trying to make their own contributions to the cause of liberty. They acted as spies, coordinated boycotts, and raised funds for the army. Through it all, they corresponded with their husbands, friends, and even like-minded women in England. Readers will enjoy seeing how many of these individuals showed their mettle when they were still in their teens. Black-and-white photographs of portraits, a small selection of recipes, and a cast of characters are included.

Recommended Reading: 1776, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster). Description: Esteemed historian David McCullough covers the military side of the momentous year of 1776 with characteristic insight and a gripping narrative, adding new scholarship and a fresh perspective to the beginning of the American Revolution. It was a turbulent and confusing time. As British and American politicians struggled to reach a compromise, events on the ground escalated until war was inevitable. McCullough writes vividly about the dismal conditions that troops on both sides had to endure, including an unusually harsh winter, and the role that luck and the whims of the weather played in helping the colonial forces hold off the world's greatest army. Continued below...

He also effectively explores the importance of motivation and troop morale--a tie was as good as a win to the Americans, while anything short of overwhelming victory was disheartening to the British, who expected a swift end to the war. The redcoat retreat from Boston, for example, was particularly humiliating for the British, while the minor American victory at Trenton was magnified despite its limited strategic importance. Some of the strongest passages in 1776 are the revealing and well-rounded portraits of the Georges on both sides of the Atlantic. King George III, so often portrayed as a bumbling, arrogant fool, is given a more thoughtful treatment by McCullough, who shows that the king considered the colonists to be petulant subjects without legitimate grievances--an attitude that led him to underestimate the will and capabilities of the Americans. At times he seems shocked that war was even necessary. The great Washington lives up to his considerable reputation in these pages, and McCullough relies on private correspondence to balance the man and the myth, revealing how deeply concerned Washington was about the Americans' chances for victory, despite his public optimism. Perhaps more than any other man, he realized how fortunate they were to merely survive the year, and he willingly lays the responsibility for their good fortune in the hands of God rather than his own. Enthralling and superbly written, 1776 is the work of a master historian.


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