It seems only a short time ago that Americans everywhere celebrated our Nation’s bicentennial, 200 years since we declared ourselves independent from British control. It’s equally hard to believe that the bicentennial celebration took place thirty-seven years ago this year, 2013. The exact date was July 4, 1776—sort of. At least that is the date we now use to honor that occasion. No one was more surprised that this was the date that went down in history than the men who took part in the events that led up to this historic occasion, especially John Adams, one of the men who helped draft the document. Most of the original delegates who attended the Second Continental Congress that year considered July 2, the more crucial date in the decision, for that was the day that would either make or break what we now know as the Declaration of Independence. It was on the second of July that the men assembled as representatives of all thirteen colonies voted yes to send King George III a document declaring America’s independence from England. The fourth of July was much less dramatic. After much discussion and debate, on that day the delegates accepted the final revisions of what was to become the Declaration of Independence. Only two men signed the document that day—John Hancock, the president of the Second Continental Congress and the congressional secretary, Charles Thomson. If America wants to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the best date is August 2. After the Declaration was engrossed on parchment almost a month later, the delegates met again in Philadelphia to place their signatures on the final document, which is the one we know today. The only problem was by then several of the delegates had already left Philadelphia, leaving only fifty out of the fifty-six signers on hand that day in August to place their signatures on the document.
Once again, John Hancock was the first to sign. It is said as he signed his name in bold letters, he commented that he was doing so the King wouldn’t need his spectacles to recognize him as a “traitor.” When someone stated that at least all the delegates would “hang together,” Benjamin Franklin replied, “or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Although these comments were intended to be somewhat humorous, in reality the truth behind the statements were factual. Anyone whose name appeared on a document that would be construed as treason would definitely be hung if he were apprehended. Americans today need to better appreciate the risk these men took when they signed the Declaration of Independence.
The historical account of the events that took place in Philadelphia that summer in 1776 is extremely interesting. History is not a lot of names and dates to be stuffed down the throats of students. In fact, only a few dates are important enough to know from memory. It’s much more important for students to be able to chronologically connect events and place them in certain time periods. Names are important only if the significance of the name is stressed. If characters and events are brought to life as real events that took place, they are less likely to be forgotten. The topic of the Declaration of Independence is a great story. It provides intrigue, honor and valor, heroic elements, even humor. The characters come alive when their frustrations, leadership qualities, and individual personalities are understood. The document becomes real when the story behind its content unfolds. Even the basic organization tells a story.
For the second time, John Hancock’s signature as President of the Continental Congress is all by itself, front and center in the document, and directly below the wording of the document. This time, however, the document has the names of fifty-five other delegates as well. Charles Thomson, whose name was on the original document, was not a delegate to the Congress, so his name does not appear on the final document. All the other signatures are placed in six columns that run from right to left. The format was the same order used for congressional voting, by colony from north to south: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The geographic location of each colony also formed how the tables for each delegation were set up inside Independence Hall in Philadelphia during the Congressional meetings. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2 did not realize that others would follow them and thus allowed no room to accommodate the six men who signed later on. George Wythe and Richard Henry Lee found plenty of room above their fellow Virginians, but Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts had to crowd his name in between the Massachusetts and Rhode Island groups. Thomas McKean of Delaware and Olive Wolcott of Connecticut signed at the bottom of columns following their State’s representatives. Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire was the only signature that had to be separated from his colleagues due to lack of space. He signed at the bottom of the first column on the right, at the end of the Connecticut signatures. Wythe signed on August 27, followed on September 4 by Lee, Gerry, and Wolcott. Thornton’s name was added in November, but the last signature of Thomas McKean was not obtained until several years later in 1781.
It is interesting to look closely at the differences in handwriting styles used by each of the signers. The second oldest colonial delegate next to Benjamin Franklin was Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, age sixty-nine. Mr. Hopkins suffered from palsy, and the shakiness of his hands is evident by the unsteady way he signed his name. He was quoted as saying “My hand trembles, but my heart does not,” when he wrote his name on the document. Ill health forced him to retire from his duties in September, 1776, only a month after he signed the Declaration. It was customary in that time period for signatures to use an abbreviated form of the man’s first name, probably because dipping a quill into ink for writing purposes was a slow process. Benjamin Franklin’s name always appears as “Benj.”, as did the first name of Benjamin Harrison, but Benjamin Rush wrote out his full name. Thomas Jefferson always wrote his name as “Th.”, but most men with his name used “Thos.” (including Mr. Heyward, Nelson, McKean, and Stone. Only Mr. Lynch spelled out “Thomas.”). Other examples were “Saml.” (for Mr. Adams and Huntington, but not, Chase); “Steph.” (for Mr. Hopkins); “Wm.” (for Floyd, Hooper, Paca, Whipple, and Williams, but not Ellery); “Geo.” (for Clymer, Read, Ross, Taylor, Walton, but not Wythe); “Robt.” (for Morris and Payne); “Richd.” (for Mr. Stockton, but not Richard Henry Lee); “Frans.” (for Francis Hopkinson and Lewis, but not Francis Lightfoot Lee), and “Phil.” (for Philip Livingston. The names James and Edward were often written as “Jas.” and “Edwd.,” but Mr. Wilson and Mr. Rutledge chose to write their full names. “John” was often spelled “Jno.,” but all five men with that name used all four letters (Hancock, Witherspoon, Hart, Penn, and Morton). The most unusual was “Abra.” for Abraham Clark. Several men added extra flourish to their signatures, indicating out-going, dynamic personalities. The most notable was John Hancock, whose name was not only larger, but also included fanciful tails and extra swirls attached to the “k” and extending beneath the rest of his name. Benjamin Franklin did the same thing, but his swirls were more intricate. Others who followed a similar pattern were George Clymer, Richard Stockton, and Abraham Clark. A few signatures overlapped onto other signatures, making it hard to tell which man added the fancy attachments: Lewis Morris or Francis Lewis and William Williams or Oliver Wolcott. Several signatures offered a slight tail/and or special touches, such as Arthur Middleton, William Hooper, Benjamin Harrison, William Ellery, and Samuel Chase. A few underlined their names—John Hart, George Ross, Caesar Rodney, and John Witherspoon. It’s difficult to describe what William Floyd did to his signature because it’s hard to decipher at all. Special mention of the name of Charles Carroll of Carrollton is in order, since he was the only delegate who included a geographical location with his name, and who wrote all three capital “C’s” in larger sized cursive letters that swirled below the rest of the letters.
