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The Delegates Behind the Declaration

July 2024
15min read

The men who signed the Declaration of Independence had very few illusions about what they were risking. How much of what they pledged did they actually lose?

declaration signing
John Trumbull's famous painting from 1819 depicts the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to Congress. Wikipedia

When the Continental Congress opened its session of Friday, August 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the major business of the day was to continue a somewhat moribund debate on the Articles of Confederation. An incidental piece of business was the signing, by all the delegates to the Congress, of an engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence—a matter which John Adams did not consider sufficiently important to mention in his diary of the day’s events. The great day, to him, was neither that of the signing of the Declaration, August 2, nor that of its adoption, July 4. The day “to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations [he wrote his wife] from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever more” would be July 2—the day the Congress passed a resolution affirming that the states were independent of the British crown.

There is little evidence that the actual signing struck any delegates, other than the impressionable Ellery and the dramaturgic Hancock, as one of the great moments in history.

There was little ceremony about the signing. Fiftyone of the fifty-six delegates were present. The other five signed the document later, in the fall of 1776, except for Thomas McKean of Delaware, who signed it sometime after January, 1777, or—according to some evidence—asiate as 1781. John Hancock, who as President of the Congress was the only delegate to sign the original document when it was adopted on July 4, was the first to sign the engrossed copy. Highly theatrical in temperament, Hancock wrote his name large and bold, commenting—so it was narrated years after—that he wanted John Bull to be able to read it without spectacles. Franklin, the oldest of the delegates, was reported to have responded to Hancock’s worried “We must be unanimous…we must all hans; together” with his breezy “Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” One of the newer members of the Congress, William Ellery of Rhode Island, who was of a literary bent, sensed the history of the occasion; he stationed himself close to the secretary in order to observe the expressions on the faces of the delegates as they affixed their signatures. “Undaunted resolution,” he reported of all of them.

There is little evidence that the actual signing struck any delegates, other than the impressionable Ellery and the dramaturgic Hancock, as one of the great moments in history. The delegation from Massachusetts, where the war had been going on for well over a year, thought it was long overdue, and Samuel Adams grumbled constantly about its lateness. Elbridge Gerry agreed with him: “We should have declared independence last winter and received a great advantage therefrom…” But Robert Morris of Pennsylvania thought it too early—“a certain premature declaration which you know I always opposed,” he wrote superciliously to Horatio Gates, the military malcontent of the Revolution.

The fifty-six men who were to achieve an immortality, the true dimensions of which seem clearly to have escaped all of them, represented no single stratum of colonial life. They were of varied backgrounds, ages, education, property, and experience. Two were brothers—the Lees. There were also two Adamses, remote cousins, and two Morrises, no kin. There were no father-son combinations, although Thomas Lynch, Jr., was sent by South Carolina to succeed his ailing father, who died on the way home from Philadelphia. And Dr. Benjamin Rush was the son-in-law of signer Richard Stockton of New Jersey.

Some of the signers, like the Adamses of Massachusetts and the Lees of Virginia, had already had broad political experience and had earned a considerable degree of fame. Some, like Franklin and George Wythe, were known and highly respected throughout the colonies. Others were unheard of, chosen as delegates because they were willing to serve—several as last-minute replacements for men who had refused to vote for independence or to support it. Some signed reluctantly. We have John Adams’ word for that: “…there were several who signed with regret, and several others with many doubts and much lukewarmedness.” But none signed casually. They were clearly aware, as Abraham Clark of New Jersey put it, that they would have “freedom or a halter.”

Sixteen of the signers had riot voted for independence when the vote was taken on July 2. The entire New York delegation of four abstained because they had no directive from their indecisive province. Robert Morris, who opposed the resolution, was intentionally absent on July 2, and five other Pennsylvania signers were elected only late in July to bolster the shaky delegation. Oliver Wolcott was home in Connecticut ill, and his replacement, William Williams, had not yet arrived in Philadelphia. Matthew Thornton, who signed the Declaration in November, was not elected to Congress until September, and Charles Carroll of Maryland was elected on July 4. William Hooper of North Carolina was absent when the independence vote was taken. All these delegates signed the Declaration without having voted for it, although only Morris had actively opposed it. Only one signer actually voted against independence—George Read of Delaware—although he later became an ardent supporter of the Declaration. (His vote, under the unit rule, would have prevented Delaware from casting its vote for independence had not Caesar Rodney, the third man of the Delaware delegation, rushed up from Dover to break the tie between Read and Thomas McKean.)

