There are 76 Founding Members, each of which is unique in that they will “adopt” a founding father as their moniker in to honor them.
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There are 76 Founding Members, each of which is unique in that they will “adopt” a founding father as their moniker in to honor them.
If there was a rock-ribbed New Englander, a bold man of action among the founding fathers, it was General Israel Putnam. Unlike the political leaders, the Moses’ of America, “Old Put” was the Joshua, throwing himself headlong into the fight. Only five feet six inches tall but powerfully built, the only image of him, a Trumbull sketch, shows a bulldog look which reminds us of Winston Churchill. His taste for battle only reinforces that impression.
Massachusetts born, but Connecticut-settled as a farmer in his twenties, Israel Putnam joined up for the French and Indian War as II Lieutenant with the famous and feared Roger’s Rangers. In that war which lasted seven years, he led the attack on Fort Carillon in 1759, fought in the Montreal Campaign the following year, and joined the ill-fated attack on the island of Cuba. He was one of the few survivors of a shipwreck on that campaign, and some historians believe he had the prescience to carry home to Connecticut tobacco seeds which became the progenitors of “Connecticut shade”tobacco, now famous as the wrapper of premium cigars.
Putnam’s youth included little in the way of education and his extant writing reveals his near illiteracy. His second marriage, to a wealthy widow, providentially elevated his social status which, along with his hard-working and natural leadership skills, probably contributed to his officer status at the beginning of the war. After fighting in Pontiac’s War and helping to lift the siege of Fort Detroit, Putnam returned home, joined the Congregational Church in Brooklyn, Connecticut, opened a tavern named after the hero of Quebec “The General Wolfe,” and returned to farming. As the most renowned veteran in his community, Major Putnam led the protest against the Stamp Tax that was levied by Parliament on the colony. Not one to merely protest tyranny, he helped found the Sons of Liberty in his colony, and actively sought the defeat of the unconstitutional assault on liberty.
Tradition says he heard about the fight at Lexington and Concord on that spring day in 1775, stopped his plow in mid-furrow, unhitched the horse, gave command for the militia to follow to Boston and rode to the sound of the guns, a hundred miles away. However unlikely the story, it could very well be true, given his past character and subsequent service in the War for Independence. Upon joining the patriot forces near Boston, Putnam was commissioned Major General, planned the defenses of Breed and Bunker Hill, and led the fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Historian D. S. Freeman described him as “a rock and rallying post” throughout the battle.
That moment in history proved to be his most important “crowded hour.” When George Washington arrived with his congressional commission, Putnam graciously turned over the army and became the Colonel of the 3rd Connecticut Infantry. At Long Island he was out-maneuvered by the British and his subsequent career was served recruiting in his home state and defending the Hudson River posts. He was considered too old and too heavy and slow for future field command.
An assessment of his career proves that Israel Putnam was utterly “courageous, enterprising, active, and persevering.” He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1779 at the age of sixty one and retired from the war. His powerful leadership at the exact moment it was needed at Bunker Hill, saved the American cause, provided the very elevation of morale that was needed, and secured his reputation as one of the boldest, devoted, and persevering men among the founders of the Republic.
Since the first patriotic act of his ancestor Henry Wolcott, who immigrated to America as one embracing the principles of liberty, Oliver followed in his footsteps when he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence and held command of the Connecticut militia in the American Revolution. His own words testify to his principles of liberty when he said, “I shall most cheerfully render my country every service in my power.”
After studying medicine at Yale College, Oliver immediately responded to the first call of his country by applying his energies to the French and Indian War on the Northern territory. Receiving a commission as captain from the governor of New York, he led a company to defend the northern border near the regions of Canada. His experience in the French and Indian War was the first of the many opportunities he would take in defense of the American cause.
Instead of taking up his practice in medicine, he accepted the role of sheriff in Litchfield, Connecticut and commenced his study in law. In the next twelve years Oliver served as a member of the state council, and in 1775 was appointed by the Continental Congress as commissioner of Indian Affairs. This role ensured the Indians’ neutrality, a useful asset during the years of the Revolutionary War. The same year he was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He took his seat in January, but contracted an illness, delaying his signing the groundbreaking document proclaiming independence from Britain.
It is commonly said that actions speak louder than words, and although he couldn’t contribute to the discussions at Congress, Wolcott served in the Connecticut Militia as Major General, leading fourteen regiments in the defense of New York. He was not be able to sign the Declaration of Independence until September 9th. Returning to Connecticut, and passing through New York City, Oliver found himself caught up in boisterous celebrations in response to a reading of the Declaration of Independence. The excited mob of soldiers surged to the bowling green on Wall Street and in their patriotic zeal tore down a huge statue of George the Third, which stood picturesquely on the Green. Oliver Wolcott stood nearby as they tore it to pieces and paraded the severed head through the city. After the crowds parted Oliver gathered the chu nks of lead and took them to his home in Litchfield, and with the help of his family melted King George into lead bullets. The bullets Oliver would then use against English troops at the Battle of Saratoga.
His wife of forty years, Laura Collins Wolcott, “a woman of almost masculine strength of mind, energetic and thrifty,” responded to the American cause with almost equal gusto as her husband. While Oliver Wolcott was away from home, Laura “attended to the management of their farm, educated their younger children, and made it possible for her husband to devote his energies to his country.” While her husband held nothing in reserve for the cause of American Independence, Laura Wolcott held nothing from the cause of the war.
In 1774 Wolcott was elected to the council and continued a member until his election as Lieutenant-Governor in 1786. A large part of the time that he was a member of the Continental Congress he was also in the field with the army or engaged in recruiting and organizing troops for the army. In 1796, he was elected Governor and continued in that office until his death. During many of these years, almost the entire burden of directing his domestic affairs rested on the shoulders of his wife. No wealth, power or accolades could provide more solid proof of patriotism and sacrifice than Oliver Wolcott’s long life of “cheerfully rendering” every possible service to his country. He passed away at the ripe old age of seventy-one.
John Adams wrote of him, “The honorable Roger Sherman was one of the most cordial friends which I ever had in my life. Destitute of all literary and scientific education but such as he acquired by his own exertions, he was one of the most sensible men in the world. The clearest head and the steadiest heart.” Despite humble beginnings, born in 1721 to a Massachusetts farmer and shoemaker, Sherman had grown to fill a place of distinction among the great Founding Fathers of the Declaration, and the Constitution. His contribution to the principle documents of the new nation would be a debt no man could repay.
While still a young man he inherited the family profession as a cobbler, but also found delight in mathematics and surveying. At nineteen Sherman’s father died, leaving him as the principle caretaker of the family’s future and fortune. Trail-blazing to Connecticut with his trade tools strapped to his back Sherman moved his family to Connecticut where he eventually acquire the title of ‘surveyor.’
While surveying, he became an expert on handling disputes between landowners, which sparked his interest in law. After passing the bar in 1755 he was appointed local justice of the peace, to the lower house of the Connecticut legislature and later became judge of the court of common pleas. At one point in his life he held a total of nineteen years in the upper Connecticut legislature, and twenty-three years as judge of the superior court of Connecticut. And this was the man who was so committed to his self-education that he would prop his mathematics books before him on his cobbler stool.
In 1774, at the age of fifty-five, Sherman was chosen as a delegate to represent Connecticut at the first Continental Congress. As he entered the hall in Philadelphia for the first time, all of the wigged heads turned to see the humble and bare-headed cobbler from Connecticut. Although he didn’t seem like much, Sherman was one of those choice delegates appointed to the drafting committee for the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson [once] recalled this of his association with Sherman: “I served with him in the old congress in the years 1775 and 1776: he was a very able and logical debater in that body, steady in principles of the revolution, always at the post of duty, much employed in the business of committees, and particularly, was of the committee of Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams, Mr. Livingston, and myself, for preparing the Declaration of Independence. Being much my senior in years, our intercourse was chiefly in the line of our duties. I had great respect for him.
Many years later, Sherman’s contribution to the Constitution in 1787 would stamp such a lasting effect on America that Connecticut would be known as “The Constitution State.” Known now as the “great compromise,” it was Sherman who suggested a representative house, and a senate. The representatives were to be voted into office according to the size of the state while only two senators were elected in each state, regardless of size and population difference. This efficient form of representation has been in working order for the last two hundred years.
Elected to the US House of Representatives 1789 at the age of sixty-eight, Sherman also played a key role in preparing the Bill of Rights. Sherman said of the Constitution, “Perhaps a better could not be made upon mere speculation: it was consented to by all the states present in the convention, which is a circumstance in its favour, so far as any respect is due to them… I hope that kind Providence, which guarded these states through a dangerous and distressing war to peace and liberty, will still watch over them, and guide them in the way of safety.” During his years in Congress he also focused his time on finance and the problems of printing too much paper money. This issue would be a continuing debate through to the Civil War.
Surrounded by his fifteen children by two marriages, Sherman passed away in the year 1793 at the age of seventy-two. A detailed inscription decorates his gravestone: “He was a man of approved integrity; a cool, discerning Judge; a prudent, sagacious politician; a trued, faithful, and firm patriot. He ever adorned the profession of Christianity which he made in youth; and, distinguished through life for public usefulness, died in the prospect of a blessed immortality.”
The renowned evangelist Jonathan Edwards said of Roger Sherman, “He was exemplary in attending all the institutions of the gospel, in the practice of virtue in general, and in showing himself friendly to all good men.” These words give only a small picture of the true and noble character of Roger Sherman: cobbler, lawyer, and patriot.
Providence has an ingenious way of uplifting the humble and lowering the lofty, and many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were happy participants of this same divine providence. Born July 3, 1731 to a humble Connecticut farmer and his pious wife, Samuel Huntington entered history at such a time which required his every energy and ability. The oldest of ten children, Samuel had little time for formal education, applying his early youth to the barrel-making trade. Huntington expanded his education on a part time basis. By the age of twenty-seven he was admitted to the bar and commenced his law practice in Windham, Connecticut.
At thirty-three he married Martha Devotion, and although they did not have children of their own, they adopted two of Joseph Huntington’s, one of which would later become Governor of Ohio. Samuel Huntington himself was soon elected to the colonial legislature where he faithfully served for twenty-two years, or until the colonial governments were dissolved under the Articles of Confederation.
In 1775, Samuel Huntington along with Oliver Wolcott and Roger Sherman was elected as delegate to the Continental Congress where he voted for Independence in July and later signed the document in August. Described as reserved, dignified, religious, and formal, he was nonetheless respected by his peers as a representative. Samuel Huntington appended his name to the Articles of Confederation in 1778 at a time when he was presiding over Congress, making him, technically, the first President of the United States. This prestigious position was among the many other public accolades pinned to the name of Samuel Huntington. In 1783 he was appointed Chief justice of the superior court in Connecticut, and only a few years later became Lieutenant Governor, and finally Governor of Connecticut, an office he held for the remainder of his life. Governor Huntington’s last contribution to the formation of an American constitutional government was his support of the ratification of the US Constitution in 1787.
He had not the advantage of family patronage, or the benefit of a liberal education; nor did hereditary wealth lend him her aid. But he had genius, courage, and perseverance, and with the united assistance of these traits, he succeeded as a state and national leader and a wise counselor. The day before his forty-fifth birthday Samuel Huntington voted for independence, and later signed the Declaration for his state. In a letter to George Washington he verified his patriotic motives in this simple but lasting statement: “I shall always love my Country.”
He rendered services to his country, which will long be remembered with gratitude; he attained to honors with which a high ambition might have been satisfied, and, at length, went down to the grave, cheered with the prospect of a happy immortality.
Born into a family of ministers and soldiers, Williams lived his life as a perfect reflection of those great men who came before him, as he battled his foes with sword, word and pen. Growing up in a wealthy family Williams had numerous education opportunities and personal tutelage; among these achievements Williams served as an aid to his uncle, Colonel Williams, founder of Williams College. It was on the battlefield of the French and Indian War that won Williams over to objections to English rule and allegiance to the patriot cause, and forever turned his actions to the preservation of his country.
After graduating from Harvard and working as a merchant, Williams made his political debut as a town clerk in Lebanon, Connecticut in the year 1756. He would continue this public service for the next forty-five years. Known for his consistency and discipline Williams also proved his devotion to country by serving as a selectman for twenty years, as a member of the Upper House for twenty-three years and a judge for thirty-five years. In these years of public service Williams never ceased to find opportunities to speak out against British oppression. His patriotism found its highest expression at the Continental Congress.
When fellow delegate, Oliver Wolcott was unable to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence, Williams gladly substituted for him. While serving in the French and Indian war Williams developed a disgust for the British high command– on their haughty conduct and their disinterestedness for the colonies. “The impression was powerful and lasting. At that time he adopted the opinion that America would see no days of prosperity and peace, so long as British officers should manage her affairs. On the arrival of the day when the revolutionary struggle commenced, and a chance was presented of release from the British yoke, Mr. Williams was ready to engage with ardor, in bringing about this happy state of things.”
Appending his name to the Declaration seemed like a sure death warrant, especially after the proclamation by King George that condemned those who opposed British rule to punishment by death. While having dinner with a few friends Williams is reported to have said with great calmness: “Well, if they succeed, it is pretty evident what will be my fate. I have done much to prosecute the contest, and one thing I have done, which the British will never pardon — I have signed the Declaration of Independence. I shall be hung.” Williams went so far as to call out those who shirked from their patriotic duty, as men deserving to be hung.
Marrying at the age of forty-one to Mary Trumbull, they raised their five children in Lebanon. When the revolutionary struggle broke out, the whole family applied their energies and resources to the cause of freedom so far as to give up their home to house soldiers during the winter of 1781. Williams had a generous heart for his family, and his country. At one time he exchanged $2,000 of his personal money for continental currency, but lost every penny of it. He counted it a monetary contribution to the American cause.
Although Williams held nothing back in defense of his country, he lost very little because his life was built on the individual liberty that invigorated his every motive of action. The likelihood of hanging was a little price to be paid for posterity, and Williams lived as one who had done his patriotic duty. In the event, he survived until 1811. A workaholic, he serving Connecticut in many different offices and helped get the Constitution ratified in Connecticut. The brief inscription on his grave really did summarize his life: “a firm steady and ardent friend of his country, and in the darkest times risked his life and wealth in her defense.”
Home-schooled and the oldest in a family of eight children, Rodney took over the family’s eight-hundred-acre farm at the age of seventeen and helped his widowed mother train the other children until his late 20s, when he began public service. And when he began that service, he never stopped till the day he died at age fifty five. No one in the history of Delaware, to this day, has held as many offices as Caesar Rodney. It was not easy living for the patriot representative. Not only were there many Tories in the population, they may have been a majority. Rodney suffered from a cancer in his nose and face which marred his visage to such an extent, he wore a green silk veil over half his face. He suffered from asthma and gout, sometimes leaving him unable to walk. Not one to sit idle in hard times, he also commanded the Delaware patriot militia army on several occasions and rose to the rank of General.
Delaware sent Rodney to the first Continental Congress where John Adams mentioned him with only two others as “seeing more clearly to the end of this business than any others in the whole body. At least they were more candid and explicit than any other.” In 1775, his colony elected him Brigadier General and he thus had to split his time between Congress and quelling Tory uprisings at home. His integrity and “highmindedness” resulted in one of the most dramatic incidents of the Second Continental Congress.
Caesar Rodney was at home eighty miles from Philadelphia and ill. The date was June 7th, 1776 and Richard Henry Lee had introduced the famous resolution that the colonies “are, and ought to be, free and independent states…and all allegiance to the British Crown…ought to be dissolved.” Everyone understood that the vote for independence the next day, required unanimity. Each colony had one vote. Delaware was deadlocked one for one against. A rider was sent to summon Rodney, the staunch patriot. He rose from his sick bed when the messenger arrived, saddled his horse and set out through a thunderstorm, riding all night long, and arriving just as the delegates were being seated. Arm in arm with Thomas McKean, Rodney walked in and took his place. When the vote came round to Delaware, Rodney struggled to his feet and said “As I believe voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in favor of independence, and my own judgement concurs, I vote for independence.” On August 2nd, the tall, thin, odd looking Rodney signed the Declaration and, despite his sickness, “his eyes blazed with an indomitable spirit.” Like his namesake, he had crossed the Rubicon.
Rodney’s colleagues thought highly of the Delaware representative. John Adams described him as a man of “sense and fire, spirit, wit, [with] a humor in his countenance.” Following General Washington’s orders, he led the state forces against the British when they invaded Delaware. Rodney served as “President” of Delaware for several years, struggling with ill health as the cancer spread and finally took his life in 1784, less than a year after Independence had been secured. A lifelong bachelor (one of only two in the Congress) Rodney’s legacy of faithfulness and struggle for liberty were left to the memories of the people of Delaware, whom he served.
Read was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who voted against the independence resolution put forward by Richard Henry Lee in June of 1776. Other delegates abstained and others voted against the resolution, but Read, who actually desired independence but thought the resolution premature, stuck around and signed anyway. He caused a lot of drama because his vote against could have meant Delaware would not vote aye, but the last minute heroics of his colleague Caesar Rodney saved the day. Read would eventually be one of only six men who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution.
George Read was actually an ardent patriot, opposing unconstitutional taxation, supporting non-importation measures, and even raising money in the county to help the Bostonians whose attack on a tea clipper brought the wrath of the Parliamentary lion upon themselves. His principled stands likely derived from his devout Scots-Irish family and his teacher, the renowned Presbyterian pastor and scholar, Francis Alison, who also trained two other signers. At the age of seventeen he read law in Philadelphia, passed the bar at nineteen and became a close friend of John Dickenson, who later became known as “the penman of the Revolution.
With his marriage, which produced five children, Read became the brother in law of another signer, George Ross, whom he followed as Attorney General of Delaware. Serving twelve years in the Delaware general assembly, Read was easily elected to represent his colony at the Continental Congress, where he served for three years. He decided to oppose independence, as premature, but joined his colleagues after the measure passed. The dignified delegate from Delaware served his state as Governor, Judge of the Court of Appeals, Congressman, Senator, and finally Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Delaware.
Together with Thomas McKean, he wrote the Constitution of Delaware which included these words:
Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust…shall make and subscribe the following declaration, to wit: I do profess faith in God the father and in Jesus Christ, his only son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed forever more, and I do acknowledge the Holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.
George Read finished his life at the age of sixty five, “an excellent husband, a good father, indulgent master, and upright judge, a just man, and a fearless patriot.”
Born to Scots-Irish parents in Pennsylvania, Thomas M’Kean became the ultimate over-achiever in life but gained the distinction of the last signer of the Declaration of Independence. At nine he was placed under the tutelage of the Rev. Francis Allison, whose extensive knowledge of history, law, and politics, contributed much to M’Kean’s training and that of another Delaware delegate to the Continental Congress, George Read.
After finishing his basic studies, the brilliant Thomas M’Kean read law at his cousin’s law office in Delaware, passed the bar, and set up his own practice at the age of twenty-one in his home state and in New Jersey. Rising steadily and confidently M’Kean, practiced law in the courts of common pleas in the counties of Newcastle, Kent and Sussex. He served as a Sheriff, militia captain, customs collector, deputy attorney general, loan office trustee, and judge. Needless to say, M’Kean’s social standing and respect rose beyond most of his peers.
Known for his ramrod straight, six-foot frame, rakish hats, and gold-tipped cane, as well as for his self-discipline, honesty, seriousness and sometimes prickly personality, M’Kean ascended the ranks in the lower house of the Delaware legislature though he lived in Pennsylvania after 1774.
He expressed outrage at the Stamp Act and was chosen to exercise his powers of persuasion at the Stamp Act Congress, assembled in New York in 1765 as a reaction to British taxation. Because of growing tensions between the colonies and unjust taxation by Parliament most of the members of the Congress advocated petitions to rescind. Several delegates balked at sending the petitions and faced severe reprimand by the Delaware delegate.
M’Kean was an elected member of the Continental Congresses, where he served for many years. In 1776 he was chosen to participate in the draft of a document for the confederation between the colonies. In respect to a Declaration of Independence, Thomas M’Kean heartily approved. Although he claimed to have inscribed his name to the original document, the published copy did not include the name of Thomas M’Kean, for which he took the secretary to task:
My name is not in the printed journals of congress, as a party to the Declaration of Independence, and this, like an error in the first concoction, has vitiated most of the subsequent publications; and yet the fact is, that I was then a member of congress for the state of Delaware, was personally present in congress, and voted in favour of independence on the 4th of July, 1776, and signed the declaration after it had been engrossed on parchment, where my name, in my own hand writing, still appears.
It is possible he actually was not a signatory till 1781 when he became President of Congress!
While the Continental Congress was in session and in the process of presenting the Declaration of Independence to the delegates of the colonies, the two delegates representing Delaware, although friends and neighbors, Thomas M’Kean and George Read, opposed one another regarding committing their state to independence. A tie vote meant rejection of the Declaration.
Consequently, M’Kean sent word to Caesar Rodney, the third, but absent delegate, to come as soon as possible and cast his vote in favor of Independence. Immediately upon arrival of the notice, Rodney made his way to the convention. Still wearing his riding spurs he entered the convention just as the vote was about to be cast. Without even a word with his fellow delegates, Caesar Rodney completed the Delaware vote in favor for independence.