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were among the most respected men in the colonies. They were men of means, well educated, and leaders. The majority either attended college abroad or studied at local academies, colleges, and schools, or with private tutors. Some, like Benjamin Franklin, were self-educated. Most were American born and had Anglo-Saxon roots, but the eight who were foreign-born all had native British heritages. A few were Deists in religion, and Charles Carroll of Maryland was understandably Roman Catholic, but all of the others were Protestants. Those of the planter class did own slaves, including Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, although they both were opposed to the institution of slavery. William Whipple of New Hampshire was formerly a sea captain and most likely carried slaves on his ship. Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate, age seventy, and the youngest man, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, was only twenty-six. Most were in their thirties and forties. The only bachelors were Caesar Rodney and Joseph Hewes. All but five fathered children, with Carter Braxton of Virginia having eighteen and ten others with at least ten offspring.
The largest colonial delegation at the Second Continental Congress was from Pennsylvania (nine men), and the smallest representation was composed of only two men from Rhode Island. Charles Carroll was one of the wealthiest men in the Colonies, with one-third of the men born into wealth. The others acquired it on their own as self-made men. George Taylor of Pennsylvania was unique because he had come to America as an indentured servant. Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants. Nine were farmers or large plantation owners. Four were doctors—Josiah Bartlett, Benjamin Rush, Lyman Hall, and Matthew Thornton, and Oliver Wolcott had also studied medicine for a while. John Witherspoon was the only lifetime minister, although Lyman Hall, William Hooper, Robert Treat Paine, and John Witherspoon had been trained as ministers and William Williams had some theological background.
The statement Benjamin Franklin made about the signers “most assuredly would all hang separately,” was very true. Such action was considered treason, and all the men would be labeled as traitors by the British government. If America had not won the war, these men would have been among the first to be seized and tortured. Although none of the signers lost their life at the hand of the Crown, their actions did not go unnoticed. Five signers were actually captured. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost sons in the Revolutionary War, while another had two sons captured. Nine of the men fought in the War themselves and died from their wounds or the hardships of the War. Details of a few of these tribulations are as follows: Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, had ships confiscated by the British navy and had to sell all he owned to pay his debts. Thomas McKean was forced to move his family around and keep them in hiding after the British kept hounding him and took his possessions away from him. Vandals or soldiers, or both, looted the properties of Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Rutledge, and Middleton. The home of Thomas Nelson, Jr. of Virginia was taken over as British headquarters for General Cornwallis. When Nelson objected, his home was destroyed. The home and properties of Francis Lewis of New York were destroyed, and his wife was jailed, where she died a few months later. John Hart of New Jersey was forced to leave his wife’s bedside as she was dying. His fields and gristmill were destroyed. When he returned over a year later, after living in forests and caves, his wife was dead and his thirteen children had vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. The War resulted in other kinds of hurt other than physical. Benjamin Franklin’s son, William Franklin, did not follow the beliefs of his father and remained a Loyalist throughout the Revolution. He ended up living out his life in England.
Also of interest are the names of those men who did not sign the Declaration of Independence. Foremost is George Washington. His duties as Commander in Chief of the Colonial Army deemed it necessary for him to be absent. As noted in a prior article, he was with his troops in New York City when he received a printed copy of the document. Also missing is the name of Patrick Henry, famed orator for his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, he had been elected Governor of Virginia and had other duties. Other historical notables who didn’t sign included: Paul Revere, the Boston silversmith and member of the Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts, who has been remembered in history for his famous ride to alert colonists that “The British are coming.” Robert Livingston` of New York, who was appointed to the committee to draft the Declaration, also never signed the document. The only delegate who voted negatively on July 2nd, but who did sign, was George Read of Delaware. As previously mentioned, Charles Thomson, secretary of the Congress, also did not sign the final copy since he did not serve as a delegate.
SOURCES: THE SIGNERS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (Robert G. Ferris & Richard E. Morris, pp. 23-24; 27-31); wikipedia.org; wiki.answers.com; barefootsworld.net; nps.gov/history; ushistory.org; ourdocuments.gov; detailed study of document signatures