Eight of the signers were declaring the independence of a land in which they weren’t even born, and all eight of these were natives of the British Isles. The last to arrive in the colonies was Dr. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, who came from Scotland only eight years before the Declaration. All the rest of the signers were born in America.

The average age of the fifty-six signers was fortyfive—not young by eighteenth-century standards, but not ancient. Franklin was at seventy the oldest, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was the youngest at twenty-six years and eight months, being just four months younger than his fellow South Carolina delegate, Thomas Lynch. These were the only two delegates in their twenties. (If either of these men had lived as long as Charles Carroll, they would have lived until S. F. B. Morse telegraphed “What hath God wrought” and the United States admitted Texas to the Union—but they both died young.) Sixteen of the signers were in their thirties; twenty—the largest single age-group—in their forties; eleven in their fifties; six in their sixties; and only one, Franklin, in his seventies.

Nine of the signers, all of whom had pledged their lives to the support of the Declaration, died during the Revolution—all but three as a direct or indirect result of it. The first to die was John Morton, a Pennsylvania farmer, who had been severely criticized for favoring independence. On his deathbed eight months after signing, he said of his critics, “…they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service that I ever rendered my country.” Button Gwinnett, a cantankerous merchantlandowner who had served as governor of Georgia, died a month after Morton. Gwinnett challenged a brigadier general of a Georgia Continental brigade to a duel over a military dispute. The two fired pistols simultaneously at four paces (about twelve feet), shooting low and wounding each other in the thigh. The general recovered, but Gwinnett died three days later of a gangrenous infection.


Another signer, John Penn of North Carolina, was challenged to a duel by Henry Laurens, who succeeded Hancock as President of the Congress in 1777. On the morning of the duel, Penn, who was thirty-eight, had breakfast with his fifty-three-year-old opponent; then the two set out together for the dueling ground. Laurens stumbled as they crossed a street, and Penn rescued him from falling. His sense of etiquette apparently disturbed by rescuing from slight injury an older man whom he was about to try to injure severely, Penn proposed that they call off the duel, and Laurens agreed.

The longevity of the forty-seven signers who survived the war was impressive. Four lived into their nineties, ten into their eighties, and nine into their seventies. The average age at death was sixty-nine—strikingly high for the time. Thomas Lynch, the second youngest signer, was the youngest at death—thirty; and Charles Carroll, who was thirty-nine when he signed, was the oldest, at ninety-five in 1832—the last of the signers to die. The last widow of a signer to die was Elbridge Gerry’s relict, who went to her reward the year that Abraham Lincoln turned down an appointment by President Zachary Taylor as governor of the Oregon Territory—1849.

Of the fifty-six signers, all but two were married, and fourteen were married twice. Caesar Rodney, the Delaware delegate who had made the mad ride to Philadelphia to cast his state’s decisive vote for independence, was apparently the only doctrinal bachelor. The other single signer, Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, who was talked into supporting independence by John Adams, had been engaged to be married, but his fiancée died a few days before the wedding. Benjamin Franklin, whose views of marriage were functional at best, had a common-law wife, but the other fifty-three married signers had more formally acquired consorts.

All but four signers risked their lives and fortunes in spite of considerable family obligations. Altogether they had some 305 children (figures are not available for two), and the number of their grandchildren ran well into four figures. Since fifty-two of the signers are known to have had children, the average per father was nearly six. Seven of these were illegitimate; two, including the Loyalist governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, were Benjamin Franklin’s by unknown predecessors to his wife Deborah, and five were those of another Pennsylvanian, George Taylor, who had two children by his wife and five children by his housekeeper. The largest number of children—eighteen—belonged to Carter Braxton of Virginia, who had married twice. Ten signers had ten or more children, and two of them, John Adams and Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, had sons who became Presidents.