A few days after the signing, Congress ordered the Pennsylvania Associators, or militia, to march to General Washington’s aid in New Jersey. Thomas M’Kean, also a colonel of a regiment in the associated militia, led his battalion to the sounds of battle and delivered a message to the commander in chief. Under heavy fire from the enemy M’Kean “behind a smiling providence,” passed through great peril to complete his mission. In fact, with a price on his head, M’Kean continually moved his wife and eleven children away from British incursions till they found a nice cabin on the Susquehanna River, from which they had to again move when the Indians came near on the warpath.
Upon his recall, Colonel M’Kean joined the Delaware convention called to draft a constitution for the state. Already fatigued by travel, M’Kean spent the entire night drafting the state constitution himself. The next morning he presented it to the assembly, and it passed by unanimous vote.
In 1781 M’Kean was elected president of Delaware while serving simultaneously as chief justice in Pennsylvania, a post he held for a total of twenty-two years (1777-1799). One historian noted that “Thomas M’Kean was the only signer of the Declaration to be the chief executive of two States and a concurrent office-holder in two States.” For the eight years prior to his retirement in 1808, he served as Governor of Pennsylvania.
As might be expected, M’Kean also served in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, representing Pennsylvania. His presence at that momentous assembly continued his total commitment to the new nation and unrestrained service toward its success. He lived a full eighty-three years, dying in 1817. His burial in the First Presbyterian Church cemetery in Philadelphia finally provided rest for one of the most remarkable public servants in American history.
Thomas M’Kean’s comments to a friend summarized his life:
The law, sir, has been my study from my infancy, and my only profession. I have gone through the circle of office, in the legislative, executive, and judicial, departments of government; and from all my study, observation, and experience, I must declare, that from a full examination and due consideration of this system, it appears to me the best the world has yet seen.
His full name staggers the elocution of the average American: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. In his seventy six years of life, Lafayette fought for American independence and for the revolution in France, which turned against him; he was imprisoned for five years by the Austrians, refused to serve under Napoleon, and finished his long life with the restored French Republic after Napoleon’s defeat. George Washington loved him as a son and gave him command of American troops in vital roles in the War for Independence. He named his only son George Washington. General Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824 for America’s fiftieth anniversary, for what proved to be a triumphal tour like none that would ever be held for any other foreigner in the history of the country. He is buried in France under soil brought from Bunker Hill.
The Marquis was born into a family of martial heritage. His father was killed fighting the British in the Battle of Minden, others of his kin served the crown and died on fields of glorie’. It was determined the young Marquis would follow in the families noble tradition. He married at the age of seventeen to the fifteen year old Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles and the couple would remain devoted to one another till her death thirty three years later. Trained in the military arts, Lafayette was eager for battle and in love with the American cause. Silas Deane, American Ambassador to France offered a commission to the young Lafayette to join George Washington’s army. Lafayette purchased a ship to take him and other French officers to America, where Congress commissioned him Major General at the age of nineteen! He would serve without pay, the rightness of the cause was enough.
The French nobleman arrived in time for the Battle of Brandywine, nineteen years old, knowing very little English and never having heard a shot fired in anger. He was wounded helping throw back an enemy assault on the battlefield, an incident not unnoticed by the rank and file. A magnificent sycamore tree still stands next to General Lafayette’s “headquarters” near the battlefield, a mute living sentinel that witnessed the young Frenchman in his first command performance in 1777. Washington wrote to Congress asking them for a command commensurate with the Marquis de Lafayette’s rank. He describes the young Frenchman as “sensible, discreet in manners . . . and possesses a large share of bravery and military ardor.” In a practical sense, Lafayette has “important connections and [an] attachment which he has manifested toward our cause.”
Congress voted him command of the division of Virginia light infantry and within less than a year, he was promoted to lead two veteran brigades engaged at Newport. He shared the hardships of Valley Forge, backed up General Washington against the Conway Cabal, and served with distinction in the Monmouth Campaign. In 1779 the Marquis returned to France as an advocate of the American cause, helping lay the groundwork for an expeditionary force to assist General Washington. He was greeted as a hero and appointed Colonel of dragoons before returning to America the following year.
Perhaps General Lafayette’s greatest service to the American cause occurred when he was sent by General Washington with a force of regulars to face down the traitor Benedict Arnold who was leading British troops on raids throughout Virginia, chasing the Virginia General Assembly through the mountains and raising havoc on every hand. Upon hearing of Lafayette’s command, Lord Cornwallis deemed it a small thing to “trap the boy.” General Lafayette “showed his ability to as a tactician by evading the trap at the Battle of Greensprings, just outside Williamsburg, Virginia, when American General “Mad Anthony” Wayne led a successful bayonet charge in the nick of time to extricate the troops. The Marquis joined the main American army of Washington at the final denouement of Lord Cornwallis and the British fortunes around Yorktown in October of 1781.
Returning home that same year, the Marquis de Lafayette continued in military service to France and became commander of the National Guard of France in 1789. He saved the king from the Paris mob, led a 52,000 man army against Austria in 1792. When the revolution fell into the bloody hands of the Jacobins, Lafayette fled to Belgium and ended up in a Prussian prison for five years. He stayed out of politics for eighteen years after being freed in 1800.
Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824 and was feted with “demonstrations of frenzied enthusiasm without precedent or parallel” in American history. The great esteem for the boy general did not lessen with time as state after state named towns and counties after him and when American troops landed in France in 1917 to assist them in the First World War, the doughboys shouted “Lafayette we are here!” The most famous aero-squadron of that war consisted of young American fliers who preempted America’s entry into the war by forming the Lafayette Escadrille. Many of them died for France, paying a debt held for a century and a half.
If ever a man lived up to his family motto, the comte de Rochambeau was that man: “To Live and Die as a Gallant Knight.” In providential parlance, Rochambeau was the right man in the right spot at the right time, to enable the United States to win independence from Great Britain. Without his leadership, sense of protocol, experience and commitment to duty, General George Washington’s final campaign would likely have come to naught, with fatal consequences to the new Republic.
Rochambeau came into the world in Vendom, France, third son of an “ancient and honorable family.” He followed the prescribed career path of a dutiful lesser son through education by Jesuits for the church. When his elder brother died, Rochambeau’s calling changed to military service in an era which featured serial wars between France and England. In the eight year War of Austrian Secession (“King George’s War,” in America) Rochambeau commanded a Cavalry Regiment in several campaigns and was promoted to Colonel at the age of twenty two. As A.D.C. of the Duke of Orleans, he learned the ins and outs of staff work and took active parts in several more campaigns, being severely wounded several times. His promotion to Brigadier General affirmed his courage and tactical skills, his appointment as Governor, his political ones.
By 1780 Rochambeau was on the short list of Frances’ greatest generals when he accepted the command of the French expeditionary force of 7,000 infantry, cavalry and artillery sent to assist George Washington in the American War against Great Britain. His accomplished diplomatic skills (though he knew no English), personal wealth, military experience, and reputation for courage and hard-hitting combat record (attested to by his limp and many scars), made him the ideal leader alongside Washington. Rochambeau could have stood on his laurels and demanded General Washington’s compliance and deferential recognition, but he always deferred to the American commander, with respect.
He very delicately disapproved of Lafayette as liaison, and had to bear patiently the failures of his own nations’ provisioning and failure to send all the troops promised. He chafed not a bit when he saw the ragged Continental troops with whom he was allied. Calm and patient till needed, then swift and resourceful when called upon, characterized the comte de Rochambeau in America. After General Washington paraded the armies through Philadelphia in the Yorktown Campaign, the Pennsylvania Line threatened to remain behind unless paid. Rochambeau gallantly wrote a cheque (as it were) for $20,000 to Robert Morris, to cover the expenses and keep the army together.
At Yorktown the great Rochambeau showed what he was made of by expertly positioning his troops, absorbing casualties from the siege and keeping up an unwavering line on the left flank of the Allied siege works. When the British finally capitulated, General O’Hara, substituting for Lord Cornwallis, tried to present his sword to Rochambeau, who swiftly indicated George Washington as commander in chief, to whom such gifts should be made. For two great generals working together on the field of battle, neither of whom spoke the other’s language, a more perfectly choreographed and victorious partnership could hardly be imagined.
Rochambeau returned to France, much celebrated. He continued to command French armies against all her enemies, which was just about everyone, narrowly escaped execution in the “reign of terror,” and retired with all the honors such a general deserved. His service in the United States was indispensable to the creation of the Republic.
Lieutenant General des Armees Navales Francois-Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse Tilly, comte de Grasse
France did not send just anybody to aid the American cause against Great Britain. Comte de Grasse, one of France’s finest admirals not only sailed for America, but lived up to his grand titles and name, driving Britain’s fleet from the Chesapeake Bay and sealing the fate of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia in 1783. His is a name that should adorn the highest ramparts of our national edifice of heroes.
De Grasse, a younger son in a noble family, entered the Order of St. John, the Hospitallers of Crusader fame, as a page, at the age of 11. He served aboard their ships as an ensign until he entered the French navy at 19, in plenty of time to be involved in The War of Austrian Succession, better known in America as “King George’s War.” De Grasse earned his pay fighting in the Battle of Toulon in which the Spanish-French fleet routed the British, an agonizing embarrassment for the world’s foremost naval power.
As the Americans fought for their independence, France sat back to watch, hoping for the defeat of their historic enemy. American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams subtly and not so subtly beseeched Louis XVI and the French Court to come to the aid of the Americans with loans and army and naval support. In the Treaty of Alliance agreed to in 1778, France agreed to bring their forces to American aid. The comte de Rochambeau led the French army to join George Washington and the fleets of Count d’Estaing, under whom de Grasse served, sailed for the Caribbean. Throughout 1779 de Grasse distinguished himself in a round of battles in the West Indies against the fleet of Admiral Rodney.
Promoted to Admiral and given independent command, de Grasse defeated the English under Samuel Hood and captured Tobago. Those successes were but preliminary to his greatest achievement. George Washington planned to march his army, including Rochambeau’s French veterans, from the New York area to Yorktown, Virginia where Lord Charles Cornwallis had fortified his troops to await reinforcements and relief from the British fleet. De Grasse informed Washington that if he moved within a certain window of time, the French fleet might be able to intercept the British relief forces before they could get to Yorktown.
As Providence would have it, de Grasse with twenty-eight ships of the line, was able to land 3,200 troops to assist Washington, then set upon the British fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. In a running gunfight known as the Battle of the Capes, de Grasse’s ships blazed away at the nineteen ships of the line that Admiral Graves was able to bring into line of battle. Both sides took casualties but, in the end, the British fleet got the worst of it and drifted away from the Bay and returned to New York.
Yorktown fell to Washington’s army but he gave full credit to de Grasse, for without him, the result could have been wildly different. De Grasse returned to the West Indies, where he not only lost a battle but was captured by the British. While a prisoner in London, he was sent to be part of the negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Paris and the end of the war. The Memorial at Cape Henry in Virginia extols the triumph of de Grasse in the Battle of the Virginia Capes, without which, American Independence might not have been secured.
The colony farthest from Philadelphia, least populated, and with a largely loyalist population, Georgia nonetheless possessed some dedicated opponents to the crown. As the patriot cause grew, the leaders of the rebellion prevailed upon businessman Button Gwinnett to throw in his lot with them. Someone saw something in Gwinnett that indicated he might be a useful leader in the nascent independence movement. Like the other founders, Gwinnett possessed character flaws and had a sometimes chequered past, but his commitment to liberty won him the trip to Philadelphia to represent Georgia in the building of a new nation.
Gwinnett was English born, son of a Welsh parson. After little business success in England, he received financial backing for an export business to South Carolina, which ultimately failed. Seeking a fresh start in Georgia he overreached financially by purchasing an island upon which he constructed a plantation. Crop failure dogged his steps and the creditors took his property, leaving him only the house for him and his family. Like other conservatives of his social status, he at first proved reluctant to back the rebellion. Gwinnett changed his mind as friends argued for independence and with rhetorical flourish argued for the cause of liberty.
The Georgian rebels appointed Gwinnett to the Continental Congress where he became signatory to the Declaration of Independence, falling under the sway of men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Upon his return to Georgia, Gwinnett helped write the constitution for his newly independent state as a member of the legislature, and as providence afforded, accepted the position of interim governor. The Georgia legislature appointed a veteran soldier, General Lachlan McIntosh, commander of the state forces, with whom the quick-tempered Gwinnett quarreled over strategy and position. A man of action, the governor himself led an attempt to attack the British in Florida, outmaneuvered the Executive Council of McIntosh supporters, and accused the General’s brother of treason. The legislature refused to appoint Gwinnett as Georgia’s official governor, for which he was publically mocked by General McIntosh, calling him a “scoundrel and a lying rascal.”
Given the temper of the times, the paramount value of personal honor, and the acceptability of the code duello, Button Gwinnett challenged the crack-shot General to a duel with pistols. They and their seconds met outside Savannah in early morning. Although they both fired low to wound in the leg, Gwinnett’s wound proved mortal as he lingered in agony for several days before gangrene set in and finished him off, at about the age of 40.
Signing the Declaration of Independence, in a way, immortalized Button Gwinnett—the most successful accomplishment of his short life. One thing that the Georgia signer apparently failed to do very often in his lifetime was sign his name to anything other than promissory notes. In the world of philography, the collecting of autographs, Button Gwinnett is one of the rarest and most expensive in the world. It has come up for auction just a few times per century and now fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. He would likely be pleased to know that counterfeiting his signature has become an art form.
Few of the signers had a rags to riches life. Not so Walton who, In God’s good providence, did not settle into his state as an orphan and carpenter’s apprentice, but through relentless reading as an autodidact, hard physical labor, and a deep thirst for knowledge overcame his early handicaps to play a key role in leading Georgia to independence.
Born in Farmville, Virginia, George was soon orphaned and raised by an aunt and uncle. One account has him gathering wood chips to burn for enough light to read by after work hours. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, he moved on his own to Georgia to read law in the office of a Mr. Young, passing the bar in 1774. Although his wife’s family were firmly in the Tory camp and most of his Savannah neighbors were neutral or antagonistic to the cause of independence, George sought out men who had his convictions for constitutional liberties that he believed were being lost in other colonies.
George Walton signed his name to a newspaper notice calling upon the citizens of Savannah to join him at the Liberty Pole at Tondee’s tavern to discuss how to help the Bostonians. A committee of correspondence was organized with Walton as one of chief leaders. As secretary of the new Provincial Congress, he was selected to join the two fellow Georgians at the Second Continental Congress, taking his seat in time to vote for independence and sign the Declaration. When the Congress fled Philadelphia in expectation of British capture, Walton stayed behind with Robert Clymer and Robert Morris to carry out the executive functions of the Congress. The former apprentice-boy had become one of the most respected members of Congress and entrusted with high responsibility in a dangerous time.
Walton returned to Georgia in 1778 to serve as a militia colonel in the state forces. In the Battle of Savannah, he was shot off his horse and captured by the redcoats. They permitted private treatment of his wound while in captivity, which lasted a year before he was exchanged for a captured naval captain. Only a few of the signers actually fought in the war and George Walton was the only one wounded in battle.
Upon his release from prison, Walton was elected Governor of Georgia, a post he would hold more than once in his life. He served two more years in the Continental Congress before appointment as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, having served only two years as a lawyer. A man noted for his wisdom, perseverance, and honesty, and who was not afraid to lead men to battle, Walton served a term in the United States Senate and when he died in 1804 was serving as Judge of the Superior Court of Georgia.
Upon his death a contemporary wrote that “Judge Walton was universally beloved by those who knew him intimately. And the carpenter’s apprentice became the most exalted citizen of the Commonwealth in which he resided. Even at this late day the remembrance of his services and exalted character, is fresh in the hearts of the people.”
Connecticut born and bred, Yale educated, Hall joined others of the New England diaspora that migrated south looking for new economic opportunities in colonies with more temperate climate, more scattered population and potential opportunity for public service. Hall ended up in St. John’s Parish in coastal Georgia among others of New England patrimony, but surrounded by counties loyal to the crown and disinterested in rebellion or independence.
Hall’s education aimed at the Gospel ministry and to that end he actually acceded for a while. Deciding that the church was not his calling after all, the Connecticut native settled on medicine as his new pursuit.
Newly married to his second wife and with one child Hall headed south to the Carolinas and then to Georgia, where he established a successful medical practice and farm among the malarial lowlands of the Midway district.
Having been educated in the independent-minded, liberty loving New England intellectual soil, the encroachments of the Parliament and King on the constitutional privileges of the colonies inspired Lyman Hall to loudly protest to his neighbors and colony, advocating boycotts and non-importation. His infectious rhetoric appealed to his neighbors but not to the denizens of neighboring counties. It appeared his colony would ignore the rebelliousness of those to the north, so Hall appealed to his own county to send him to the First Continental Congress, where he arrived as a representative of only one county in Georgia. He was given non-voting recognition—a minister without portfolio.
Others in the southernmost county, in the meantime, attracted enough discontented Georgians to send several other representatives to the Second Continental Congress to join the outspoken and dedicated patriot, Hall. While serving in Congress during the war, his plantations were ravaged by the British in 1778. He brought his family up to weather the storms in Connecticut while he continued to serve in Congress till 1780. When the British evacuated Savannah in 1782, Lyman Hall returned to Georgia to try and recoup his fortune which he had pledged and lost.
With his formidable intellect and dedicated service in the Congress on his resume’, Lyman Hall returned to Georgia where he was elected Governor for a term and later served as a legislator, judge, and trustee of Franklin College, which eventually became the University of Georgia.
John Adams recorded that when Lyman Hall and Button Gwinnett joined the Congress, they were “a powerful addition to our phalanx.” Without Hall’s singular early dedication to the cause, and his willingness to go it alone on behalf of reluctant Georgians, perhaps that state would have ended up missing from the battle for independence altogether.
When Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of American Independence, he was both the wealthiest man in the United States and the only important founder who adhered to a church whose members did not have the right to vote! The Providential Liberty in store for generations of future Americans emanated from the life of the man who had the most to lose, when he pledged his life, his property, and his sacred honor.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton entered life in September of 1737 as the son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and Elizabeth Brooke. His brilliant but wily father refused to marry his mother until Carrollton reached an age that he could take care of the fortune that would be left him, for Charles Carroll of Annapolis was the second wealthiest man in Maryland and did not want to risk his wife carrying his fortune into another family if he died prematurely! Carrollton, as the son of Charles of Annapolis was called, never actually lived at Carrollton, but in Annapolis and Baltimore, other homes they owned!
Young Charles’s early years were spent with his mother at Doughoregan Manor, near Elk Ridge, outside Baltimore. A small army of slaves attended their wants and were his only companions as he was raised in virtual isolation from other white children. Because Roman Catholics in Maryland suffered the legal restrictions that the Protestant establishment imposed, Chares of Annapolis could not vote nor hold political position, only “make money and spend it.” He was, according to his son “a man of activity, thought, perseverance, and economy” and he amassed an enormous fortune through trade.
There were no legal Catholic institutions of education in America so Charles was sent to a secret Jesuit academy in a remote part of the colony at the age of ten. From there he sailed to Flanders to attend the elite English-speaking Roman Catholic College/Seminary, known as St. Omers. Charles Carroll’s European education exposed him to both the classic Roman Catholic theology of Thomas Aquinas and natural law and the Enlightenment thinking of the French philosophes like Voltaire and Rousseau and the British philosophers Gibbon, Hume, and Locke. He especially admired Montesquieu and the idea of popular sovereignty. Few of the Founding Fathers of the United States received such a powerful and thorough education or could have distilled the world of ideas into a profound love of liberty and practical application in the new republic, as did Carroll of Carrollton.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton believed by 1764 that America “must and will be independent.” No other major Founding Father is known to have believed or contemplated separation from the mother country that early. In fact, several, perhaps many, held out hopes of remaining within the fold of the empire until mere days before they signed the Declaration of Independence. Carrollton’s leadership came to the fore in the Stamp Act Crisis.
Seeking ways to finance the doubling of the size of their empire by way of the victory over France in the Seven Years War, Parliament came up with various schemes of “revenue enhancement.” The Stamp Act got the most widespread negative reaction in the colonies. Consumers were suddenly required to purchase stamps on a variety of products, from playing cards to official documents. Many colonists saw such a tax as a violation of their rights as Englishmen and as a violation of their colonial charters. Incensed by what he considered an assault on liberty, Charles Carroll of Carrollton called for a boycott of English goods and refusal to pay the tax. He considered America “the new empire of liberty,” and warned that “liberty will maintain her empire, till a dissoluteness of morals, luxury and venality shall have prepared the degenerate sons of some future age, to prefer their own mean lucre, the bribes, and the smiles of corruption and arbitrary ministers, to patriotism, to glory, and to the public weal.”
By the time of the Tea Act in 1773, Carrollton was firmly in the anti-royalist camp against the Governor. When Parliament engineered the tax on tea, many people of Maryland looked to Carrollton for leadership. The Patriots organized a Committee of Correspondence to keep in touch with Massachusetts and other colonies, with Carrollton one of the leaders of the “conservative” party. Marylanders declared non-importation and no tea tax payments.
