Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776. Those fifty-six men are among about two hundred men who are considered to be Founders of our nation. I want to know more about these brave men and the women who shared their lives and will be sharing what I learn with you in future weeks. This post will be an overview of them as a group.
The Revolutionary War began more than a year before the Declaration of Independence was written. Revolutionary events such as the Battle of Lexington, the Battle of Concord, the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys,” and the Battle of Bunker Hill all took place in 1775. Why did these men feel the need to declare independence when they did? The colonists were all British subjects who were trying to be loyal to their king while at the same time petitioning Great Britain to ease their taxes. When the king continued to increase taxes and brought more and more troops to insure payment, the signers declared they had had enough of being British subjects and wanted independence.
Who were these men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor when they signed the Declaration of Independence? They were not wild-eyed, rabble-rousing trouble makers. They were well educated men of means who were leaders in their communities. They had security, but they wanted liberty. Twenty-four of them were lawyers and jurists. Eleven of them were farmers and large plantation owners. Some of them had backgrounds in Bible study and teaching. They all wanted liberty and independence.
Five signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured by the British during the Revolutionary War, but none of them died while a prisoner. Four of them were captured as prisoners of war while in active military actions against the British. George Walton was captured after being wounded in the Battle of Savannah in December 1778. Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge were captured at the Siege of Charleston in May 1780. None of them were tortured or treated different as prisoners because they were signers, and all of them were eventually exchanged or released. If the British considered them to be traitors, they would have been hanged.
Richard Stockton was the only signer imprisoned simply because he signed the Declaration of Independence. He was also the only signer to violate his pledge when he secured a pardon and his release from prison by recanting his signature on the Declaration and signing an oath pledging allegiance to King George III.
Several of the signers saw their homes and properties occupied, ransacked, looted, and vandalized by the British and in some cases by the Americans. The signers’ homes were not targeted for destruction, but their property was seized because it was located along the path of a war.
Abraham Clark saw two of his sons captured by the British and imprisoned on the prison ship Jersey. John Witherspoon saw his eldest son, James, killed in the Battle of Germantown in October 1777.
Nine signers died during the Revolutionary War but not from wounds or hardships inflicted on them by the British. Button Gwinnett died of wounds received in a duel in May 1777.
During the Battle of Yorktown, British General Cornwallis used the home of signer Thomas Nelson, Jr., for his headquarters. There are numerous stories behind the fact that cannon balls – either American or French – were fired on Nelson’s home at his request. The cannon balls are still embedded in the walls of the home, which is now part of Colonial National Historical Park.
You can see pictures of the signers and/or dramatizations here (Fate of Our Fathers) and here (Signers of the Declaration of Independence)
Facts in this post were checked by Snopes.com.