The eighteenth century was an age of admirable generalists—men like Franklin and Jefferson who could turn with equal skill to many fields. Insofar as they had predominant occupations, however, more—twentyfive—were lawyers than anything else. Next most numerous were merchants (twelve) and landowners (nine). There were four physicians, two farmers, and two fulltime politicians with no other occupation. Franklin was the only printer. There was also only one clergyman, although two others, Robert Treat Paine and Lyman Hall, had been clerics, Paine later turning to the law as nearer his real interests, and Hall to medicine after having been deposed from his Connecticut parish for “confessed immorality.” Fifteen per cent of the signers, however, were sons of clergymen. Twelve of the lawyers were jurists, and so were two of the physicians, three of the merchants, one of the farmers, and one of the politicians—nineteen judges altogether.

By far the most versatile of this versatile group was Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. Hopkinson wrote verse and essays that were published in a wide variety of important publications and later in book form, practiced law, composed cantatas and liturgical music, wrote social and political satires, wrote and directed theatrical productions, was a professional artist noted for his drawings, invented several generally used devices such as shades for candlesticks, served as a judge of admiralty, designed the American flag, designed the seals of the State of New Jersey, the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society—oldest of American learned societies—excelled at the harpsichord, played a leading role as a layman in establishing the Protestant Episcopal Church after its organizational separation from the Church of England, was a merchant, and served as a collector of customs.

Men of such varied and rich accomplishments could be expected to have had somewhat better than average educations, and they did. Half of them, twentyeight, were college graduates. Eight of these went to Harvard, five to William and Mary, four to Yale, two to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), and one to the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Eight went to college abroad, including all four of the youthful South Carolina delegates, who studied law in London. Only three were limited to a common-school education, and eleven were largely selfeducated. Fourteen had the advantage of good private education by tutors and in academies below collegiate level.

Eighteen, a little less than a third of the signers, were rich men, though some were to lose all their fortunes, which they pledged along with their lives and honor that August day in Philadelphia, in support of independence. The richest of all was Charles Carroll, who styled himself “of Carrollton,” and of whom, as he signed the Declaration, another delegate observed ominously, “There go a few millions.”

There is no doubt that the signers of the Declaration knew they were up to something far more serious than making a brave gesture when they put their signatures on the document. Indeed, for reasons of security, the Declaration with the signatures was not published until January, 1777—six months after the signing—for it was fully understood that if the Revolution failed, the signers would be rounded up, their property confiscated, and their lives forfeited.

As it happened, Washington’s victory at Trenton the day after Christmas in 1776, and his defeat of Cornwallis at Princeton a week later, turned the tide, and the Declaration was published with all the signatures.

Nearly all the signers, in either a civil or a military role, became involved in the prosecution of the war. Over a fourth of them—seventeen—saw military service, and twelve of these were actively in the field during the Revolution. Four of them were taken prisoner. A civilian signer, Richard Stockton of New Jersey, father-in-law of Dr. Rush, who served as Surgeon General, was, however, the first to be captured. Late in September, 1776, scarcely seven weeks after he had signed the Declaration, Stockton was appointed by the Congress to visit the northern army at Saratoga, where he found the colonials marching with neither shoes nor leggings. Before he got home to Princeton, the British had invaded New Jersey and his handsome estate, Morven, was sacked. In December, he succeeded in getting his family installed in the house of friends in Monmouth County; but some Loyalists informed the enemy of his presence there, and he was captured and taken off to a British prison, first in Perth Amboy and later in New York City. Cold, poorly fed, and badly treated, he was kept jailed until the Congress eventually succeeded in arranging his exchange. Stockton was one of those who gave both his life and his fortune to back the instrument that he had signed: his health permanently broken by the ordeal of imprisonment and his fortune virtually wiped out, he died, at fifty, before the war was over.