Under Carrollton’s leadership Maryland declared independence from Great Britain in June of 1776. Charles Carroll was drafted to write the declaration, which diverged from Jefferson’s effort on behalf of all the states; the Marylander stressed natural law and overtly referred to God in the document. On 4 July 1776, Carrollton was chosen to be a delegate to the Congress and thus became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. When asked by the President, John Hancock, if he would sign, he responded “most willingly.” Someone nearby commented “there go a few millions.” John Adams would later say of Carrollton: “In the cause of American liberty, his zeal, fortitude and perseverance have been so conspicuous that he is said to be marked out for peculiar vengeance by the friends of Administration; but he continues to hazard his all, his immense fortune, the largest in America, and his life.” Although Roman Catholics still did not have full religious and political rights, Carroll persevered in his total allegiance to independence and hoped that through persuasion and good example he would be able to help his religious cause even more. One out of twelve Marylanders were Catholic and nearly all went over to the patriot cause due to Carrollton’s influence.
Carrollton died in his sleep on November 14th, 1832 at age 95, and was mourned across the political spectrum. He was buried in the chapel at Doughoregan Manor where he spent his lonely boyhood. It is still owned by his descendants. As one of his biographers has noted that the “tableau placed over his tomb had thirteen stars, above them all was the cross.”
Born on April 17, 1741 in Somerset County, Maryland, Samuel was the only child of the Reverend Thomas Chase and Matilda Walker Chase. Since his mother died in childbirth, his Episcopalian pastor father raised the boy who would later sign the Declaration of Independence.
After studying law under a local attorney, Sam was admitted to the bar at the age of 20, and soon after married Anne Baldwin, with whom he had six children.
At the age of 23, Chase was elected to represent Maryland in the Continental Congress. His political beliefs were more progressive and liberal than his fellow congressmen. Some of the laws he helped to pass were in direct opposition of the royal governor, one of which was to cut the income of the clergy, a move that greatly affected his father’s occupation. The fiercely independent Maryland patriot also helped to instigate an angry mob after the Stamp Act was passed.
Long before most delegates even conceived of independence, Chase was a vocal advocate for succession, going so far as to say, “by the God of heaven I owe no allegiance to the king of Great Britain.” Along with Benjamin Franklin, Charles Carrol, and John Carrol, Chase traveled to Canada to persuade sympathizers to join the colonies. After unsuccessfully encouraging support, they returned to congress to find the representatives in a heated debate over independence.
Instead of acting as a passive representative, Chase was active in his role and duty to his patriotic cause. At once, Chase set off going door to door, making public speeches, earnestly persisting citizens to write their congressmen persuading them to vote for independence. Later Samuel wrote to John Adams, “the people have fire, if it is not smothered.” He returned shortly to vote for independence on July 2, 1776 and sign the Declaration of Independence a month later.
William Ellery, the delegate from Rhode Island, remarked, “Unlike the calm deliberation of the majority of the signers, Chase wrote his name as though he wished the ink were pure venom that could somehow bring death to King George.”
Chase continued to serve in congress until 1778, when he had to return home to care for his children after his wife died. Back in Maryland, Chase happened to attend a debate where the young pharmacy apprentice William Pinkney spoke. After hearing the young apprentice speak and knowing that he was too poor to afford law school, Chase took Pinkney under his wing by funding his law studies to further develop his potential. William Pinkney later became a U.S Representative, diplomat, attorney general, and senator, only by the generosity of Samuel Chase.
Chase continued to practice law, until in 1788 he was appointed judge of criminal court in Baltimore. Nearly eight years later, George Washington appointed Chase to the Supreme Court. Interestingly enough, Chase became the only Supreme Court judge to be impeached. As a Federalist, Chase believed in a strong central government. President Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Republicans, disliked the idea of judges being appointed for life. He feared that under such a system, the judiciary might become too powerful. When Samuel Chase expressed Federalist opinions from the bench, Jefferson encouraged the House of Representatives to impeach him.
Although Chase did not commit any crime, save from voicing an unpopular opinion, he was impeached for his beliefs. His trial established the Judicial Review, which is the Court’s power to void legislation it deems unconstitutional, a power that makes the judiciary one of the three primary branches of the federal government (the other two branches being Congress and the president). Later, he was acquitted. However, the damage was done. Like many of the signers, Chase also suffered from intense gout, a cripplingly painful disease. Shortly after his seventieth birthday he died.
Primogeniture was alive and well in the colonies as many of the signers of Declaration of Independence could affirm. Although raised in a family of means and given a good education, not every younger son took advantage. Thomas Stone did. Riding many miles to school each day, Stone’s intellectual acumen combined with his stern self-discipline to impel him, like so many of his political colleagues then and now, into the study of law and service at the bar.
He borrowed the money to study law under Thomas Johnson, a fortuitous decision as Johnson was rising through the ranks to become Maryland’s first state governor. He established a practice in Charles County, Maryland near Port Tobacco, where he had met and married Margaret Brown. With her substantial dowry, he built his estate “Habre-de-Venture” and raised three children there.
His neighbors thought highly of Stone and elected him to the Continental Congress. He served on the county committee of correspondence to keep abreast of the news from the other colonies and keep his own community informed of British intentions. A man of patriotic sentiment, but conservative instincts, Thomas hoped for reconciliation with the Mother Country. He had contended in a court case prosecuting a local patriot who refused to pay taxes in support of the local Anglican clergy but lost the case against fellow attornys who would end up as fellow signers of the Declaration of Independence.
When the Congress addressed Richard Henry Lee’s proposition to declare autonomy from Britain, some thought the quiet man from eastern Maryland might vote in opposition—certainly many of his constituents counselled caution. When the time to vote arrived, however, Thomas Stone voted Yea for the proposition and Maryland “went out.” He played a key role on the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation and he continued serving in the Maryland Senate. Returning to the Congress in 1783, he even served briefly as President.
Although he was elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Thomas’s beloved wife died, an event that crushed his spirit and his health. She had been inoculated for smallpox ten years earlier and had been ill ever since. She succumbed in June of ’87. Stone became so disconsolate that he gave up his law practice and politics and finally heeded the advice of friends to visit Europe. While waiting for the boat in Alexandria, Virginia, the signer from Maryland dropped dead at age forty four, some said of a broken heart.
Some historians see William Paca as primarily a wealthy lovable rogue. He certainly was wealthy, another lawyer, born to a family of substantial means. He was lovable though more quiet than boisterous. And he hung out with young men of his ilk and pulled some memorable patriotic pranks. His colleague in the Continental Congress Benjamin Rush commented on Paca that he was a “good-tempered worthy man with a sound understanding that he was too indolent to exercise. And hence his reputation in public life was less than his talents.”
William Paca, the second son of a Maryland planter, learned from private tutors prior to attending the College of Philadelphia (later U. Penn). He studied law in Annapolis and read law at the “Inner Temple” in London. He spent time with his friend Samuel Chase, the two of them teaming up to establish the Ann Arundal Sons of Liberty and joining the Maryland Committee of Correspondence to keep in close contact with the other colonies. The two of them staged a mock execution of an unpopular law that the royal governor decreed. They hanged a sheet of paper with the new law, until dead, then ceremoniously buried it and fired a gun from one of Paca’s ships. Of such men the Republic was about to be born.
He served for four years in the Maryland assembly and was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774, where he served for five years. Paca voted for independence after the go-ahead from the Annapolis Convention, and signed the document with most of the rest of the delegates at a later date. He specialized in writing trenchant newspaper articles over fiery public speeches and was “beloved and respected by all…as a sincere patriot and honest man.”
Paca joined his friend and fellow Declaration signer, Charles Carroll of Carrollton in supporting religious liberty in Maryland and in the new Republic. His service to Maryland, in fact, became one of his greatest legacies, as a member of the state Senate, the circuit court of appeals, and as Governor of Maryland. He married twice and had six children, half of whom died in infancy. Both of his spouses died young as well.
He ended his days serving as a Federal judge at the age of fifty eight, the same year as the death of Washington, 1799. He was buried with honors at his beautiful estate, Wye River on the Maryland Eastern Shore, his youthful peccadillos all but forgotten but nonetheless fondly remembered as a patriot and public servant with few peers.
As the third of twelve children from Marblehead, short and stuttering, Elbridge would take a back seat to no one. After graduating from Harvard in 1662, where in his Master’s address he argued for American resistance to the Stamp Act, he joined his father’s cod-fishing business and “amassed a considerable fortune.” Proving himself as a community leader led to election to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1773 and to a close friendship with John Adams and connection to various political action groups of the colony.
On the night the Redcoats went after Samuel Adams and John Hancock, Gerry sent them a letter expressing his apprehensions for their safety. As a member of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, he himself fled and spent the night in a cornfield. The soldiers searched his house but took none of his belongings. Gerry was asked to find gunpowder for the soldiers besieging Boston, much of which he paid for with his own money that was never reimbursed.
Gerry’s service in the Continental Congresses was long and distinguished. He possessed a particular interest in military affairs and was constantly trying to get more money and supplies to General Washington. His wealth and influence were such that opponents quailed when he took to the floor to denounce a cause which he did not support. Some believed he voted against everything that he himself did not propose! He happily signed the Declaration of Independence, believing it was “the crowning achievement of his life.”
Elbridge Gerry resigned from Congress to return to his businesses and his ten children though he would continue to serve in various other capacities in Commonwealth and Country in the future. He was appointed to represent Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention, having signed the Articles of Confederation years before. He made occasional hostile remarks and angered some of his colleagues with his rhetoric and in the end decided not to sign the new national instrument of law because of its lack of a Bill of Rights.
Gerry served a couple terms in Congress before being sent by President John Adams to settle a dispute with France over impressment and high seas skullduggery perpetrated by the French navy. In the event, Tallyrand, the French foreign minister, sought to bribe the American commissioners in what became known as the XYZ Affair. Because he stayed on in France another year after his insulted colleagues had sailed for home, Gerry was reprimanded for looking like a French patsy.
Upon his return, the Massachusetts cod magnate switched parties, affiliating himself with Thomas Jefferson’s crew. He failed three times before being elected Governor, but then pulled a stunt for which he is most remembered—he redrew the senate boundaries in his state to favor his own party, a feat for which such commonplace action today is known as Gerrymandering.
He died serving as Vice-president of the United States under James Madison. Having spent his fortune on “high living and a flashy political life,” he left his family impoverished. Even with his various character flaws and bad decisions, he was not ill-thought of by his peers at his death. He had lived out the motto carved on his tomb: “It is the duty of every citizen, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country.”
Son and grandson of Congregational ministers, the Treats and the Paines, gave this signer of the Declaration of Independence a theological bent which he pursued early in life. Born in 1731 and educated at both Boston Latin and Harvard, Paine’s uncertainty of his calling in life resulted in pursuing a position as a teacher, then as a pastor, in which capacity he served as a military chaplain in the French and Indian War. Still uncertain, Robert took to the sea, traveling to a number of foreign ports and even serving on a whaling vessel near Greenland. Upon his return home, Paine unexpectedly married his friend Sally Cobb who eventually bore him eight children. He finally settled on law as his life’s work. As providence would have it, in 1770 Robert Treat Paine found himself the prosecuting attorney in the “Boston Massacre” case.
The British soldiers accused of murder were ably defended by Attorney John Adams; he ran roughshod over the arguments of Paine and persuaded the jury to acquit most of the accused and convict two only of manslaughter. Although the loser in the trial, Robert Treat Paine basked in his new celebrity status as a defender of the people and opponent of tyranny. Paine rode his newfound fame to a seat in the legislature and to both Continental Congresses. All agreed that the amiable raconteur was a reluctant secessionist; he opposed so many proposals he became known as the “objection maker.” Although a friend of John Hancock, his reluctance to pursue independence strained even further his relationship with the two Adams. Nonetheless, he signed the Declaration in August of 1776.
Paine presented no new ideas in the Congress and his cantankerous ways elicited this comment from Benjamin Rush: “He had a certain obliquity of understanding which prevented his seeing public objects in the same light in which they were seen by other people.” Paine served on many congressional committees and retained his popularity in Massachusetts as evidenced by holding various offices there, such as attorney general, member of the legislature and a delegate to the convention that drew up the new state constitution.
As happened to John Adams family, one of Paine’s sons, his namesake in fact, overindulged alcohol and lived a life disapproved by his father. Along with service as a lawyer, Junior wrote poetry, married an actress (considered tantamount to marrying a prostitute), and gambled away his income. He died in his parent’s attic at the age of thirty seven.
Robert Treat Paine continued his public service till overtaken by deafness. As a judge he had a reputation for moral rectitude and Christian compassion, but never losing his wittiness nor combativeness, from the bench. Paine died at eighty three and is buried in the “Old Granary” Cemetery near Boston Commons, just a few feet away from his boyhood friends and classmates John Hancock and Samuel Adams, with whom he helped create a new nation.
Orphan, merchant, multi-millionaire, philanthropist, smuggler, President of the United States, snappy dresser and great hand-writer, John Hancock almost stands forth as a modern politician. Vain to a fault but generous beyond all others, unlike most modern politicians he was willing to hazard his considerable fortune, actually possessed sacred honor, and was sincere in pledging them with his life for the cause of liberty and for the generations to come. His signal offenses to the British put him beyond the pale of any possible raprochement or amnesty. He and his friend and colleague Sam Adams would “hang together or hang separately” in Franklin’s apt phrase.
The providence of tragedy, the death of his parents when he was only seven, made possible the circumstances that would propel Hancock to greatness. John was raised by his rich uncle and when he died, was left with a huge fortune and shipping business. Because of his Uncle Thomas, Hancock also received the best education in the colonies, at both Boston Latin and Harvard, and took his place among the yankee elites of New England. As colonial rights eroded in the 1770s, Hancock threw in his lot with the resistance movement, putting his own merchant fleet in jeopardy.
The “dapper and small” high roller responded to what he considered illegal taxation and onerous trade laws by free enterprise, called “smuggling” by the British. Hancock became a leader of the resistance to a level that they put a price on his head and excluded him from offers of amnesty. He traveled to various safe houses in the country when the redcoats came after him, and was one step ahead of them when they showed up on Lexington green looking for him and Samuel Adams. The war began there, when the Minutemen took their stand.
Hancock represented Massachusetts at the Continental Congress and was elected President of that august body. He served there for two years, trying to keep the peace among quarrelling disagreeable legislators from thirteen colonies. He and the secretary were the only ones to sign the Declaration of Independence on the fourth of July, before it went to the printer. He signed boldly then dared the crown to double the price on his head. Hancock apparently harbored a desire to lead the colonial troops and was somewhat disappointed when his colleague John Adams proposed George Washington—but it all worked out for the best. Though he resigned as President in 1777 he remained in Congress for three more years as a delegate.
John Hancock returned home to Massachusetts and his wife and two children, where he served a short time as a Major General. He was elected Governor of the Commonwealth, a position in which he served for most of the rest of his life. Hancock was a man of ill health for much of his later life and finally succumbed to his troubles in 1793 at age fifty five. Uncharacteristically, he requested a quiet unobtrusive funeral but the people of Boston would have none of it and held a funeral procession rarely equalled for pomp and circumstance in the history of the state. No doubt the diminutive patriot would have actually been delighted. He lived a life as bold and ostentatious as his signature, but with a passion to help others for “charity was the business of his life.”
Honest, Forthright, Pretinacious
John Adams, a man whose greatest loves were family and farming, understood he was a branch on a tree planted by his forebearers, which rooted in soil enriched by the Protestant Reformation, a love of liberty, and respect for law, order, and hard work. When the mother country began substituting tyranny, abandoning centuries of legal precedent, and issuing demands for taxation without jurisdiction, Adams took up his pen, loosened his sharp tongue, and went to war in defense of his sacred trusts. Evaluating John Adams without considering his sense of history and right would be to describe the Alps without mentioning the Matterhorn.
Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, where five generations of Adams had been born, hung their hats in the Congregationalist Church, and farmed the land. Showing itellectual promise as a child, John Adams matriculated at Harvard at the age of sixteen, taught school a few years and then entered the legal profession. Although he abandoned the orthodox Christianity of his fathers, he retained an appreciation for their steady virtues and love of the land and liberty.
John Adams came to prominence in Boston with his studied opposition to the Stamp Act, an inexpensive but unconstitutional tax. James Otis had inspired his previous opposition to Writs of Assistance, open-ended search warrants, and now his glib tongue joined in the resistance to unjust taxation. Adams personality tended toward the acerbic and cynical, if not “flinty” New England type, which won him few friends. When he agreed to defend the British soldiers accused of the “Boston Massacre,” realizing the dangers of mob action and the likelihood of justice becoming a casualty also, the burgeoning patriots looked on in astonishment as he won the case in a much publicized jury trial. Principle always trumped popularity or pragmatism with John Adams.
The colony sent him to both the First and Second Continental Congresses and the contributions he made there to independence defy hyperbole. While in Philadelphia, the British attacks on Lexington and Concord signaled the beginning of hostilities and Adams wisely proposed that George Washington take command in Massachusetts, signifying the unity of the colonies and recognizing both the General’s talents and Virginia’s key role in any future united government. The other congressmen turned to John Adams for advice in framing their state constitutions, for no one had given more study to their English heritage and rights.
Adams advocated independence early on and was quick to second Richard Henry Lee’s call for a Declaration of Independence. The delegates turned to Adams and Thomas Jefferson and several others to craft the document. The Massachusetts Congressman insisted on Jefferson’s drafting the instrument which Adams could help modify in due time, another strategically wise decision. Congress sent Adams to France, Puritan in Babylon, to help Benjamin Franklin. Adams took his son John Quincy with him, experience the young man would build upon until his own presidency in the 19th Century. John and his beloved wife Abigail, “Dear Heart,” corresponded throughout the years of separation, letters which are still available for all to read. They reveal a powerful and loving husband and wife relationship that has given historians intimate knowledge of a marriage, unavailable concerning any other Founders.
After independence, Adams served as the first Vice President and second President. Although estranged from his closest confidant among the signers, Thomas Jefferson, they reconstructed their relationship in later years; their correspondence lasted until both died on the same day, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The “Massachusetts malcontent” stands in the very first rank of men whose efforts brought about independence. He became known in America as “the father of American independence” and “the father of the Revolution.” Thomas Jefferson called him “truly the Man of the Revolution.” Samuel, like his cousin John, has been the subject of myth-making and misunderstanding by historians, but his contemporaries had no doubts about the reality of his convictions and zeal for the cause of independence.
A staunch Calvinist and descendent of pilgrims, Adams grew up in a modestly prosperous household. His father served in the Colonial legislature, oversaw a profitable brewery, and raised Samuel to take his place among the educated elites of Massachusetts. Although attempting several business ventures, including the inherited brewery, after education at Harvard, Adams’s real interests lay in rhetorical defense of colonial constitutional liberties and resistance to taxation by Parliament. Not as brilliant as his cousin nor as articulate in print as Jefferson, Samuel Adams could be found in the pubs, homes, and halls of Boston zealously arguing for Colonial rights and motivating others to join the boycotts, petitions, and protests. His language was tempered by his Christian faith and his speeches stopped short of demanding independence till British violence forced his hand.
After rejecting several British attempts of monetary bribery to stop his rabble-rousing diatribes, Adams’s activity became so notorious that the Red-coated occupiers sent patrols out to find him and his fellow patriot John Hancock. The search for them in Lexington led to the first armed confrontation and the “shot heard round the world.” Because his constant political activity took so much of his time, various friends, like Hancock, helped him out financially or his family might have gone begging after he used up most of his patrimony. Men in a hurry, like Samuel Adams, sometimes are neglectful of other duties. Friends bought him a new suit of clothes to wear in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress so he would not look so shabby next to the aristocratic and fashionable rebels possessed of more sartorial self-consciousness.
At the Congress, Adams continued to labor “both by night and by day, with a zeal which was scarcely interrupted, and with an energy that knew no fatigue.” His ever observant and perspicacious cousin wrote that Samuel was “born and tempered with a wedge of steel to split the knot which tied North America to Great Britain.” He seconded John’s nomination of George Washington as military commander. Samuel’s signature on the Declaration of Independence was the culmination of the first fifty three years of his life. But he wasn’t finished.
He persevered in Congress when others faltered or abandoned their place when military fortunes were at a low ebb. He believed that though the Constitution “carried the face of the most exalted freedom,” if the people were “vicious or debauched in manners” Americans would become the most “abject slaves.” In a letter to John Adams he explained his vision for the maintenance of the Republic:
Let ministers and philosophers, statesmen, and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls—of inculcating in the minds of youth—the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government . . .and in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.
He retired from Congress in 1781 to enter the Massachusetts state senate where he and cousin John helped write the state Constitution, which stated that “all persons elected must make and subscribe the following declaration, vis. ‘“I do declare that I believe the Christian religion and have firm persuasion of its truth.’” It is no surprise that with his understanding of man’s inherent sinful and fickle nature, that Adams opposed the Constitution during the ratification period until the opposition promised the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. He served as state governor, a faithful servant in that office from 1794 till his death in 1803 at the age of eighty two. He is buried in the Old Granary Cemetery near Boston Commons, with two other signers of the Declaration, known more today for his connection with his father’s brewery than that “for fifty years his pen his tongue, his activity, were constantly exerted for his country without fee or reward.”
If there is a lost founding father, he is James Otis. John Adams said of him that his arguments against unjust laws were “a flame of fire. . .a profusion of legal authorities” and that he “never knew a man whose love of country was more ardent or sincere, never one who suffered so much, never one whose service for any ten years of his life were so important and essential.” Yet his name does not appear on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. He did not fight in the War for Independence, though his brothers, cousins and brother-in-law did. James Otis, nonetheless, was instrumental in bringing about the birth of a new nation.
James Otis came to the attention of the Massachusetts patriots in 1761 when he argued in court against the British issuance of “writs of assistance.” The French and Indian War (1756-1763) cost Britain enormous sums of money but doubled the size of its North American empire. In order to finance the conflict, refill the coffers, and pay for redcoat garrisons in the colonies, the Parliament cracked down on violators of the mercantile laws that Americans were so adept at avoiding. In order to help catch smugglers and tax evaders, they issued writs of assistance, general search warrants, that allowed home invasion by government officials without giving a reason, with no notice, and not even stated probable cause. The fiery Otis, though a government official himself, recognized the laws as violations of the almost sacred Magna Carta, British Common Law, and the laws of the colony itself and agreed to represent local merchants. Although he could not stop Parliament’s enforcement, Otis’s arguments eventually resulted in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requiring proper search warrants, some twenty eight years after his forthright stand in the courts.
Otis published four tracts protesting British tax measures and he led the Stamp Act Congress, America’s first inter-colonial congress. Otis showed signs of mental illness periodically throughout his life and on one occasion he was attacked by a tax collector who brained him with a cudgel, a blow from which he never fully recovered. In his latter years he lived with his widowed sister Mercy Otis Warren, who penned a highly regarded history of the times, and lost her husband, General Joseph Warren, killed at Bunker Hill. Because of his health issues, Otis did not join the front ranks of the better known founders, but his zeal for the cause and powerful arguments against British tyranny inspired his contemporaries to freedom and independence.
Otis mentioned once to his sister that he wanted God to take him away in a swift and dramatic fashion. He was struck by lighting at the age of 58, never living to enjoy the fruits of his labors in an independent and free country. He is buried in the Old Granary Cemetery near Boston Commons awaiting Judgment Day alongside his friends Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine, signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The third of thirteen children of Apollos DeRevoire, a French Huguenot silversmith from the Isle of Guernsey, Paul followed in his father’s craftsman footsteps. In the years leading up to Independence, throughout the war, and deep into the “Federal Period,” Paul Revere probably accomplished more in life than any two others of the founding fathers. Yet, he would be a relatively unknown figure had not the New England poet William Wordsworth immortalized him in a poem in 1863, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
As one among many silversmiths in Boston, Revere never confined himself to one trade, nor gain satisfaction from a single role in the rebellion against the Mother Country. He engraved portraits, wrote biting political cartoons, and crafted seals, bookplates, coats of arms, and manufactured dental devices. As the leader of the “mechanic class” of Boston, he came in contact with the lawyers, doctors, and merchants who would cast off what they considered the red-coated tyranny. As a good friend to Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Joseph Warren, Revere served as an organizer and courier for the Sons of Liberty and dressed as an Indian in the “Tea Party” raid, no doubt an act that fooled no one as to his identity. Although he circulated among the British officers socially, they tried but could never prove his complicity in the underground resistance, until it was too late.
Paul Revere was a magnificent horseman and proved his speed and prowess many times over. Beside his famous “midnight ride” to warn Hancock and Adams in Lexington, he made a mid-winter ride to inform the New York Sons of Liberty regarding the Boston Tea party and to Philadelphia and New York City to inform his fellow rebels of the Boston Port Bill. As the official courier and liaison of the Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress to the Continental Congress, Revere kept contact with the men who were building the Republic. Even as his name was being mentioned in dispatches to the London papers, he was riding to warn Concord militia to hide their powder and to Durham to warn General Sullivan of a British move against Fort William and Mary. He printed the first issue of Continental currency and set up a gunpowder production plant in Canton, Massachusetts. He designed the official state seal used today in his home state.
Revere rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Massachusetts’ militia during the war and served in the disastrous Penobscot expedition in 1779. He was acquitted of charges by the commander of that fiasco who was likely seeking a scapegoat for the fiasco he himself created. If the British thought that capturing or killing Paul Revere would put an end to such a rascal, Revere’s sixteen children were available to pick up where he left off. As providence afforded, he survived the war and prospered in the aftermath in his silver trade as well as casting bells and cannons, and supplying bolts, spikes, pumps and copper accessories to the fledgling United States Navy, in particular, the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides.”
“The quaint figure of the aged silversmith, who persisted in wearing the costumes of Revolutionary days throughout his life, was long a familiar one on the streets of Boston.” He continued active in civic affairs, dressed in his cocked hat and knee breeches; he is credited as the decisive influence in the successful ratification of the Constitution by his state. He died at the age of eighty three, full of years, and surrounded by a small army of fifty grandchildren.
More a founding son than a father, Adams would live well into the 19th Century, the most brilliant link in a chain of Adams men distinguished for two centuries in many avenues of American politics, society and culture. As a young teenager, Adams would contribute significantly to the foreign policy successes of the early Republic and later take his place as President of the United States, son of a President. He kept a personal diary for sixty nine years, which runs to fifty volumes.
As the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy received the attention of two exceptional tutors and then travelled with his father on diplomatic missions during the War for Independence. He attended Leiden University in Holland and in the course of his European sojourn became fluent in French and Dutch, Latin and Greek, in the latter language he translated the New Testament his first year in college. At the age of fourteen he accompanied Francis Dana to the Russian court in St. Petersburg, where he served as translator for Dana, in French, the international language of diplomacy. Adams thus helped establish a positive and useful relationship between the United States and Russia which lasted until the Russian Revolution, over a century later.
While with his father in France, he became close friends with Thomas Jefferson, a relationship that lasted a lifetime and eventually precipitating his leaving the Federalist Party. Following his tenure as a founding son, he attended Harvard College, acquired his Master of Arts and passed the bar exam, opening a law practice in Boston in 1791. George Washington appointed John Quincy as Minister to the Netherlands; on the way he met with John Jay in Britain, negotiating a new Treaty with Britain. After his mission in the Netherlands, Washington appointed Adams minister to Portugal. John Quincy finally reconciled himself to a life of public service, married, and took up his new post as minister to Prussia under his father’s presidency.
Upon his return to the United States, John Quincy Adams served in a variety of offices in his native state of Massachusetts and in the United States Senate. Under Jefferson’s Presidency, Adams lost his home political support because he approved of a number of the President’s decisions, which resulted in his short tenure in Washington. He returned home to teach at Harvard but was re-called in 1809 by President Madison to serve as minister to Russia. Because he was plain-spoken like his father, Adam’s wife Louisa Catherine helped smooth his way through the social quagmires of European courts and social requirements that bored and disconcerted the veteran minister.
He served as Secretary of State under Monroe, and a more experienced and successful man than he has never held that post. He authored the “Monroe Doctrine” which has defined aspects of American foreign policy till today. By 1824 the virtual one party state had divided into factions and New England backed the foreign policy expert and son of John Adams for President. When the powerful Kentucky Senator Henry Clay threw his support to Adams, his election was secured.
Adams’s “States Rights” political enemies stalled many of his policy proposals in Congress. He ran afoul of prevailing sentiments regarding Indian policy (he tried to stall land seizures and sales), slavery (he was totally against it), internal improvements (he supported federal funding), and tariffs (he wanted them high to protect American industry).
Upon Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828, John Quincy Adams did not go quietly. He entered Congress as a representative of Massachusetts two years later and served for five years, dieing on the floor of the House of Representatives at the age of seventy eight.
Adams much preferred sitting by his own fireplace reading books, to anything else in the world. But Providence had determined he should be a founding son and a mentor to the Republic his entire life. His 14,000 volume library can be visited today, a tribute to his devotion to learning and he a great example of wise application.
The great patriotic artist William Trumbull’s iconic paintings have adorned the walls of many an American home and art gallery. The colorful and dramatic oil painting “The Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill” portrays the last moments of the life of one of the founders most devoted to liberty, though he died thirteen months before Independence! Had he survived, Warren would have likely been at the foremost of the leaders that followed George Washington to independence.
After graduation from Harvard, Warren became the premier physician of Boston. He met John Adams as a patient, and closely associated with his cousin, Samuel Adams, during the Stamp Act crisis. Dr. Warren was a distinguished member of a “revolutionary team” that included Sam Adams, John Hancock, and James Otis, and his orations on the anniversaries of the “Boston Massacre” enervated the general populace. Dr. Warren penned the Suffolk Resolves, in which the “Intolerable Acts” were declared unconstitutional and recommended sanctions against England, forming an independent government and preparations to fight! Paul Revere raced the three hundred fifty miles to Philadelphia to present the Resolves to the Continental Congress, and thus alert all the colonies to the resolution of Massachusetts’ men to defend their rights.
As one historian has noted, the revolutionary movement in Boston was “large, open, diverse and complex” and only two men were on at least five of the seven groups of Boston Whigs—Warren and Revere. It was Warren who gathered the intelligence from his spies regarding the British movement against Lexington and Concord and sent Revere on his historic ride to raise the countryside. Warren stayed in Boston to keep an eye on the British high command, a most dangerous proposition. The next day he took his musket and joined in the battle against the redcoats in their torturous rout from Concord Bridge.
As President of the Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Warren headed the committee to organize the army of the colony by whom he was elected Major General, an honor which he rejected. After meeting with the Committee of Safety on June 17th, 1775, Dr. Warren joined the Patriot Army entrenched on Breed’s and Bunker Hills in Charles Town, awaiting the assault of the Redcoat army. Warren declined command of the patriot forces, offered by Colonel Putnam and joined the ranks as a simple rifleman. As before, “he sought the place of greatest danger.” In the course of action Dr. Joseph Warren was shot through the face and died in the lines with twenty nine other patriots. His remains were later identified by the false teeth that Paul Revere had wired into his jaw, perhaps the first identification through dental record in history!
Dr. Warren’s place in the pantheon of patriot heroes was secured though he did not live to see his beloved ideals of constitutional liberty and freedom realized. Paul Revere named his next son Joseph Warren Revere, a fitting tribute to the man who invested his entire life on behalf of his countrymen.
When the American War for Independence began there were few men in the thirteen colonies that possessed any experience commanding large numbers of men in combat. The colonial wars had been fought primarily by small bands of militia and settlers on the frontiers of New England, New York and the Appalachian Mountains. The French and Indian War (1756-1763) provided limited opportunity for command by Americans since the main armies were red-coated professionals from England and were led by English or Scottish Generals, often contemptuous of the colonials. George Washington had the most experience in higher rank but had not held independent command, except at the Battle of Fort Necessity, where he lost his entire army to a small band of French and Indians. In 1775, Congress gave the supreme command of the American militia army to George Washington. Trial and error would characterize his search for qualified men who would and could obey his orders and lead the country to victory. Providence brought a brilliant and scrappy Scotch-Irish Boston bookseller named Henry Knox to Washington’s doorstep.
As the oldest son of a merchant, Henry had to leave Boston Latin School at age 12 to support the family after his father died. His work as a bookstore clerk gave him the opportunity to become an autodidact—a self-educated man. After establishing his own business, London Books, Henry spent many hours in conversation with British soldiers and with studying the military journals and books of his day. He was a very patriotic young man when he married a girl from a Tory family, a politically contentious action which divided him from the in-laws to his dying day.
Henry was a physically imposing man who constantly scrapped with this playmates and neighbors in his youth. Always one to take direct action when convictions were on the line, Knox joined the Boston area Sons of Liberty. When the militia engaged the Redcoats along the road from Concord, Knox slipped out of town with his wife to join in the attack. He soon found employment with his self-taught engineering skills, building the siege fortifications around Boston. When General Washington arrived and reviewed his work, a rapport developed quickly between the General and the bookseller.
While Congressmen wrangled over military patronage, Knox made the three hundred mile trek to Fort Ticonderoga, recently captured by Ethan Allen “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” He assembled a wagon train pulled by oxen to haul sixty tons of captured artillery to Boston, the successful result of which brought about the retreat of the British from that strategic city, never to return.
Henry Knox fought in every campaign of George Washington’s army. He rose in rank from Major to Colonel, to Brigadier to Major General. He mastered the art of fortification and the transportation and use of artillery on campaign and in battle. He met fellow gunner Alexander Hamilton with whom he became fast friends for life. Knox was almost captured in the battles for New York but was rescued through the services of Aaron Burr, who would kill Hamilton in a duel in the next century. Knox commanded the crossing of the Delaware for the successful attack on Trenton in 1776 and set up an officer and artillery school 1779, which became the genesis of the military academy at West Point. Knox built armories that supplied the American armies throughout the war, and he positioned the American artillery at the Siege of Yorktown; they were instrumental in delivering the decisive victory to General Washington.
After the war ended, and ever the patriot and devotee of an independent United States, Henry Knox accepted the cabinet position of Secretary of War under his beloved former commander. He was a man who faced his share of hardships in life and always had his faithful wife by his side, still estranged from her family. She bore him thirteen children, only one of whom survived childhood. Providence had decreed that a three hundred pound self-educated book-seller would take a preeminent place among the movers and shakers of a new nation, never doubting the justice of his cause and never hesitating to perform his duties no matter the personal cost, even when there was often no precedent to show the way.
The youngest of seven children, Josiah Bartlett determined at an early age he wanted to be a doctor, and so began his apprenticeship at age sixteen. After five years of delivering babies, mixing medicines, and fixing broken bones, he was declared ready and hung out his shingle as Dr. Bartlett. At the age of 25 he married his cousin Mary and he brought twelve of his own children into the world. His character, honesty, and impartiality, not to mention his competence, made him popular in the community, so much so that he was appointed justice of the peace and commander of the local militia company. He was elected to the provincial assembly in 1765.
In 1774 the New Hampshire House of Representatives created a Committee of Correspondence in order to maintain contact with the other colonies regarding royal malfeasance or parliamentary tyranny. Bartlett’s service on that committee cost him both his colonelcy in the militia and his justice of the peace office, compliments of the unhappy royal governor. That same year, Bartlett was elected to the First Continental Congress but declined due to the loss of his house in a conflagration, possibly set by Loyalist neighbors. Upon the dissolution of the Assembly by the Governor, Bartlett joined his comrades meeting secretly elsewhere. When the Governor fled the colony in the following year, the Committee of Safety which had been created by the Assembly, took over the reins of civil government. They appointed Dr. Bartlett Colonel of a militia regiment. Hoping for an ultimate resolution of their differences with England, the Assembly sent the Colonel to the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia. In June he wrote to New Hampshire Council member Nathaniel Folsom requesting instructions regarding the colony’s sympathy with full independence. His friend replied that both houses were unanimous in supporting the break with England and instructed him to “join with the other Colonies in declaring the Thirteen United Colonies, A FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATE.”
On July 2nd Josiah Bartlett signed the Declaration of Independence second after the President, John Hancock. He was also the first delegate to sign the engrossed final draft on August 2nd. Bartlett returned home and spent his time raising troops for the war and helping administration of his state. He treated wounded soldiers after the Battle of Bennington and Saratoga and was sent once again to Congress and signed the Articles of Confederation. He served on the committee establishing an American navy.
Dr. Bartlett continued in public service as Justice of the State Supreme Court though he had no formal legal training, just common sense, wisdom, and experience in the real world. He also served as President of New Hampshire and then as the first Governor. The Doctor strove tirelessly for ratification of the Constitution, and when New Hampshire voted approval, it put the ratification over the top, making his state the confirmer of the new Republic. All the while Josiah Bartlett continued his calling as a healer, Dartmouth awarding him an honorary doctor of medicine degree! Three of his sons and seven grandsons followed in his footsteps as doctors. He died at the age of sixty five in 1795 and the Rev. Dr. Thayer stated, in part, at his funeral, “The New Hampshire stern patriotism and inflexible republicanism which adorned the character of Doctor Bartlett, have already been developed. His mind was quick and penetrating, his memory tenacious, his judgement sound and perspective. His natural temper was open, humane, and compassionate. In all his dealings he was scrupulously just, and faithful in the performance of all his engagements.”
A descendant of persecuted Scottish Presbyterians, Thornton’s family came to America by way of Ireland, but found little compatibility among the Puritans of New England. Finally settling in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Matthew, following an ongoing Scot-dominated profession, set up his medical practice with signal success. Also following what had become a pronounced Scotch-Irish pursuit in America, he criticized the English Parliament and royal tyranny. A bachelor until the age of 46, he finally married eighteen year old Hannah Jack and fathered five children.
Dr. Thornton joined the British expedition against the strategic French town of Louisburg in the attack on Canada in 1745 (“King George’s War”). Serving as the physician for five hundred New Hampshire soldiers, he lost only five to disease, a remarkably small percentage for an expedition of that size. Upon his return home he continued to build his practice and was commissioned as a colonel of militia and justice of the peace by the royal governor. He served in the New Hampshire legislature from 1758. When the Stamp Act went into effect, the doctor took a leading role in opposition and was appointed chairman of the local Committee of Safety. In 1774 the royal governor abandoned the colony after the local rebels raided the gunpowder and rifle stash at the fort in Portsmouth.
New Hampshire was the first state to declare its independence from Great Britain and Dr. Thornton was chosen to be the first president. Few men garnered the respect and confidence from the citizens of his state than he. Known for his wisdom, unstinting work for independence, love of liberty, kind hospitality, and wit and humor, Dr. Thornton was a natural choice to represent New Hampshire in the dangerous and life changing pursuit of independence. He was the chief author of the State Constitution, the first of the independent colonies, which stood until 1783. Because he did not take his seat at the Congress until November of 1776, he was one of the last of the 56 to sign the Declaration of Independence. Someone observed that, unlike several of his prominent colleagues, he had the utmost confidence of George Washington and was an “unshakeable disciple” of the General.
Dr. Thornton has sometimes been likened to Benjamin Franklin, in that he was a superb story-teller and that his lessons were always insightful and wise though at times uproariously humorous. John Adams wrote of him “We have from New Hampshire a Colonel Thornton, a physician by profession, a man of humor. He has a large budget of droll stories with which he entertains company perpetually.” Given the times, his presence and approach were likely appreciated, especially in the dark and perilous times of the war. He served in several state offices in court and legislature after the war and wrote many political pamphlets and articles, right up until his death at the age of 89 in 1803.
Although Thornton did not identify with a particular church, he was a firm believer in an “overruling Providence,” and his character, according to one historian, “as a Christian, a father, a husband, and a friend, was bright and unblemished.” In his eighties he wrote a book with the obviously non-humorous title of Paradise Lost, or the Origin of the Evil Called Sin. His grave marker simply states: An Honest Man.
The same age as his comrade Josiah Bartlett, 46, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, William Whipple, born in Maine, lived a colorful life as sea captain, army general, and member of Congress. Oldest of five children, Whipple went to sea at a young age and was captain of a merchant ship throughout his twenties. Retiring at age 29 with significant wealth, he went into the mercantile business with his brother, enhanced his prosperity and married his cousin Catherine Moffat.
As a slave trader in his sailing days, he owned at least one African as well. In fact, Whipple’s slave, Prince, would fight alongside him the coming war, one of perhaps five thousand black soldiers who fought for the American cause. A year before independence Whipple retired from business and devoted the rest of his years to public service.
He was appointed commander of the first regiment of New Hampshire Militia in the first state to declare independence from Great Britain. His service in the Committee of Safety led to his appointment as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he joined the other two New Hampshire men in signing the Declaration of Independence. As one historian of the convention wrote in 1824:
The memorable day which gave birth to the Declaration of Independence afforded, in the case of William Whipple, . . . a striking example of the uncertainty of human affairs, and the triumphs of perseverance. The cabin boy, who thirty years before had looked forward to a command of a vessel as the consummation of all his hopes and wishes, now stood amidst the Congress of 1776, and looked around upon a conclave of patriots, such as the world had never witnessed. He whose ambition once centered in inscribing his name as commander upon a crew list, now affixed his signature to a document, which has embalmed it for posterity.
The following year, he was appointed brigadier general by the assembly of New Hampshire, one of sixteen signers who would see military service in the course of the war. Whipple’s heart ailment, which caused occasional fainting, did not affect his strong heart for defense of his state. After the loss of Fort Ticonderoga to the British and their three-pronged invasion of New York, the New Hampshire troops led by John Stark (“we will gain the victory or Molly Stark’s a widow”), and William Whipple met a force of Germans and Indians at Bennington, New York and destroyed or scattered their entire army. At the decisive Battle of Saratoga, the New Hampshire men played a key role in defeating and capturing General Burgoyne’s army.
In the course of the conflict General Whipple presented Captain John Paul Jones with orders to command The Ranger out of Portsmouth and fought in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where a cannonball narrowly missed him but struck a major as it passed through his headquarters. Probably due to ill-health, General Whipple retired from the army in 1778 though he continued to serve in the New Hampshire assembly and receive appointments by the American Congress, which he turned down with regret. From 1782 till his death of a heart attack in 1785, age 55, Whipple served as associate justice of the superior court of New Hampshire. He freed his servant, Prince, a year before his own death and they are both buried in the same cemetery and marked with Revolutionary War veteran on their tombstones.