The second signer to be imprisoned was George Wallon, a Georgia lawyer, who was commanding the First Georgian Regiment at the siege of Savannah in 1778. Walton was shot from his horse, his leg shattered by an enemy ball, and captured. His energetic civil service in the cause of independence was known to the British, who informed the colonials that he was much too important to be exchanged for anything less than a brigadier general. Some ten months later, despairing of a general, the British settled for a captain of the Royal Navy. Walton survived to live an active political life for twenty-eight years after the signing.

The tendency to stick together of the four delegates from South Carolina, all of whom were under thirty-four and all of whom studied at London’s Middle Temple, was further reflected in their war experiences. All four served in the Revolutionary forces. Even before signing the Declaration, the twenty-six-year-old Thomas Lynch had become invalided from a fever contracted while on recruiting duty in South Carolina. After three years of continuous illness, he set sail with his young wife for the West Indies, and both were lost at sea. All three of his young fellow delegates, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge, fought to resist the British forces besieging Charleston. All three were captured. All three were imprisoned in the steaming British garrison at Saint Augustine. All three were exchanged after a year’s imprisonment. Finally, all three survived the war—although Thomas Heyward, Jr., had a near miss. Freed from the British prison, he was en route by ship to Philadelphia when he fell overboard and saved himself only by clinging to the rudder until his plight was discovered.


In addition to these five signers, the British also took as prisoner the wife of Francis Lewis of New York. Lewis, an aging retired merchant of considerable wealth, was absent on his congressional duties from his country house on Long Island when the occupying British forces seized and destroyed it and captured his wife. Mrs. Lewis was deprived of any bed or change of clothes during her imprisonment. The colonials, who were no more delicate about taking civilian women as military prisoners, finally exchanged the wives of the British paymaster general and of the British attorney general in New York for Mrs. Lewis, who was, however, too weakened by the ordeal to survive long.

Several of the signers lost their fortunes not to enemy action but in acts of private generosity for the public good. William Paca, long an articulate leader in Maryland politics, used his own money to outfit troops for the Continental Army. Thomas Nelson, Jr., of Virginia had started the independence ball rolling in May, 1776, when he introduced Edmund Pendleton’s resolution calling for independence at the Virginia convention in Williamsburg and then carried it to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. During the last year of the Revolution, he took energetic military action. Having succeeded Jefferson as governor of Virginia, he gathered a militia of three thousand men and joined Washington in besieging the British forces in Yorktown. His own mansion there was known to be occupied by British officers. Nelson asked the American officers why it had been spared, and was told that it was out of respect for the private property of the governor of Virginia. Nelson urged that the artillery be turned on his house, and he was promptly accommodated. Two pieces were aimed at the building, and the shots riddled it, dislodging the occupants.

Others, too, lost their homes. The houses of William Ellery, Lewis Morris, and Josiah Bartlett were burned. Those of George Clymer, Lyman Hall, John Hart, William Floyd, William Hooper, Francis Hopkinson, and Arthur Middleton were destroyed or thoroughly ransacked. Altogether seventeen of the signers suffered extreme, and in some cases total, property losses. One in nine of them lost his life. But not one man of the fiftysix lost his “sacred honor.” Throughout the long ordeal of an often-floundering war, in a cause that at times seemed hopelessly lost, there was not among the fifty-six men a single defection—despite the reservations that some had had about independence at the beginning and despite the repeated sagging of popular support for the war.

When the war was over, the surviving signers continued active political careers, many of them extending into the early days of the republic after the unsatisfactory experiment of the Confederation. Two, Adams and Jefferson, became Presidents of the young republic, consecutively succeeding George Washington. Another, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut, was the only man, other than Washington and Adams, to receive any votes in the first presidential election in January, 1789. Three signers became Vice Presidents: Adams, Jefferson, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Two became Justices of the United States Supreme Court : Samuel Chase of Maryland and James Wilson of Pennsylvania. There were few offices in the fledgling democracy that some signer did not fill. Four became United States senators; four, ambassadors; seventeen, governors of their states; fifteen, state judges, including nine chief justices; five, speakers of their state legislatures. There was no limit to their enthusiasm for public office, nor was their enthusiasm always tempered with prudence.