The encomium of a later historian provides a fitting epitaph of the third signer of the Declaration of Independence:
“General Whipple was possessed of a strong mind, and quick discernment: he was easy in his manners, courteous in his deportment, correct in his habits, and constant in his friendships. He enjoyed throughout his life a great share of the public confidence, and although his early education was limited, his natural good sense, and accurate observations, enabled him to discharge the duties of the several offices with which he was entrusted, with credit to himself and benefit to the public. . .[his] memory will be long cherished in New Hampshire, and whose name, united with the great charter of our freedom, will perish only with the records of the Republic.”
Born into a quiet country farm in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, Abraham Clark’s life would entail more adventure, hardship and suffering than his modest beginnings implied. Although a sickly and frail child, Clark devoted much of his time to personal study, and developed a fondness for mathematics. Not only was he a self-taught scholar, but as he matured into manhood became both a surgeon and a counselor to his neighbors on legal issues, fondly referred to as the “poor man’s counselor.” Clark’s first public office was as sheriff of Essex County, New Jersey. At twenty-two he married Sarah Hatfield of Elizabethtown, and together they had ten children. Abraham Clark was well on his way to prominence, not necessarily as a New Jersey farmer, but as a patriot for independence.
In June 1776, Clark was elected as delegate to the Congress for the purpose of passing a Declaration of Independence which would declare the colonies united in affirming separation Great Britain. With the English troops on the horizon, and New Jersey in the middle of everything, Abraham Clark knew the dangers of signing the document; he counted the cost and pledged his future.
Clark wrote to a friend while still in Philadelphia, on July 4th: “Our Congress is an August Assembly – and can they support the Declaration now on the Anvil, they will be the Greatest Assembly on Earth… We can die but once… We are now embarked on a most tempestuous sea… It is gone so far that we must now be a free independent State or a Conquered Country.” These were costly words to have been spoken, but he delivered them out of knowledge of the true situation. It was a momentous occasion and a high calling to be a signer of the Declaration, yet Clark new “the issue of the war must settle it,” and that “perhaps Congress would be exalted on a high gallows.”
Even though plagued with persistent health problems, Abraham Clark devoted as much time as he could to the Congress. The Library of Congress holds proof of his patriotic zeal in the handwritten letters and papers he scripted while he was with the assembly. These written documents give testimony to his life and character.
Shortly after the British invaded New Jersey by way of Staten Island, two of Clark’s children, Aaron and Thomas, were captured by the British Grenadiers and held prisoner in the infamous prison ship, the Jersey. The prison ships of the British were notorious for their brutality; the treatment and conditions of the prisoners were grossly base and inhuman. Records show that about 11,000 American prisoners perished in these ships. That was more than those who died on the battlefields of the Revolution!
Clark’s son, Thomas was put into a dark hole at the bottom of the Jersey where he survived by scraps of bread which was passed through a chink in the wall by fellow prisoners. As one historian put it, “Abraham Clark was informed by the British that his sons were held captive and would be released only if he deserted the American cause.” In response to this threat, Clark stoically rejected the offer on the grounds that he would not “renounce his cause in favor of King and Parliament.” The fate of his sons is uncertain, though some say Congress offered retaliation efforts which freed them from the deadly confines of the prison ship.
In 1786 New Jersey again elected Abraham Clark to attend to the revision of the Articles of Confederation at the Annapolis Convention. A year later, at the convening of the Philadelphia Convention for the ratifying of the Federal Constitution, he was again elected as delegate but was forced to decline due to health conditions. Like some of the other delegates, Clark was opposed to the Constitution without a Bill of Rights.
After the adjournment of the Congress in 1794 Clark retired permanently from public life to spend the remainder of his days on his New Jersey farm. While still struggling with his infirmities, his “tempestuous” life was cut short only a few months after the adjournment. Watching the building of a bridge across a portion of his property he suffered a severe heat stroke, which brought him swiftly to his death within a few hour at the age of sixty eight.
His gravestone in the churchyard in Rahway gives a clear and inspiring synopsis of his life:
Firm and decided as a patriot
Zealous and faithful as a friend to the public,
He loved his country, and adhered to her cause
In the darkest hours of her struggles
It was an age of unusually gifted men who, in another time, would have been the progenitors of an English-speaking Renaissance. Francis Hopkinson ranks alongside Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as a brilliant and multi-talented artist, musician, inventor, wit, and political satirist. His position as a lawyer and a judge, a churchman and a family man, and then as member of the Continental Congress gave opportunity for the flourishing of his talents. Like many of his colleagues, he possessed a significant library, which, as was customary in those times, was looted and wrecked by the Hessians.
Francis was one of eight children of distinguished parents who provided solid education and useful connections that helped the children in later life. From his father Thomas, it seems Francis absorbed his interest in science, as he was a close friend of Franklin and is credited with introducing him to electricity. Encouraged by his mother Mary Johnson, Francis developed his musical interests, which led to his mastery of the harpsicord, invention of musical instruments, building a keyboard for Franklin, composition of the first American opera and other musical pieces including all 150 Psalms set to music for his church.
He was one of the first graduates of the University of Pennsylvania and entered the law profession to keep food on the table for his wife and five children. Although he came to the attention of royal officials in New Jersey, he sided with the opposition to the Stamp Act and wrote against the unconstitutional taxes of the following years. And that tactic became his most successful contribution to the independence movement—his witty satires, profound critiques of British intransigence and tyranny, and effective legal analysis of the times, made him a propagandist of the first water.
In 1776 he joined four other New Jersey delegates to the Continental Congress and happily voted for Independence, signing the document on August 2nd. Hopkinson was known as an undisguised Whig and his pamphlets against England had a very serious bite. His colleague from Massachusetts, John Adams, described him as “one of your pretty, little, curious, ingenious men. His head is not larger than a large apple . . .he is genteel, and is well bred, and is very social.” Francis published satirical poetry during the war, The Ballad of the Kegs bringing particular pleasure and notoriety. A party in Philadelphia was incomplete without the witty Hopkinson. The British were not amused by the diminutive stand-up comic and made certain to trash his house when the opportunity arose. As an artist he doodled caricatures of his fellow delegates and it is likely that he was the original designer of the first American flag—the stars and stripes.
After the war his friend George Washington appointed him to a federal judgeship in Pennsylvania, stating that Francis Hopkinson would bring “stability and dignity” to the federal government. He continued to write and play music, allegories, and poetry, admired by his peers in the new nation. He died of a stroke at breakfast at the age of fifty three in 1791. The posthumous accolades uniformly indicated he was one of most interesting and effective of the founders.
Fellow signer Benjamin Rush said of Francis Hopkinson’s poison pen, “the various causes which contributed to the history of the establishment of Independence and the federal Government is ascribed to the irresistible influence of the Ridicule which he occasionally poured forth upon the enemies of those great political events.”
Known by fellow delegate Benjamin Rush as a “plain, honest, well-meaning Jersey farmer,” John Hart lived his life (1711-1779) to the utmost for family, country and independence. Born in Stonington, Connecticut, and later moving to Hopewell, New Jersey, John Hart rose in fame and fortune as a self-educated gentleman and a well-respected farmer. From his diligence and good character, he earned the reputation of “honest John Hart” as a farmer, statesman and patriot; a reputation which would carry throughout his entire life.
Ascending to the position of justice of the peace Hart added the virtue of “fairness” to his growing repertoire, and in 1761 was elected to the New Jersey legislature where he was continually reelected until it dissolved in 1771. In those span of years John Hart opposed the Stamp Act of 1765 where he united with other patriots in believing that “the right to tax the colonies lay with the colonies only – and not with Great Britain.”
In the July of 1774 when the British closed the port of Boston, John Hart was elected to attend the Continental Congress where he joined in the swelling force that scripted an appeal to King George. At sixty John Hart was among the oldest members of Congress, and with just as much patriotic zeal as many of the younger members. He divided his efforts between time in the assembly, and his farm in New Jersey. In fact, Hart requested that he be excused from the assembly. Although they accepted his resignation, he was asked by popular demand to return to the Provincial Congress of New Jersey, and then the general Congress in 1776.
The storm clouds were brewing in Congress due to a recent notice from Britain which denied the original petition sent by the Congress.
The feelings of the people had become exasperated, and New Jersey, which had been second to no one of the colonies in loyalty of love and peace, became thoroughly and rapidly changed. The machinations said to be detected early in the year of 1776, which had been directed against the fidelity and spirit of the army and the safety of the commander in chief, exited the indignant patriotism of the people of this province, perhaps more than even the proofs of determined and violent hostility on the part of the British government.
New Jersey delegate John Hart joined his hand with his brothers as they signed the document that would publicize their push for independence. Although the British army had just landed on Staten Island and was advancing rapidly into the New Jersey territory, Hart did not shrink from his duty. He was well aware of the danger when he signed the Declaration of Independence, and the price that he would soon pay for his act of patriotism.
No sooner did he sign the document than the British troops were on his doorstep. Nursing his terminally ill wife, and managing his thirteen children, John Hart at first refused to leave his plantation. However, at the last possible moment he divided his children amongst the neighbors and fled his house. He was hunted for months afterward, living in caves, evading every effort of the enemy as they chased him like hounds on the scent.
With the defeat of the British at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, John Hart returned to a damaged home and ravished farm lands. He still managed to host George Washington in his home a year later and provide campsites for 12,000 troops. He may never have fully recovered from his exposure to the elements but nonetheless put all his remaining efforts into restoring his farm and raising the children. The least educated of the founders showed the lawyers how a working man can commit to a Cause.
He was greatly beloved by his family and friends, and highly respected by a large circle of acquaintance, who often appealed to his wisdom and judgement in the settlement of their local affairs. In addition to this, he enjoyed the reputation of being a sincere and humble Christian… Such was the life, and such the last end, of “honest John Hart.”
The call for independence and resistance to tyranny resonated throughout the valleys of the frontier and in the halls of academe among Americans of Scottish birth or heritage. Multiple thousands answered the call for leaders and marksmen, for commitment and courage; few men of any stripe would match the influence and impact of John Witherspoon, the President of the College of New Jersey.
Dr. Witherspoon’s reputation for uncompromising and successful theological disputation on behalf of the more conservative wing of the Scottish Kirk, and his strong resistance to the humanist challenges of philosopher David Hume, had already brought him to the attention of influential American Presbyterians, such as Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush.
Both were (pre)destined to be fellow-signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Witherspoon would preside over Stockton’s daughter Julia to Benjamin Rush. They personally prevailed on Dr. Witherspoon to leave his beloved parish and take up the presidency of the College of New Jersey in Princeton. Leaving a ministry of “great respectability, comfort, and usefulness” in Scotland, he sailed to the uncertainty and difficulties of colonial life, but later affirmed that “I became an American the moment I landed.”
Dr. Witherspoon reformed and expanded the curriculum of the College and pitched in to the training of the next generation of American political and civic leadership. Although he was in the colonies for only six years before independence, he concurred with the dissenters and patriots who challenged the constitutionality of Parliament’s taxes and the King’s tyranny. From the pulpit and the classroom Witherspoon abetted the American cause through articles and essays and served in the New Jersey legislature. He led the fight to rid the colony of the Royal Governor (Benjamin Franklin’s son!)
The Scottish parson was elected to represent New Jersey at the Continental Congress and he served there until 1783. He served on a number of committees including the one that oversaw espionage and intelligence gathering. After signing the Declaration of Independence, at the age of 53, he declared, “Although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulcher, I would infinitely rather that they should descend thither by the hand of the public executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country.”
In November 1776 he suspended classes at Princeton and within two weeks the British had captured the town, burnt his library and inhabited Nassau Hall, the main building. He spent the post-war years rebuilding the college though it never fully recovered in his lifetime. A man of brilliance, he figured prominently in the writing of the state constitution and contributed to the ratification of the United States Constitution. His oldest son died fighting in the Revolutionary War and his wife a few years after. He remarried at age 68 and fathered two more children, making it an even dozen.
Witherspoon’s influence extended far beyond his own lifetime. He taught, mentored, and launched into the post college world, many students, of whom 37 became justices, 3 on the Supreme Court, 10 cabinet officers, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. Senators, 49 U.S. Congressmen and President James Madison. Dr. Witherspoon never ceased preaching the Gospel and became a national leader among Presbyterian Churches in the United States. He continued that calling even after going totally blind in the last two years of his life. There is a magnificent statue of the man on the campus of Princeton University, no doubt taken for granted by the thousands who pass it by, but without whom they would not possess the liberty he fought for and bequeathed to following generations.
Father-in-law of signer Benjamin Rush, married to the sister of founding patriot and future President of the United States Congress, Elias Boudinot, and close friend of President of the College of New Jersey at Princeton and fellow signer, John Witherspoon, Stockton’s position among the great men of New Jersey seemed secured. He collected art and raised blooded horses, inheriting a sizeable fortune from his father in the decade before the war. His service in a prestigious law firm only enhanced the patrimony he was due. Little did Stockton know that when he signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of New Jersey, he alone among that august group would be singled out for that act alone and face prison, disease, and economic disaster, and to some, the ruination of his good name.
Richard Stockton spoke with elegance and grace and avoided the “knock down drag out” tactics to which courtroom antics sometimes devolved. Certainly his conservative and wealthy upbringing as the son of a judge made him a lover of law and order. As a stalwart Presbyterian and supporter of his alma mater at Princeton, he travelled to Scotland and helped convince John Witherspoon to come to America and accept the presidency of that institution. His reputation already was such that he was wined and dined and consulted in both Scotland and England by statesmen and lawyers. A special providence protected him when his luggage was misplaced and he missed a boat home, which sank in a storm with the loss of all passengers.
As a delegate he came to Congress with some reservation but when it came to declaring for independence, Stockton heard a speech by John Adams that cast off all doubts about the course he should follow and with his four fellow delegates from New Jersey signed the document for separation. He served well, spending his own money to help alleviate want in the American army and travelling to help inspect troops on behalf of Congress.
In the middle of the night a band of Tories ambushed his home and seized Stockton. He was turned over to the British and accused of treason for signing the Declaration of Independence. Incarcerated in New York City, his health declined to almost the point of death. Congress asked General Washington to intervene with the British to effect Stockton’s release. In recent times there has been a general consensus by historians that Stockton actually signed a loyalty oath to win his release, along with 4,800 other American prisoners. His health was so shattered that he could not resume his duties and his estate of Morven had been rifled by the British and his magnificent library destroyed.
Richard Stockton continued to support General Washington and the cause of independence with his pen, but he developed cancer and died in 1781 within months of the Battle of Yorktown. Washington praised him and New Jersey honored their native son in several ways. His reputation as a faithful patriot suffered little recrimination and his reputation remains unsullied as the only signer to be singled out for arrest, and the loss of life, fortune and honor were the prices he paid.
His father abandoned his mother and him, poverty stricken, on the Island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His indifferent education was supplemented by reading the thirty four books in the home. After his mother died, her husband took all the property, leaving the orphan Alexander in poverty. His cousin adopted him but shortly after committed suicide. Young Alexander Hamilton managed to get employment as a clerk, with as unsure a future as a young man could have and with little prospect of a life beyond poverty and obscurity. At the end of his life, which ended tragically in a duel, Hamilton had become one of the greatest success stories of history having served as an officer on the staff of George Washington, Congressman, Delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Secretary of the Treasury, founder of the U.S. Mint and Major General. His service in the Treasury set the financial course of the new nation.
Hamilton educated himself through voracious reading and, as a seventeen year old, wrote an account of a hurricane which had devastated the Caribbean islands. His powerful prose came to the attention of a merchant who enabled Alexander to attend King’s College in New York. From there he wrote political pamphlets arguing for independence from Britain. He came to the notice of George Washington and served on his staff, fighting in eight major battles and bravely leading the final assault at the Siege of Yorktown, ending the War for Independence. He entered the law profession after the war and when the Constitutional Convention sent that document to the states for ratification. Hamilton wrote fifty-one of the eighty five powerful arguments that became the core of “The Federalist Papers,” successfully arguing acceptance of the Constitution creating a new government.
As the Treasury Secretary, the former poor orphan boy of Nevis set about securing the financial stability of the United States; he also structured Jay’s Treaty, and led the Federalist Party in opposition to Thomas Jefferson, fellow cabinet member and political nemesis. A man of versatile genius, Alexander Hamilton was also a good judge of character, opposing Aaron Burr for President, thus helping secure Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800.
Although he had warned his own son to exercise self-control and avoid dueling regardless of insult, Hamilton disregarded his own wisdom and fought a fatal pistol duel with Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton rarely shied away from expressing his opposition to men he considered unworthy of office and once again opposed Burr in his run for Governor of New York in 1804. The duel was fought in Weehauken, New Jersey and the sitting Vice President killed the former Secretary of the Treasury, who died an agonizing death the day following. His legacy as one of America’s greatest founders has not escaped controversy, but Alexander Hamilton’s rise from poverty and ignominy to the heights of political power and achievement brooks no rival among the greatest of the founders of the Republic.
Like his fellow New York signer, William Floyd, Lewis came from Welsh stock, a hardy and intrepid soul. Orphaned at an early age and raised by an aunt in Wales, he managed to acquire an education in Great Britain and an apprenticeship as a clerk. With a small inheritance he purchased goods in Europe to sell in America and struck out to seek his fortune. He was shipwrecked twice and, during service in the and Indian War, was captured at Fort Oswego along with 1700 British subjects by the French under General Montcalm. Lewis escaped the ensuing massacre of some of the captives; some historians have made the doubtful claim that his safety resulted from speaking Welsh to the Indians and they understood him. He survived imprisonment for seven years by the French. Upon his release Lewis received a grant of 5,000 acres on Long Island for his hardship in the war. He returned to his wife and seven children and rebuilt his fortune.
As an early supporter of the patriot cause, Lewis joined the Sons of Liberty, and because of his ardent zeal for the cause and his inherent integrity and forthrightness, he was unanimously elected to the Continental Congresses. He served on many committees and was particularly effective in helping start the United States navy. A hardier, more experienced expert on sailing and tides could not have been found among the congressmen. Lewis and his family relocated to the county seat on Long Island and suffered cruelly as a result.
A British cavalry expedition attacked his home, looting and destroying everything. He was not at home so they abused his elderly wife and threw her into a pestilential prison. They even stole the buckles from her shoes! She was forced to sleep on a freezing floor for months, with only a slop bucket and no clean clothes. General Washington was able to trade Tory prisoners for Mrs. Lewis, but the hardship destroyed her health and she died soon after release.
Francis Lewis continued to serve the State of New York in Congress and other capacities and did not arrive at his home again until 1783. He found nothing but rubble. The old patriot lived out the rest of his years with his sons, dieing at the venerable age of ninety. Lewis bequeathed to his posterity “a name which shall long flourish in the annals of liberty, and affording an example of virtue, constancy and personal sacrifice.” The Welsh orphan had set the perfect example of what it meant to call oneself an American.
John Jay descended from brave Huguenot exiles from France who came to America after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. They prospered in trade, continued to marry fellow French expats and saw to the education and success of their children and grandchildren. John Jay, from a family of ten children, was mostly home educated until he attended and graduated from Columbia University, then known as The King’s College. He read law, passed the bar and “almost immediately established an extensive and lucrative practice” in New York. His contributions to independence and the early Republic placed him among the greatest of the founders as a patriot, a statesman, and defender of the rule of law.
John Jay served as the secretary of the Committee of Correspondence in 1774, his first public action in the movement toward independence. As a natural conservative always supporting law and order, Jay was careful to side with those seeking reconciliation with the crown, but not at the price of liberty. Although opposing mob action, Jay did finally did move toward independence as a member of the First and second Continental Congresses, and became an ardent patriot.
He served in the New York legislature and drafted the State Constitution. His service in New York kept him away during the Declaration debates and he was not there for the signing though he fully supported the break from Great Britain. He served as President of the Congress in 1778 and 1779 as well as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court. Jay was in Paris with Benjamin Franklin during the negotiations for ending the War and contributed much to the final treaty.
John Jay was an ardent supporter of the proposed Constitution. He believed the country needed a stronger central authority than the Articles of Confederation allowed and wrote essays in the Federalist, along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison supporting ratification. He rejected President Washington’s offer of Secretary of State (which went to second fiddle, Thomas Jefferson) but accepted the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, where he served only two years. Jay was sent by the President to negotiate another, and much more controversial treaty with England (“Jay’s Treaty”) and while there was elected Governor of New York. He ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States as a Federalist in 1796 and 1800. He retired to his farm in 1801 with his wife and six children, where he lived out his life as a farmer for twenty-seven more years, declining all offers to elected and appointed office.
The renowned statesman and founding father became an ardent opponent of slavery, finally convincing his home state of New York to abolish the institution, gradually and without compensation, in 1799. He had to overcome stiff resistance from the slave-holders of New York City. Jay was well known for his strong Christian convictions which were reflected in his speech, his legal opinions, and service as the president of the American Bible Society.
“No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, cohesiveness and liberty, apart from the moral precepts of the Christian religion. Should our Republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance, we will then, be surely doomed.”
Of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Lewis Morris had as many or more ties with Royal authority than anyone. His grandfather was the royal governor of New Jersey, and other relatives served as Chief Justice of New York, Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania etc. Like the other signers from New York, his economic position placed him among the wealthiest men of the city, he owned slaves, and would have been expected to assume a moderate position on relations with Great Britain. But Morris was a patriot from the get-go.
Born in the family estate of “Morisania,” the oldest of three boys, Lewis was home-educated by his father till he attended Yale at the age of sixteen, “where he was taught the learned languages and mathematics, and his youthful mind was infused with the lessons of morality and religion.” He returned home to manage the estate and to marry Mary Walton, also of a wealthy, aristocratic-like family. They had ten children. Affronted by the Stamp Act, Morris opposed the encroachment though it affected him not at all. In 1764 Morris was elected to the New York Assembly, which the governor dissolved after they protested the Quartering Act.
New Yorkers did not elect Morris to the First Continental Congress for “he was considered too decided and zealous an asserter of the rights of the colonies, and too bold a declaimer against the arbitrary acts of the ministry.” After the fights at Lexington and Concord, New Yorkers changed their mind and elected a bolder set of representatives to the Second Congress, including Lewis Morris.
The New York delegate purchased arms and ammunition for the American army out of his own pocket and served on a number of committees. He was sent to persuade Indians to join forces with the colonists. British warships showed up outside of New York City to intimidate the citizens, many of whom were loyalists of the deepest dye already. “The fact that his estate lay in imminent danger did not affect the decisions made by Lewis Morris.” While the ships lay in cannon shot of his home, Morris signed the Declaration of Independence “with a few strokes of the pen and a bold calligraphic flourish.” The British troops looted his estate and cut down a thousand acres of his woodlands. His family in exile, the enemy held his estates until the end of the war in 1783. His two oldest sons fought in the patriot army, his oldest obtaining the rank of colonel through hard fighting and courageous sacrifice. His other two sons served as gallant officers throughout the entire conflict.
Lewis Morris himself served in the Militia and rose to the rank of Major General in the American army with his “high character, undaunted spirit and untiring zeal.” He lived till 1798, dieing at the age of seventy two, having set a magnificent example for the generations to come. He was buried at Morisania, now a little regarded ghetto in the Bronx.
Grandson of a Scottish minister and son of a New York land baron who owned about 250 square miles of land around New York City and along the Hudson River, Phillip Livingston at first demonstrated the hauteur and patronizing attitude usually associated with an English gentleman. Although suspicious and critical of the Sons of Liberty, he had protested Parliament’s unwarranted taxes and supported non-importation. As a sixty year old multi-millionaire merchant in Congress, he began with a more moderate view of relations with Britain. When the King rebuffed olive branch petitions, Livingston committed to armed resistance–he took the pledge, signed his name and lost a good bit of his fortune as a result.
Phillip was the fourth of six sons, tutored at home and matriculated at Yale; he earned a fortune on his own merits, known for integrity and honest selling, as well as his public spirit and generosity. He married in 1740 and fathered nine children. Serving in various colonial, then state, offices, the people of New York regarded him highly as a competent and patriotic representative. Livingston boycotted English goods, believing something had to be done to get the King’s and Parliament’s attention; such measures always struck American merchants the hardest; it cost Livingston a fortune. He spent much of his own money smuggling in arms and ammunition for the army and helped supply them during the war from his own financial resources.
All of Phillip Livingston’s business interests fell to the enemy—one of his homes was used as a hospital and another as a barracks after he fled north to avoid capture himself. Livingston sold some of his remaining property to help maintain the government’s credit as they continued to prosecute the war. Phillip Livingston presented the perfect example of a conservative wealthy colonial businessman who sought redress of grievances and believed the King would acceded to colonial petitions, but gradually saw the futility of appealing to the laws and precedents before a deaf Parliament. He joined the fight for independence and paid a heavy price without regrets.
Elected by New Yorkers to again attend Congress as their representative in May of 1778, Livingston left his beloved Livingston Manor for York, Pennsylvania, where the Legislature had moved just ahead of the British occupation of Philadelphia. Saddled with a lingering illness and accompanied only by his son, Livingston’s health declined as they rode. Shortly after arriving in York, Livingston died of congestive heart failure at age sixty two, the third signer to die during the War for Independence. A man reluctant at first to join the ultimate rebellion till all other recourses had been tried, Phillip Livingston held back no time nor money once the die was cast, in fulfilling his duty to New York and to the new Republic.
As a Long Island, New York native, of Welsh ancestors, Floyd wanted nothing more than to be left alone to tend his property and family. A conservative by birth and inclination, he was not spoiling for a fight with Great Britain. He spoke out against unconstitutional taxation but kept his own council as New York patriots formed committees of correspondence and Sons of Liberty. As Colonel Floyd of the Long Island Militia, he found that events had overtaken his region and the fight was brought to him by His Majesties forces. He would not be slack in his response.
Though without formal education, his neighbors respected Floyd’s honesty and sincerity. He had taken over the family fortune and property as a teenager, upon the death of his father. He married six years later and in his lifetime sired eight children by two wives, the first dieing in exile from their home in 1781. He was chosen as a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. While he served in Congress, the British troops overran Long Island. His wife and children barely escaped in a boat across the sound to Connecticut while the soldiers looted his estate, killing and carrying off all his livestock.
Floyd served well but spoke little in the Congressional debates. His lack of education and simple practical bent did not suit him for profound theoretical debates full of classical allusions. He nonetheless faithfully served on several committees and had no apparent hesitation to sign the Declaration. In 1777 he was appointed to the New York Senate where he helped with the drafting of the state Constitution. Two years later he was again sent to Congress where he served to the very end in 1783. When the end of the war was announced on Long Island, the people said it wasn’t over till William Floyd, now a General, came home. The war had ruined him financially but by hard work he reestablished his farm and invested in western lands.
A year after the war he purchased land in western New York and developed it for future use. At the age of sixty nine he deeded his Long Island property to his son and moved westward to live in Oneida County, dieing there at the age of eighty six. In the post-war era he served a term in Congress and in the New York Senate, a venerable relic of the heady days of independence.
Unlike most of the other signers, John Penn did not have the privilege of gaining an early education. Born the only child of Moses and Catherine Penn, his only book learning occurred at a free grammar school for the space of two or three years. Despite his late start, Penn overcame his difficulties to become a lawyer, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the 16 signers to also add his name to the Articles of Confederation.
Teaching himself to read and write out of the library of Edmund Pendleton, in the province of Virginia, Penn studied for three years before admission to the tile bar. His feat in overcoming circumstantial hardship is a testimony to his character of fortitude and diligence. “At the age of twenty-one, Mr. Penn reaped in part the reward of his toil and indefatigable industry, in being licensed as a practitioner of Law. The habits of study and application which he had now formed, were of great advantage to him in pursuing the business of his profession. He rose with great rapidity into notice, and soon equaled the most distinguished at the bar. As an advocate, in particular, there were few who surpassed him.”
After living in North Carolina for two years Penn was elected to the Continental Congress along with delegates William Hooper and Joseph Hewes. Although he was capable of bringing the courtroom to tears with his orations, he did not say much while at Congress, unlike fellow North Carolinian William Hooper who had caught the ears of the cynical Adams. Differing also from the other North Carolina delegates, who had a few qualms about independence, John Penn voted straight ticket for what he thought to be a principal preservation of America. “He was seldom absent from his seat, and hesitated not, either from want of firmness or patriotism, to urge forward those measures, which were calculated to redress the wrongs, and establish and perpetuate the rights of his country.”
One wrinkle in his cloth was the time he almost shot a man in a duel. After a squabble with South Carolinian, Henry Laurens, they both decided a duel was in order to settle their argument. The next morning, after sharing breakfast and taking a morning walk, Penn made a principled proposition to the gentlemen to call the whole thing off. After all, why shoot a man with whom you had just breakfasted?
Penn continued to serve Congress until 1780, during which time he worked with the war board to delineate the region’s defenses against an oncoming attack by General Cornwallis. In 1781 Penn suffered from a fatal illness and retired from public life. He died shortly after, survived by his wife and three children. He is buried, with fellow North Carolina delegate William Hooper, at Guilford Courthouse Military Park in Greensboro, on the grounds of the battle that ruined Cornwallis’s chances of holding the state that Penn so nobly served.
Full of surprises, Joseph Hewes was both a Quaker and an advocate of Independence, a merchant who cheerfully aided in the non-importation act. In North Carolina Hewes “acquired the confidence and esteem of the people among whom he lived, and was soon called to represent them in the colonial legislature of the province. This distinction was conferred upon him for several successive years, with increasing usefulness to his constituents, and increasing credit to himself.” The year 1774 required the services of Hewes at the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Although North Carolina greatly encouraged their delegates to vote for Independence, it took Hewes some years of persuasion before he would sign the document for Independence. His signature ultimately secured the unanimity of the colonies.
Born in New Jersey to a Quaker family, and later moving to North Carolina, Joseph Hewes applied himself to a thrifty mercantile business. At thirty he met the beautiful Isabella Johnston who, sadly, died just a few days before the wedding. Hewes remained a bachelor for the rest of his life, one of the two signers unmarried.
At the convention of 1774, two important committees were formed, one to state the rights of the colonies in general, the other to report these statutes of trade and manufacture of the colonies. Hewes was actively involved in the former, and helped to enumerate ten rights, the first of which states: “That they are entitled to life, liberty, and property; and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever a right to dispose of either, without their consent.”
The efficiency of this measure relied heavily on the unity of the colonies. “Although a merchant, and one who had been engaged in commercial transactions with England for the space of twenty years, Mr. Hewes cheerfully assisted in forming a plan of the non-importation association, and most readily became a member of it.” Both his constituents and fellow delegates at the congress were greatly pleased with Hewes’ involvement, so he was invited to represent the colony again in 1775 and 1776.
When the Lee resolution proposing independence was first presented to Congress, Hewes still thought the action premature. It wasn’t until after a stirring speech from John Adams did Hewes agree to the resolution. Hewes is said to have exclaimed, lifting his hands to Heaven, “It is done! And I will abide by it.” It wasn’t until his vote was cast did the states finally come to a place of unanimity.
Congress greatly benefited from Hewes experience as a merchant as he played a huge role in the marine committee. Hewes appointed John Paul Jones to command of a ship, and that audacious Scottish émigré’ soon became America’s greatest naval war hero. “The manner in which Mr. Hewes had acquitted himself during the session of this congress, was so acceptable to the people of North Carolina, that he was again appointed to the same high office,” and he served with the Congress until 1779.
Only a few years after signing the Declaration, Joseph Hewes died, a patriotic Quaker without wife or children, but a host of friends and colleagues to mourn him. “His funeral was attended on the following day by congress, by the general assembly of Pennsylvania, the president and supreme executive council, the minister plenipotentiary of France, and a numerous assemblage of citizens.” In honor of his death the members of congress resolved to wear a crape around their arm, for a month, in solemn remembrance of a fellow delegate who did not live to see independence secured.
Although born into the family of a Loyalist minister, and marrying into a loyalist family, William Hooper distinguished himself as a true patriot and advocate for Independence with his life, his fortune and his sacred honor. While his life was in danger many times before and during the war, and his fortunes ran thin, Hooper lived a life worthy of his time, and he deserved the distinction to be among the Founders of the Declaration of Independence.
Moving to North Carolina after graduating from Harvard under the tutelage of James Otis, Hooper established his law practice in the southern colonies. As a young attorney in the 1760’s he found himself embroiled in the Regulator Movement, which was an uprising of zealous colonists who despised excessive fees and taxation by the “corrupted” and “ruling elite.” Perceived as one of those aristocratic leaders in the local government, Hooper was a candidate for beatings and courtroom harassments; some claim he was dragged through the streets by an angry mob. This experience accounts for Hooper’s future decisions concerning the susceptibility of Democracy to “mob rule.”
In a letter to a friend in 1773, Hooper proposed separation from England, saying that the colonies, “are striding fast to independence, and will, ere long, build an empire upon the ruins of Great Britain.” This justifiable predication later gave Hooper the label “prophet of independence.”
Elected to the first Continental Congress, William Hooper was the youngest of the North Carolina delegates but by no means the least among them. In fact, John Adams, who is known to have some harsh words for many of his fellow signers, considered Hooper one of the leading orators at Congress. Although Hooper was away at the time of the signing, he was able to pen his name on August the 2nd, along with many of the other signers of the Declaration. While Hooper was never a loyalist, he did not relish siding against them either. His reluctant views regarding a federal government, probably a consequence of his early days as an attorney in the Carolinas, also set him apart from the other signers. Up to the very end of his career, and of his life, he feared democracy and the possibility of it descending to mob rule; whether people liked his aristocratic stand or not, his patriotism and love for America never faltered.
In 1781 the British army arrived at Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina. Signing the Declaration of Independence had make him a marked man. In search for him the British burned his home and set up a man hunt. Hooper was forced to separate from his family to escape the pursuing British and live as a fugitive in the homes of friends. While on the run his health received a lethal blow when he acquired malaria; it so crippled him that he eventually died of the disease eight years later.
Serving as a state legislator, he lived just long enough to see the US Constitution ratified and died at the age of forty-eight. Never faltering in his constancy for American independence, but sadly misunderstood near the end, one historian commends his memory in these words:
As a lawyer, he was distinguished for his professional knowledge, and indefatigable zeal in respect to business with which he was entrusted. Towards his brethren he ever maintained a high and honorable course of conduct and particularly towards the younger members of the bar. As a politician, he was characterized for judgment, ardor, and constancy. In times of the greatest political difficulty and danger, he was calm, but resolute. He never desponded; but trusting to the justice of his country’s cause, he had an unshaken confidence that heaven would protect and deliver her.
And so heaven did.
“Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than marble.” So begins the introduction to Franklin on the dust jacket of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin. In another excellent modern biography of Franklin, the title says it all: The First American.
Perhaps the most interesting and complex of all the Founders, Benjamin Franklin defies categorization. Inventor, businessman, journalist, diplomat, writer, humorist, raconteur, political theorist, statesman, Patriot—he peers at us through his “new-fangled spectacles” as if he knows a joke we haven’t heard, or that he is keeping a secret that will confound our enemies or entertain the ladies of a Paris salon. No one else could have contributed to independence in the way that Franklin did, and he lived twice as long as the mortality demographics of his day said he should.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the seventeen children of Josiah Franklin of Boston. The family could not afford schooling but Ben proved to be an autodidact who read every book and remembered what he read. At the age of fifteen he founded the first independent newspaper in New England. Franklin rebelled against the devout Puritan upbringing that came with pious parents and the Old South Meeting House. At seventeen he fled the printing apprenticeship of his brother and showed up in Philadelphia with a loaf of bread under his arm and a few cents in his pocket. Within a few short years, Franklin founded several newspapers, became a Grand Master Mason, published Poor Richard’s Almanac, conducted numerous scientific experiments, and mastered the game of chess.
Franklin was sent to London as an agent for the colony to address issues concerning the Penn family and while there for five years developed his political radicalism as well as establish personal relationships with other scientists and politicians. He opposed the Stamp Tax before the House of Commons, which contributed to its repeal. His advocacy of the American cause resulted in his forced return to Pennsylvania. He organized a network of informants, recruited a colonial militia, and was chosen as a representative to the Second Continental Congress. He was on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and a signee of the document.
Congress sent Franklin as ambassador to France from 1776-1785, where he ingratiated himself into French high society and maneuvered with success to get financial and military aid to the American cause during the War for Independence. He returned to the United States to great acclaim, and was accorded respect and honor beyond all but George Washington. He was the only signer of the greatest four documents of the Founding generation—The Declaration, Articles of Confederation, Constitution and Treaty of Paris ending the war.
Franklin had a profound belief in God and Providence and was a champion of religious liberty and public virtue. Franklin associated primarily with the Unitarian Church, however, and has never been considered a Christian in terms of evangelical biblical doctrine.
Benjamin Franklin could never have been brought to trial since it would have been impossible to find a jury for this peerless Founding Father.
Like several other of the signers in those perilous times, Benjamin Rush’s father died when Ben was young and he was raised by a hard-working single mother. His immigrant grandfather had fought alongside Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil Wars before coming to Pennsylvania. Benjamin was tutored by a strict Presbyterian uncle and matriculated at Princeton, where the President, Samuel Davies, instilled in Rush an “insatiable love for knowledge.” He graduated at fourteen. With a keen interest in medicine, the autodidactic and inquisitive Rush attached himself to a local physician and pursued the practice of medicine for the rest of his life, becoming one of the best known doctors in the world.
Benjamin Rush furthered his medical knowledge in England and Scotland where he helped persuade one of the greatest preachers in Scotland, Samuel Witherspoon, to move to America to take charge of the College of New Jersey at Princeton. Upon his return to America, Rush joined the burgeoning patriotic resistance to Parliamentary encroachments upon colonial charter rights. He also established medical clinics for the poor in Philadelphia and helped develop treatments for the mentally ill. He married sixteen year old Julia Stockton, the daughter of a man who would become another signer of the Declaration of Independence. He and Julia in time would have thirteen children.
While serving in the Continental Congress, Rush kept a journal in which he made all sorts of entries, both positive and negative, concerning his colleagues. Like his friend John Adams, his writings have proven to be one of the richest sources of information on the men and the times of the founding of the nation. His entry upon signing the Declaration on August 2nd? “An awful silence pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of the Congress to subscribe what was believed many at that time to be our own death warrants.”
Rush served as Surgeon General of the Continental armies and attended the wounded at the Battles of Princeton and Brandywine. He was opinionated and seemed to collect a few political enemies during the war. He got caught up in a small cabal critical of George Washington but backed off before his own reputation would have been badly damaged.
He became the most renowned physician in Philadelphia and perhaps the whole United States after the war. When two different yellow fever epidemics struck the city and carried off thousands of people in the city, Rush was one of the few doctors who remained to treat the sick, also pouring over his books to try and develop a successful method of prevention and treatment. The King of Prussia and the Tsar of Russia both sent gifts to him for his heroic actions.
Benjamin Rush in his post-war years wrote articles in support of the Constitution, he founded two Pennsylvania colleges, served as Treasurer of the U.S. Mint and led the fight against slavery. He taught the University of Pennsylvania, instructing over three thousand students in medicine. His firm belief in Providence and his allegiance to the Bible and Christian doctrine were well known, as was reflected in what he called his life’s purpose: “To spend, and be spent, for the good of mankind.”
A firm and steadfast patriot, George Clymer was a forerunner to American Independence and a servant of the developing Constitutional Republic. In his lifetime Clymer engaged in the defense of his country, signed the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution and founded the first American Bank, not to mention his personal financial aid to the Continental Army during the early period of the war. His deep desires for independence from Britain had begun early in life, but escalated to a point where “his predominant passion was to promote every scheme for the improvement of his country.” In fact, his numerous sacrifices proved his dearest wish, which “was for his country to be independent.”
George Clymer experienced a “tragedy of Divine Providence” when orphaned at age seven. He was taken under the tutelage of his wealthy uncle, William Coleman, who taught him to read and insured a formal education. This invaluable gift opened every door of knowledge to Clymer and he learned history, mathematics, politics, agriculture and various branches of science.
In 1773, while in his mid-twenties, Clymer accepted a captain’s commission in a company of volunteers, raised for the defense of the province, while at the same time becoming an active participant in the local Committee of Safety in Pennsylvania. In this position he opposed all arbitrary taxation and persuaded the merchants to refuse the purchase of British tea. During this active participation in his own state, he was elected to attend the first Continental Congress as delegate in 1775. He was chosen along with Benjamin Rush to affix his signature to the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776.
Mr. Clymer may be said to have been by nature a republican. He was, also, a firm and devoted patriot. His feelings were strongly enlisted, at an early age, against the arbitrary acts of the British government. Gifted with a sort of prescience, he foresaw what was meditated against his country, and was ready to hazard every interest in support of the pillars of American freedom. Hence, when conciliatory measures with the parent country were found unavailing, he was one of the foremost to adopt measures necessary for defense.
The following December after signing the Declaration, the Congress at Philadelphia faced imminent danger as British troops invaded the city and countryside seeking to punish the rebels. On news of the British arrival, most of the Congress fled to Baltimore, but left behind them Robert Morris, George Walton and George Clymer to conduct and execute important business of government. A heavy task for so few!
One of Clymer’s greatest contribution to the war effort occurred on his visit to Fort Ticonderoga to make assessments of the condition of the Continental Army. On observing their destitute situation, Clymer worked tirelessly to raise support for the provision of the standing army. Consequently, he served on both the Board of War and the Board of Treasury to ensure the well-being of Washington’s troops.
During the fall of this distressing year , the family of Mr. Clymer, which, at that time resided in the county of Chester, about twenty-five miles from Philadelphia, suffered severely in consequence of an attack by a band of British soldiers. The furniture of the house was destroyed, and a large stock of liquors shared a similar fate. Fortunately, the family made their escape. Mr. Clymer was then in Philadelphia. On the arrival of the British in that place, they sought out his residence, and proceeded to tear it down, and were only diverted from their purpose by the information that the house did not belong to him.