One of the most zealous public servants among the signers was Thomas McKean, who signed the Declaration as a delegate from Delaware but who had acquired a second house in Philadelphia two years earlier. Thereafter, one state was too few to contain his activities. While a member of Congress from Delaware, he commanded a force of Pennsylvania militia in New Jersey. In 1777, he was made chief justice of Pennsylvania, while still a member of Congress from Delaware. In 1781, he was both chief justice of Pennsylvania and president of Congress. He was also governor (acting president) of Delaware, while chief justice of Pennsylvania, but in 1799 became governor of Pennsylvania, after having occupied its top judicial post for twentytwo years. He was re-elected in 1802 and again in 1805. In his third administration his political enemies, who were legion and were frustrated by his zest, started impeachment proceedings against him on a variety of trivial charges. He outmaneuvered them, however, and never came to trial. He retired in 1808 and died at eighty-three in 1817, the only signer to have served as chief executive of two states.

Political turbulence also haunted the post-Revolutionary path of Samuel Chase of Maryland, whose career was in many respects more inflammatory than the Revolution itself. He had led the independence movement in his state, getting the convention to reverse itself after it had voted against independence. He then carried the new resolution favoring independence to Philadelphia and threw himself with unprecedented energy into the war, serving on twenty-one committees in 1777 and on thirty in 1778. He also continued some concentrated private activities, including an effort to corner the flour market based on knowledge to which he was privy as a member of Congress. Alexander Hamilton exposed this economic venture, and Maryland removed Chase as a delegate to Congress for the two years 1779 and 1780. By the time he was reappointed in 1784, he was too busy selling munitions to the Maryland militia to attend further to his congressional duties. He also speculated in mines, lost heavily, and went bankrupt. In 1788, he became a chief judge of Maryland, first in the criminal and then in the general court, holding both posts simultaneously. For this McKean-like political pluralism, he was almost removed from both offices by the Assembly, the majority—but not the necessary two-thirds—of the members condemning him.

Although Chase vigorously opposed the Constitution, President Washington saw fit to appoint him an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to interpret it. His performance in that tribunal was extremely impressive—as history has shown is often the case with unpromising appointees—and his opinions were of outstanding distinction. Nevertheless, turbulence followed him there, too. Some injudicial behavior in court proceedings, coupled with hostility to President Jefferson, led the latter to suggest his impeachment by the House, which occurred in 1804. Chase was acquitted of all eight charges, but his powers declined steadily until his death in 1811.


Another sort of difficulty besieged James Wilson of Pennsylvania, as likely a prospect for the Court as Chase was unlikely, for he had been one of the architects of the Constitution. Conversely, after his appointment to the first Supreme Court by President Washington, Wilson failed to distinguish himself. He speculated heavily in lands, attempted to influence legislation, and had to move from state to state to avoid arrest for debt. He died in acute nervous collapse at fifty-six, while threatened with impeachment, his great intellectual powers wasted in an uncontrollable quest for lesser things.

The only other signer to incur censure was George Walton, who as governor of Georgia took sides with General Lachlan Mclntosh, the man who mortally wounded signer Button Gwinnett in the duel. Walton sent a forged letter in 1779 to Congress in connection with Mclntosh’s military service, and four years later he was censured by resolution of the state legislature for his pains. But any distress he felt was considerably alleviated by the fact that, on the day before, the same body had chosen him as chief justice of Georgia.

Although Jefferson directed that his authorship of the Declaration be cited in his epitaph, most of the signers, politically sophisticated and living in the midst of eventful times, did not in their later years dwell on the historic moment when they had signed it. They did not write memoirs of the event or, for the most part, even refer to it in their letters. In doing a job that had to be done, they seemed, like Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire, to have made up their minds to do it—and then to have taken it in their stride. Bartlett had written at the time, with orthodox New England respect for understatement, “The Declaration before Congress is, I think, a pretty good one.”

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