The Declaration of Independence was truly a death warrant for those who penned their name to it. Yet George Clymer stood his ground and never retreated from his duties.
While appointed commissioner in 1778, George Clymer was also given the dangerous duty of seeking out the assistance of the Shawnee and Delaware Indians and possibly enlist them to the American cause. Clymer narrowly escaped the tomahawk himself when he chose a path less travelled and avoided an ambush.
Elected to the state legislature of Pennsylvania in three consecutive terms, George Clymer worked tirelessly with Robert Morris in establishing the first Bank of America, in which they were the primary investors. The bank suffered heavily during the war trying to alleviate the oppressive financial problems.
Admired for his wisdom, candor, and experience, Clymer was called upon again to represent his state at the Constitutional Congress 1787, where he once again became supporter and signatory of a great document that defined the Republic. He then was elected as one of Pennsylvania’s Representatives to the new United States Congress.
Elected as president of the Philadelphia Bank, president of the Academy of Fine Arts, and vice president to the Philadelphia Agriculture Society, did not deter George Clymer from tending to his beloved wife Elizabeth and their nine children. George Clymer died, full of years, in 1813 and it was said of him that
When posterity shall ponder on the declaration of July, 1776, and admire, with deep amazement and veneration, the courage and patriotism, the virtue and self-devotion of the deed, they will find the name of Clymer there. When the strength and splendor of this empire shall hereafter be displayed in the fullness of maturity…the future politician shall look at that scheme of government, by which the whole resources of a nation have been thus brought into action; by which power has been maintained, and liberty not overthrown; by which the people have been governed and directed, but not enslaved or oppressed ; they will find that Clymer was one of the fathers of the country, from whose wisdom and experience the system emanated.
Another son of a clergyman among the signers of the Declaration of Independence (there were at least six of them), George Ross received much of his education from his father. He joined the bar at twenty one and married one of his first clients, the beautiful Ann Lawler. They built a substantial home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he found great success in his calling. A conservative supporter of the crown, a reliable Tory in politics, it seemed that for Ross, the future contained nothing but prosperity and preferment.
In 1774 he received an appointment to the First Continental Congress and identified with the outspoken and articulate fellow-conservative, John Dickinson. In the course of the debates and discussions, perhaps in the taverns after the official meetings, Ross shifted toward more independent political ground. Realizing that affairs were getting out of hand, he joined in the efforts to defend his homeland by helping raise a militia. Ross was reelected to the Congress after the debates and creation of the Declaration of Independence and showed up on August 2nd to sign on behalf of Pennsylvania. When the county raised a substantial sum of money to help defray his expenses and absence from his office, he rejected gift and served his terms without pay.
The legislature chose Ross to serve as vice-president of the state Constitutional Convention and he put his legal acumen into new application with Benjamin Franklin as they wrote up their own independent state legal document. Within a year George Ross retired from Congress due to illness. He still deigned to serve as the admiralty judge for the state, where he encountered a case for which he became widely known, though its adjudication finalized many years after his death. In the admiralty court case, which was fought over the prize money from a captured British ship during the War for Independence, Ross refused to accept the Supreme Court’s decision over the Pennsylvania ruling. It was a bell-weather case concerning states’ rights, not settled till 1813, affirming the state’s ruling.
Like many of his Congressional colleagues, Ross suffered from gout, which could negatively affect other physical problems. Whatever other illnesses plagued George Ross, he died after a severe attack of gout in 1779, age forty nine, attended by his wife and children. While not one of the better known signers, he nonetheless invested his time and resources to independence and when called upon to fulfill his destiny and duty, he was faithful to carry it out without reservation.
Until the 19th century, the majority of immigrants to America came as slaves or indentured servants—about 75% of the English and 60% of the German immigrants were indentured arrivals to Pennsylvania in colonial times. George Taylor was one of them. Born in Ireland in 1716, the son of a minister, he arrived in Pennsylvania penniless at the age of twenty, and bound to an ironmonger. He rose from coal shoveler to clerk and worked off his indenture.
The prospects for a hard-working former indentured servant in America were fairly good if the man or woman were thrifty, could buy land, acquire a few tools or get married and have children. Providence was kind to George Taylor—his former employer died and he married the widow, Ann Savage, and suddenly became the master of a mature business, an ironworks, and began building business and personal relationships all around. Taylor apparently had a knack for all those aspects, becoming prosperous and well known over the next three decades. His politics favored the patriot party in Northampton where he lived.
George Taylor was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1764 and served several years, resigning his position for a few years before reelection in 1775. He received an appointment to replace the anti-independence representatives at the Continental Congress and, on August 2nd, 1776, he joined the likes of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Wythe as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, Taylor was more the quintessential American than the millionaire grandees who served in the Congress—beginning life as an impoverished servant, working for another without much compensation to win his freedom, and then making a comfortable living through hard work, honesty, business sense, and the cultivation of important friendships.
He did not speak much, he was a quiet “gentleman from Pennsylvania,” but he gladly served and did not mind the eventual immortality that came with that one act. He helped negotiate a peace treaty with the Iroquois, served as a Colonel of militia, and manufactured cannon balls and other ordinance as well as cannons though he received little or nothing in payment from the government for his efforts. Because a Tory held the lease on his foundry business, the state of Pennsylvania seized his building. Taylor moved to New Jersey and leased another forge and continued there till he died in 1781. His wife had died long before him and he bore five children by his housekeeper, leaving them and his son by his wife what was left of his estate.
The man about whom very little is known, and whose fortune was dwarfed by most of his fellow-signers, nonetheless proved that it really took all sorts of men to create and build out the Republic; George Taylor did not live to see it all work.
James Smith was born in Ireland around 1719. He emigrated to Cheshire County Pennsylvania with his family when he was ten or twelve years old. His father was a successful farmer and James benefited from a good, simple, classical education from a local Church Minister. He later studied law at the office of his older brother George, in Lancaster. Smith was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar at age twenty-six, and set up an office in Cumberland County, near Shippensburg. This was a frontier area at the time, so he spent much of his time engaged in surveying, only practicing law when such work was available. After four or five years he moved back to more populated York, where he might practice law exclusively.
During the 1760s Smith became a leader in the area. He attended a provincial assembly in 1774 where he offered a paper he had written, called “Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great Britain over the Colonies in America.” In the essay, he offered a boycott of British goods, and a General Congress of the Colonies, as measures in defense of colonial rights. Later that year he organized a volunteer militia company in York, which elected him Captain. His company later grew to be a battalion, at which point he deferred leadership to younger men.
He was appointed to the provincial convention in Philadelphia in 1775, the state constitutional convention in 1776, and was elected to the Continental Congress the same year. He remained in Congress only two years, and as Congress was meeting in Philadelphia in those days, provided his office for meetings of the Board of War.
James Smith retired from the Congress in 1777, and served in few public offices after: one term in the State assembly, a few months as a judge of the state High Court of Appeals. In 1782 he was appointed Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania militia. He was reelected to Congress in 1785 but declined to attend due to advancing age. Little is known about his work, because a fire destroyed his office and papers shortly before he died.
Scotland born and educated, the highly respected and intellectual Wilson was one of six signers of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The firmest believer that political power is derived from the people and that government should serve them, his pamphlets and speeches won over many in the debates of the day. He earned the respect of all of his colleagues and was considered by some in the Constitutional Convention second only to James Madison as “most able and useful.” He read the aged Benjamin Franklin’s speeches for him to the Convention and was considered his spokesman.
James Wilson began life near Cupar, in the “Kingdom of Fife,” Scotland in 1742. Educated at St. Andrews and Glasgow Universities, Wilson emigrated to Pennsylvania at the age of twenty three and earned his living teaching Latin at a local college and reading Law with the famous John Dickinson. It is likely he had developed his political ideas while at Glasgow and honed them in the real life circumstances of the American situation. He was one of the earliest to deny Parliament the right to legislate for the colonies at all, and his logical and precise legal mind came in handy when he was elected to the Continental Congress at the age of thirty three. Pennsylvania voted for independence three to two, thanks to Wilson’s deciding vote.
In 1779, a patriot mob laid siege to his home in Philadelphia, where he and friends fought them off, with loss of life on both sides. The attacks came in the midst of food riots; they were furious at Wilson for defending Tories in several court cases in the city. He left the city till the furor subsided. The incident became known as the battle of Fort Wilson. The discord eventually forgotten, the people of Pennsylvania chose Wilson to help in the creation the United States Constitution and their state Constitution. He served as a George Washington appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also taught law at the school that became the University of Pennsylvania.
In his personal life James Wilson was married twice and fathering seven children. By all accounts he was “an affectionate and indulgent husband and father.” Wilson got caught up in the land investment fever that appealed to so many investors in his day. He borrowed large sums to purchase land in three states and fell heavily into debt; when land prices crashed he went bankrupt and was incarcerated in debtor’s prison in two different states, suffering the same ignominy as his fellow Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris.
He died at the age of fifty five and was remembered as “friendly, interesting and hospitable, amiable and benevolent in his deportment, of strict truth and integrity.” He also signed the great treatise of liberty on behalf of his adopted state and country and played a huge role in the creation of the Republic under the Constitution.
Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who did not survive to witness the defeat of Great Britain and the establishment of the United States, John Morton was the first to die. Little did he know that his signature on August 2nd, at age fifty-two would be one of his last ones, for he would barely live to see fifty three years.
John Morton, born near Chester, Pennsylvania, received one hundred percent of his education from his step-father, his own dad dying just before John was born. Learning everything from mathematics to hand-writing, Morton was a quick study and applied his knowledge as a farmer and surveyor. He married and raised eight children with his wife Ann Justis. Appointed Justice of the Peace and thereafter elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, where he served as the Speaker of the House, Morton represented his state in the Stamp Act Congress. When the sheriff died, the good citizens appointed Morton to that office as well.
He was elected to serve in the Continental Congress while he was fulfilling his duties as an associate justice of the Pennsylvania superior court. Benjamin Rush described Morton as “just a plain farmer . . . but was well acquainted with the principles of government and of public business.” After Lee’s resolution for independence, Morton found himself in a tight spot. Pennsylvania leaned Tory and with the influence of Quakers in his district, definitely away from any actions that might presage violence. The conservative Dickinson faction opposed declaring independence at that time; they believed that not all efforts had yet been made to get the King and Parliament to cool the passions and see the situation in a calmer spirit.
When it came time to vote, Pennsylvania appeared ready to reject independence, with Morton holding the deciding vote. The home-schooled farmer/surveyor, moonlighting judge who represented a conservative district finally stood and voted his conscience and convictions with a firm aye, securing his state’s commitment to a clean break with the mother country. He later served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole in developing the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution to govern the new Republic.
His constituents were upset with Morton’s vote, which deeply wounded him in spirit. Etched on his grave are the words of a letter he wrote on his deathbed to his angry neighbors: “They will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service I ever rendered my country.”
Known as the “Financier of the Revolution,” Robert Morris lived to serve his country by sacrificing his energy, ability, and prosperity for the preservation of American liberty and independence. One of the few signers of all three documents: The Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution, Morris devoted his experience as a merchant and businessman to manage the finances of the war effort regardless of what it cost him. One historian notes that “ the Americans owed and still owe, as much acknowledgment to the financial operations of Robert Morris, as to the negotiations of Benjamin Franklin, or even the arms of George Washington.”
At the young age of fifteen, Morris quickly outgrew the knowledge and skills of his tutor, but was unable to continue his studies due to the accidental death of his father. Apprenticing himself under the local mercantile businessman, Charles Willing, Morris acquired the invaluable skill of accounting, business, and negotiation. His employment, and later partnership, to the Willing, Morris & Co. was an extended and profitable business through the war and many years after.
With developing encroachments on maritime business and trade, Robert Morris took a stand against the growing invasion of Britain on the rights of the colonists. Unlike the typical merchant Morris signed the Non-Importation Resolutions as a proactive step in opposition to unrepresented restrictions.
After his election to the first Continental Congress, Morris was apprehensive about voting in favor of Independence. “He considered the vote premature. Benjamin Rush later explained Morris’s stand. Morris, he wrote, was opposed to the time (not to the act) of the Declaration of Independence, but he yielded to no man in his exertions to support it, and a year after it took place he publicly acknowledged on the floor of Congress he had been mistaken.” Robert Morris went so far as to apologize for not proposing a Declaration sooner. He penned his name to the legendary document on August 2, 1776.
Both a businessman and a signer of the Declaration of Independence automatically made Robert Morris the confidant of George Washington during the difficult years of the Revolutionary War. While the army was suffering in Valley Forge in the year 1777, Washington turned to Morris for monetary aid. Although Morris sometimes lacked the sufficient coinage to help the army, he used his experiences in the mercantile business to negotiate loans. His services made him indispensable to the survival of the American war effort.
When British troops moved on Philadelphia and Congress fled to Baltimore, Robert Morris remained behind to the last minute to continue duties of Congress. On the Committee of Commerce and Committee of Finance, Robert Morris was called upon during the “most distressing years of the war” in 1779 and 1780, and again in 1781 where he was a principle advisor and initiator in Congress for the decisive Battle of Yorktown. When Washington devised the plan to attack Lord Cornwallis in Virginia, “Morris agreed to support the campaign with his personal credit.” Without his tireless efforts in ensuring the stability of the army, the War for Independence might have languished further or even failed. “It may be truly said, that few men acted a more conspicuous or useful part; and when we recollect, that it was by his exertions and talents, that the United States were so often relieved from their difficulties, at times of great depression and pecuniary distress, an estimate may be formed of the weight of obligations due to him from the people of the present day.”
In 1782 Morris established the Bank of North America purposed to uphold and maintain the new and upcoming government. Because of war expenses, Morris encouraged additional financers to invest in the fledgling Bank, all the time never flinching or withholding his own savings account from the task at hand. “Every sacrifice that could be made, he offered up on the altar of patriotism. He abandoned the ease and enjoyments of domestic life, and devoted his time, his talents, and his fortune, to the public benefit. It may be said of him… he sacrificed himself for the good of the commonwealth.”
Although dying a penniless man, Morris remained a prominent and respected figure in the eyes of his contemporaries. Instead of being the debtor, it was American who was in debt to his services. Morris, in his own words stated, “I make these sacrifices with a disinterested view to the service of my country. I am ready to go still further; and the United States may command everything I have, except my integrity, and the loss of that would effectually disable me from serving them more.”
George Washington considered Nathanael Green his most trustworthy General in the Revolutionary War. Like Washington his mentor, Greene did not always win his battles and he committed occasional strategic errors; but he always retained the devotion of his men and, in the end, won the victory that counted. When the war ended, Greene’s military reputation was second only to Washington’s– Not bad for the youngest general in the army, an asthmatic iron monger from a pacifist sect, hobbled with a congenital knee problem, and whose only prior experience involved recruiting state militia.
Nathanael Greene’s Quaker family fled Massachusetts for Rhode Island a century before his birth. His parents opposed much book-learning.Nathanael, nonetheless, developed his mind as a brilliant autodidact, reading voluminously, mastering mathematics, and acquiring a profound knowledge of classical literature and history. He received tutoring from the Rev. Ezra Stiles, who would later become the president of Yale. Greene worked in his father’s iron foundry until 1773 the same year he was kicked out of the Quaker Meeting for attending a military parade. Among Greene’s Boston friends and acquaintances was the bookseller Henry Knox with whom he discussed military history. Their friendship would mature as they became fellow officers of the highest rank under Washington. History is often made by a conspiracy of friends.
With war on the horizon he bought as many military treatises and related books as he could and studied the arts of war. As a popular local businessman and leader, he raised a militia regiment for service in the defense of Rhode Island. At the siege of Boston Greene demonstrated an ability to get along with inter-colonial rivals and, most importantly, developed an important personal relationship with Washington. Greene later took command of a brigade of Rhode Islanders, leading them in part of the Long Island/New York Campaign. The disaster at Fort Washington was largely his fault but he redeemed himself in the Battle of Trenton. His commander in chief had so much confidence in him he sent General Greene as liaison to Congress and, after the difficult winter at Valley Forge, made Greene the Quartermaster General, hoping to restore the supply and confidence of the army. His extraordinary administrative skills, construction of field supply depots and improvements in the transport system helped keep the American Army in the field. He also commanded the right wing of the Continental Army with skill and elan in the Battle of Monmouth.
General Greene’s political enemies inside and outside Congress tried to get rid of him by reorganizing the Quartermaster Department and bad-mouthing him to influential congressmen. When Congress refused his request for a formal vote of confidence, Greene resigned as Quartermaster in 1780 in the midst of the nadir of the military fortunes of the Patriot cause. A brutal winter, combined with the anti-Greene political intrigue in Congress, General Washington’s stalemate outside New York City, and the southern campaign coming to grief at Camden, South Carolina, all bolstered British fortunes and Tory support. At that crucial moment when the Cause seemed all but lost, Washington turned to Nathanael Greene to lead a small American army south to recover patriot fortunes in the Carolinas.
From December 1780-December 1781 Major General Greene fought the British to a standstill in the Carolinas. American victories by Daniel Morgan at the Cowpens and by the over-the-mountain men at Kings’ Mountain combined with renewed successes in the field under Francis Marion and Light Horse Harry Lee forcing Lord Cornwallis to move into North Carolina after Greene. The veteran American Continentals fought a fierce battle at Guilford Courthouse and withdrew after inflicting severe losses on the red-coat army. Greene returned to South Carolina for two more years of bold hit and run raids and strategic control of the invader’s garrisons while Cornwallis marched off to his fate at Yorktown, Virginia.
Following the war General Greene retired, to the plaudits of a grateful nation. He became the doting and forgiving father to his children, faithfully raised by his wife Katy while he had been off fighting the war for eight years. The war and bad investments had cost him great amounts of his fortune and the post-war life of Greene was anything but idyllic. The Greenes moved to land donated by the state of Georgia and there built the home the General would live in the rest of his life. Only three years after the end of the war,Nathanael Greene died of heat stroke at his new home.
General Nathanael Greene lost a number of tactical battles but never a significant strategic one. Assessments by historians include recognition of Greene’s “ability and military values” and “his keen insight into the heart of Cornwallis’s blunders and . . . skillful use of guerrilla troops . . . [which] stamp him as a general of patience, resolution, and profound common sense.” Like all men, Greene had his faults and weaknesses but, like Washington, he refused to lose, and was the last man standing when the British threw in the towel.
Recommended for further reading:
Washington’s General:Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution by Terry Golway
1776 by David McCullough
The second oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence (at 69, one year younger than Ben Franklin), Hopkins had defied the demographic age limit of his times by many years. He had participated with his family in the slave trade, but ended up freeing his own slaves, then played the key role in outlawing slavery in his state, the first anti-slavery legislation in America. As a farmer and a merchant, there were few offices that had eluded his public service and he was, perhaps, the best known man in the colony when he was sent to Congress. He had joined Franklin in the earliest attempts to unify the colonies and he lived to see it happen.
Stephen Hopkin’s resume included Chief Justice of the Superior Court, joined in the founding of the Anti-Tory Providence Gazette, and served as Governor ten times in thirteen years, before independence. He served as the first chancellor of what became Brown University. His article “The Rights of the Colonies Examined” was reprinted and distributed throughout the colonies. Keeping with Rhode Island’s reputation as “rogue” island, he defied the Crown’s demand to extradite the burners of the tax revenue ship the Gaspee’ and supported the war with England (“powder and ball will decide this question”), as well as looking the other way when his brother continued the slave trade after it was made illegal. He was a lifelong plain-dressing Quaker and lifelong supporter of religious liberty. In that regard, one historian has described the Hopkins household, with his seven children, “the resort of ministers, elders and other members of engaged in religious visits; and the usual place of meeting in Providence being contracted, the general religious meetings of the society were, in the winter season, frequently held at his dwelling.”
His reputation as a bon vivant followed him to Philadelphia where his constant good cheer, forthright support of separation from Great Britain, and witty repartee’ endeared him to his fellow delegates. John Adams wrote that Hopkins humor “kept us all alive” and that “Hopkins never drank to excess, but all he drank was immediately not only converted into wit, sense, knowledge, and good humor, but inspired us with similar qualities.” Old Hopkins helped draw up the Articles of Confederation and helped found the United States Navy, having a lifetime of experience in international trade, smuggling, and finance.
Hopkins likely had been partially paralyzed by a stroke, or had a palsy, which caused his hand to shake. As he signed the Declaration of Independence he said “my hand trembles, but my heart does not,” a heart that continued beating till his death at the age of seventy eight, several years after celebrating the independence he so desired and in which he invested his life, his fortune and his sacred honor.
Born on December 22, 1727 in Newport, Rhode Island, William Ellery was a dutiful, determined and deeply religious man. At the age of 16 he was sent to study at Harvard, where he became fluent in Greek and Latin. As a highly educated young man, he was a brilliant and eloquent speaker and gained considerable attention for his elegant and neat handwriting. Upon graduating, he worked for his father’s mercantile business for 20 years, learning to trade and ship, which would later be useful when he was appointed to be U.S Collector of Customs.
But it wasn’t merely law that held his interest. An avid gardener, Ellery grew flowers and vegetables, and tended with special care to most recent passion: politics. After the Stamp Act, Ellery grew more fervently patriotic, since as a trader and a merchant, he had a vested interest in the patriotic cause. When Rhode Island delegate Samuel Ward suddenly died of small pox, William Ellery was appointed to take his place. Riding his horse through the 250 miles of rough terrain of New England, Ellery arrived in Congress ready to sign the Declaration of Independence. He regarded the signing of the important document with much reverence. According to Merke Sinclair and Annabel Douglas MacArthur in their book, They Signed for Us, Ellery chose a special seat in order to observe the signing. “I was determined to see how they all looked as they signed what might be their death warrants. I placed myself near them and eyed each closely as he affixed his name to the document. Undaunted resolution was displayed on every countenance.” (Sinclair and MacArthur 30).
Truly, William Ellery regarded the signing of the Declaration as an important historical moment in the foundation of the young country and knew the sacrifices the coming months would ensue.
On 10 July 1776, William Ellery wrote to his brother: “We have lived to see a Period which a few years ago no human forecast could have imagined – to see these Colonies shake off and declare themselves independent of a State which they once gloried to call Parent …”
Indeed, not long after signing, Ellery narrowly escaped from his house, where the British seized his home and burned all his earthly belongings. However, for Ellery, the British could destroy his mortal riches, but they could not touch his unwavering faith. Whenever calamity or misfortune would befall the small, bespectacled patriot, he would utter a phrase that soon became the idiom he was most remembered for: “the Lord reigneth,” so great was his unwavering and steadfast hope in God.
Unlike other signers who suffered from poor health, Ellery was greatly blessed with excellent health, even up until his 90’s. At the ripe old age of 92, Ellery was found resting on his bed reading Cicero. The honorable gentleman faithfully served God and country till the end.
Merke Sincliar and Annabel Douglas MacArthur, They Signed For Us (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce). P. 30
The only signer with two brothers-in-law as signers, Arthur Middleton’s career as tenacious leader and warrior for independence seemed to be a family affair. Born on June 26, 1742 near Charleston, SC, Middleton was the eldest son of Henry Middleton, the President of the Continental Congress. Henry was one of the wealthiest plantation owners in the region, owning nearly twenty, totaling over 50,000 acres of land with over 800 slaves. As a prominent politician, he insured that his son received the best education possible and sent Arthur to Westminster and later to Cambridge. At age 18, Arthur graduated from Cambridge as a brilliant scholar well-versed in Greek and Latin. He extended his education by traveling abroad for two years. During that time the young Middleton developed an acquired taste in music, architecture, and art. Now classically trained as a Renaissance man, Middleton returned home to South Carolina to wed Mary Izard. Shortly after, they toured Europe for an additional three years and eventually raised nine children together.
Despite spending a substantial amount of time in Europe, Middleton was a fierce patriot and a more radical advocate for independence than his father had been. In 1775, the passionate young Middleton was elected to serve on the provincial congress of South Carolina. He also served on the committee of safety for South Carolina, which was responsible for organizing a military force in the state. Along with William Henry Drayton, he designed the great seal of South Carolina. In 1776, he followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a delegate in the Continental Congress. At the young age of 34, Middleton made the irrevocable decision to sign his name, his honor, and his life upon the Declaration of Independence. His signature came with a heavy price when, shortly thereafter, the British targeted his estate and severely damaged his property. All of his valuable paintings collected from his travels in Europe, along with 200 slaves were either stolen or ransacked. Providentially, his wife and children managed to escape to a friend’s house they were able to reside until the conflict was over.
When the British invaded and captured Charleston, Middleton, along with his brothers-in-law and fellow South Carolina signers, Thomas Heyward and Edward Rutledge, were captured and taken to a notoriously punishing prison in St. Augustine, Florida. After enduring a year of confinement, Middleton was released as an exchange prisoner. He was elected to represent South Carolina once more in Congress, but resigned in 1782 and returned to South Carolina to restore his home and estate. Although he never served in Congress again, he served on the South Carolina State Legislature and as a Trustee for College of Charleston. Regrettably, he died at the age of 44 from exposure to the cold on New Year’s Day 1747.
Middleton left an enduring political legacy to his forebears. His son, Henry, served in the State Legislature and also as Governor of South Carolina. His grandson, Williams, was a rabid advocate for States Rights and signed the Ordinance of Succession, which made South Carolina the first to secede from the Union. But most notably, Middleton left the enduring legacy of freedom and liberty that we enjoy today.
As the youngest signer of the Declaration, Edward Rutledge was only twenty-six years old when he made the life-altering decision to pen his name. Born on November 23, 1749 in Charleston, South Carolina, he was also the youngest of seven children born to Dr. John and Sara Rutledge. Shortly after Edward’s birth, John Rutledge died, leaving his young 27-year old wife to raise seven children alone. During his formative years, Edward was educated by private tutors and worked as a clerk in his brother’s law office. When he was 20, he was sent to Middle Temple in London to study law.
After his studies were complete, he returned to the colonies and was admitted to the South Carolina bar. He married Henrietta Middleton, sister to Arthur Middleton- a fellow signer of the Declaration, and together they had three children. In 1774, he was elected to serve as a delegate in the Continental Congress. At first, Rutledge was hesitant to sever ties with the Motherland. He, along with a few other South Carolina delegates, advocated for reconciliation and negotiation with England. Knowing the price of independence, Rutledge urged the other delegates to consider the grave consequences of a costly war and to contemplate a peaceful agreement, which could potentially save countless lives. If war should be necessary, Rutledge argued, time and patience were essential in order to establish skilled armies, amplify resources, and strengthen collaboration with foreign allies. When Richard Henry Lee called the vote for independence, Rutledge requested that the vote be delayed until July 1st. Although he eventually voted in favor of independence in order to be unified with the other colonies, he still maintained that the timing was not yet “ripe.”
Rutledge greatly paid the price of independence. While fighting in the battle of Charleston as captain of artillery, he was captured by the British and sent to a prison in St. Augustine for “dangerous rebels,” along with fellow signers and brothers-in-law Heyward and Middleton.
He was incarcerated for a year before he was released as a prisoner exchange. After his release, Rutledge continued to serve in the South Carolina state legislature until he was elected as Governor in 1798. Despite suffering from gout, a common ailment at the time, he continued to serve as governor and completed the term. At the turn of the century, he fell ill due to exposure to the rain and cold. He died at the age of 50 on January 23, 1800.
As a guerilla fighter, he had no peer in the War for Independence. As an officer in the Patriot forces of South Carolina, he provided leadership that engendered fierce personal loyalty. As a foe of the invaders, the desire for his capture or death sometimes determined the strategies of armies large and small. Though the area of his independent military operations did not exceed the Peedee, Santee, and Black River regions, his raids affected the whole theatre of the war in the Carolinas. His enemies called him “The Swamp Fox.”
Of sturdy French Huguenot ancestry, Francis Marion was a typical middling gentry, locally respected, an unmarried man of modest means, age 42 in 1775. He had left his plantation during the French and Indian War and served on the South Carolina frontier against the Cherokee. He learned the art of war in a time of massacre and savage reprisal among the contenders in the forests and valleys of the mountains, experiences that would mold his hit and run tactics in the Revolutionary War. His would not be a romantic set-piece kind of warfare.
Marion joined the South Carolina Provincial Congress and shortly thereafter recruited the men who made up his company of the Second South Carolina Regiment. As a captain, Marion led his men in the repulse of the invasion force at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, braving the naval bombardment, inspiring the men with his fearlessness. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Marion served around the Charleston area, building a reputation for sobriety, decency and stern but humane discipline. After the American defeat at Savannah, and the retreat of the army, Francis Marion was left in command of the American forces, the only ones still active in South Carolina.
During the investment of Charleston by the British expeditionary force under Cornwallis in 1780, Marion broke his ankle jumping from a second story window. He had been locked in a room with partying officers who were in their cups. He chose not to join in and could only escape through the window. The fall and injury turned to his favor when he was sent home to recover; while there, the city fell to the besieging Redcoats. The whole American army was captured but Marion. From Charleston, Cornwallis embarked on a campaign to force the entire state into submission. He defeated every major force sent against him and increased the bitterness of the internal civil war by unleashing the Tories against their patriot neighbors.
Francis Marion recruited his own band of warriors and began what became a legendary series of raids and assaults on the occupiers. With lightning hit and run raids, his “partisan rangers” wreaked havoc on British and Tory supplies, patrols and garrisons. Frustrated by his inability to stop Marion (and his up-state counterpart Andrew Pickens) Lord Cornwallis finally unleashed the brutal troopers of Banastre Tarleton to finish off the pesky Colonel Marion. The wily South Carolinian established headquarters on an almost inaccessible island in the swamps of the Peedee. As the British troopers ravaged the civilians in the countryside, some of Marion’s men left to defend their homes. Nonetheless, with undiminished ardor, the patriot guerilla captain continued to strike back and play a cat and mouse game with the local loyalist militias and British troopers, none of whom could track his men in the swampland to which they retreated.
General Washington sent General “Light Horse Harry” Lee to join with Marion and Nathaniel Greene to mop up the backcountry and drive the British interlopers back to Charleston. Emboldened by success, the Swamp Fox attacked Georgetown, Motte’s Plantation and Fort Watson. When South Carolina finally secured their independence, Francis Marion had been elevated to the rank of general.
General Marion held no personal grudges after the war, even to former neighbors who had joined the British. He was the second most popular hero of the war, behind only the great Washington himself! Hundreds of boys were named after him in following years. Although Francis Marion, like George Washington, left no progeny, he bequeathed to America a legacy of heroism and devotion to liberty that was known to every generation of American children until recent times. May it be so again!
Suggested further reading:
Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion by Robert D. Bass The Life of Francis Marion by William Gilmore Sims
Born in St. Luke’s Parish, South Carolina, now known as Jasper county, a mere 25 miles north of Savannah, on July 28, 1746, Thomas Heyward Jr. was the eldest son of a wealthy plantation owner. Previous generations in the affluent Heyward family had been successful indigo and cotton planters, but the Signer’s father, Daniel Heyward, was the first to grow rice as well, which proved to be highly successful crop in the low country. Due to his adroit business skills, the elder Heyward was able to acquire thousands of acres of land stretching from the Combahee River south toward Beaufort and Savannah.
As a staunch Royalist, devoted to the British crown, Daniel Heyward sent Thomas to study law at Middle Temple in London in an effort to impress the value of an intellectual education and also to influence loyalist views upon his son. However, the trip to England had the opposite effect on the young man. While studying abroad, Heyward experienced directly the prevailing prejudice towards the British colonists, including blatant injustices involving the rights and privileges neglectfully disregarded. The exposure to the overtly condescending and discriminatory temperament of the British towards the Americans forever severed any emotional attachment to the mother land. In fact, his observations in Europe only spurred Heyward on more towards the patriotic cause.
But before he returned to the colonies, Heyward embarked on an extensive tour of Europe, which lasted several years. While traveling, he gained a comprehensive knowledge into different governments and cultures, which heavily influenced him in the founding of the new colonies. Once he was content with his observations, he returned to South Carolina and began to practice law. Soon after, he married Elizabeth Matthews and together they had five children.
In 1775, he was elected to serve as a delegate in the First Continental Congress, in addition to serving on the Committee of Safety. Unlike some of his fellow South Carolina delegates, Heyward was not hesitant to vote for independence. Much to his father’s chagrin, Heyward strongly supported separation from the mother country and encouraged other delegates to vote similarly. Shortly after his thirtieth birthday, Thomas Heyward Jr. made the indelible decision to affix his name to the Declaration of Independence. Outraged by his son’s rebellious action, Daniel Heyward told Thomas that the British would most likely hang him for his treason.
Although they were in political conflict for much of the war, father and son would later reconcile before Daniel’s death. After signing, Heyward was appointed as a judge of the criminal and civil courts of South Carolina. In an effort to make an example out of the Loyalists charged with carrying treasonous correspondence with the British, Heyward ordered the prisoners be hanged in full view of the British militia. Needless to say, this spiteful action did not make him popular with the British forces.
Not only did Heyward serve as a judge, but he also served as captain of the artillery. During the capture of the City of Charleston, Heyward was seized as a prisoner of war for being a leader of the revolution. Along with fellow South Carolina delegates Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, Heyward was taken to the notorious British prison in St. Augustine and held for a number of years. During his imprisonment, he defiantly composed a song, “God Save the States” to be set to the tune of “God Save the King” and taught it to the other prisoners.
While imprisoned, his plantations and slaves were ransacked and seized to a total loss of $50,000. The British had completely destroyed his property and his wealth. To make matters worse, his wife had died in his absence. Although the British contrived to take away all his earthly goods, they were unable to quench his patriotic pride. Heyward’s allegiance to freedom and independence could not be tainted.
At the end of the war, he was released in a prisoner exchange. However, he almost did not survive the trip, as he was on ship destined for Philadelphia, Heyward accidentally fell overboard and managed to sustain himself by clinging onto the ship’s rudder. He continued to serve in public office by being among the few to sign both the Declaration and the Articles of Confederation. He also was elected president of the Agricultural Society of South Carolina, and helped to write the new South Carolina state constitution. Retiring from public life at the age of 45, Heyward remarried and rebuilt his decayed plantation to new success. Enjoying at last the fruit of his labor and sacrifice, Thomas Heyward died quietly on March 6, 1809 on his estate, leaving a legacy of freedom, liberty, and happiness to bestow upon further generations.
Born into a life of privilege, power, and prestige, Thomas Lynch Jr. was the son of an affluent political leader and wealthy planter in Prince George’s Parish, South Carolina. Thomas Lynch senior was a prominent South Carolina delegate in the Continental Congress, a role that his son would later inherit. At the age of 12, Lynch was sent to study at the venerable private college of Eton, in England. Founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, Eton was an illustrious establishment reserved only for noblemen and royalty. After graduating, he continued his education at the Cambridge University and also studied law at the exclusive Middle Temple in London. In 1772, Lynch returned to South Carolina to announce that he had no intention to practice law, despite spending years at one of the most renown law schools in the world. His father gave him a large plantation on the Sante River to start a new life with his wife, Elizabeth Shubrich (whose sister married South Carolina signer Edward Rutledge, making the two signers brothers-in-law).
Due to his father’s lofty political status, Lynch was made captain of the South Carolina militia. However, he was unaccustomed to the rough living conditions of a soldier and soon became sickly. Circumstances took a turn for the worst when his father resigned from congress for his failing health. Although Lynch’s commanding officer denied his request to return to his father, his father’s friends were influential enough to let the son take his father’s place in congress, so Lynch was discharged from duty. The young 26-year-old arrived in Philadelphia just in time to vote for independence, sign his name on the Declaration, and return to his ailing father. Regrettably, his father died of a stroke soon after. Due to his own faltering health, Lynch and his wife set sail for warmer climates in hopes of restoring his complexion. However, because he had essentially signed his own death warrant by affixing his name to the Declaration, travel by sea was especially dangerous. In order to evade capture, the Lynch’s sailed for the West Indies and planned to set sail from there to Europe. Tragically, their ship was lost at sea, disappearing in the infamous Bermuda triangle.
As the youngest signer to die, Thomas Lynch Jr’s life was short-lived yet vastly accomplished. Although he was ill for most of his life, he selflessly devoted care for his father and his country. Undaunted by the threat to his life by signing his name, Lynch quietly and patiently fulfilled what he considered was his patriotic duty. William Ellery, a fellow signer from Rhode Island, said of Lynch: “He was enabled to give his full sanction to those measures which were tending, with irresistible efficacy, to the declaration of independence. One of the last acts of his political life was to affix his signature to this important manifesto.”
The biggest and heaviest delegate at the Convention, Benjamin Harrison, quipped to his diminutive colleague Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, on the consequences of signing the Declaration of Independence, referring to the potential threat of hanging by the British, “It will be over with me in a minute, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.” –a big man with gallows humor.
Born into a James River plantation family of Virginia and receiving a good part of his education at the College of William and Mary, Benjamin Harrison was well on his way to becoming a notable mover and shaker in colonial politics. At the tender age of twenty, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and was regarded as a supporter of independence for the colonies. However, because he appeared to some as a moderate conservative, he was pressured by the royal government to chair the executive council at the capitol in Williamsburg. The refusal of this position, and at such a young age, could have ended all his political aspirations, but instead distinguished him as a dedicated and immovable patriot for the cause of liberty.
In 1774 he was elected as a delegate to the first Continental Congress where he was often called upon to preside as chairman of the whole house under John Hancock, who served as president of the assembly. He was purposely kept off the committee that drafted the Declaration because he was considered that “ponderous arch-conservative” (along with Carter Braxton), and replaced with the quiet and more radical Thomas Jefferson, an inspired decision. Still in the position of leadership, however, Harrison chaired two famous debates: the July 2nd debate on independence from Great Britain, and the July 4th adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Later, on August 2nd he joined his fellow Virginians by affixing his signature to the document, whether he would “hang for it” or not.
Despite the fact he towered over his colleagues at six foot four height and 240-pounds, Harrison led by strong character and clear argument rather than force. When occasion required it, he spoke with great passion, persuasion, and a “peculiar sagacity.”
Two years after independence Harrison returned home to serve as speaker in the Virginia legislature. During that period of his political life the British army swept through Richmond and supposedly burned parts of Berkley Plantation, his birthplace and home. It was all restored after the war and remains an historic attraction today along the James River in Charles City County. Harrison was forced to flee from town to town ahead of the British dragoons.
While serving in one of his three terms as the fifth Governor of Virginia, Harrison returned to the Convention for the ratification of the Constitution, where he argued in favor of a Bill of Rights. In 1788 he was appointed chairman of a committee to debate, discuss and form amendments which were later adopted to the foundational document.
In the spring of 1791 the weighty Harrison was attacked by the gout, from which he recovered just enough to be elected again to the Virginia legislature. Unfortunately, the day after his re-election to the legislature the gout seized him once again and this time claimed his life.
Benjamin Harrison had married Elizabeth Bassett and together they raised seven children, some of whom gained places of distinction. His last son, William Henry Harrison served as governor of the Indian Territory, was a delegate to Congress from the state of Ohio, and later ascended to the Presidency, only to die one month after election.
Although faced with hardship, war, and threats of hanging, Benjamin Harrison faced it all with strength of character and a jolly attitude. He went so far as to jest about it! The life of Benjamin Harrison is yet another great example of the heroes America produced in its pursuit of independence and growth.
His grandfather owned forty two plantations. He inherited five when his own father died. After graduating from The College of William and Mary he married a wealthy girl who brought a large dowry and bore him two children before expiring. His second wife, the daughter of a British official, brought more property and bore him sixteen more children. He spent a couple years in England where he became steeped in British sentiment, settled in at his main plantation of Chericoke and made a further fortune in business with the great slave-trade enterprises of Providence, Rhode Island, led by the Brown family who endowed Brown University. Yet Braxton would be signatory to the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most reluctant signer, given the pledge of fortunes in cash, land and slaves that attached to his name.
Carter Braxton entered the Virginia House of Burgesses at the age of twenty five, already among the economic and social elites of the colony. He had no trouble signing the non-importation agreement protesting the Townshend duties and would ever be an opponent of Parliamentary taxation of the colonies. In 1772 he was elected sheriff of King William County, the most important official on the county level.
When the Royal Governor had his men seize the gunpowder stored in the Williamsburg powder magazine, Delegate Patrick Henry marched on the town with an armed force of men from Hanover County to force the Governor to hand it back or pay reimbursement. Before the situation could escalate into violence, Carter Braxton stepped in and convinced his father-in-law to pay for the powder, thus diffusing the situation.
Carter Braxton joined the new provincial government when the Governor took to a warship to shell the Virginia coast. He helped raise men and arms to defend the colony from further British incursions. Although not initially selected for the Continental Congress, the deeply conservative Braxton, with hopes for ultimate reconciliation with the Crown, was appointed to join the Virginia delegation in Philadelphia after the death of delegate Peyton Randolph. As late as mid-May, Braxton was hesitant to back independence but when it came time to sign the Declaration pledging life, fortune and sacred honor—he signed.
Returning home a little over a week later, he also returned as a delegate in the Virginia legislature where he served until his death. During the war he worked hard to supply uniforms, salt, and blankets to the American army and loaned a great deal of money to Congress, which was never repaid. He made the shocking and unsuccessful proposal that slaves be armed to fight for the United States and be rewarded with freedom. His maritime business interests were all ruined in the war and he lost much of his property. He went deep into debt, ultimately losing almost all of his wealth and possessions. He died of a stroke in 1797, age 61, leaving barely enough assets to sustain his widow.
Carter Braxton was a Virginia gentleman of the highest social order, a man who wined and dined the Governors and their friends, married a daughter of an English Colonel, and developed economic enterprises through English trade that netted him millions. His grave lies unmarked somewhere near Chericoke. He threw in his lot for independence and in the end was left with only his sacred honor intact.
Born in Stratford Hall, Westmorland County, Virginia, as were all his five brothers and four sisters; everyone seems to agree that Francis Lightfoot played second fiddle to his more aggressive and outspoken older brother Richard Henry. He became a trustee of the town of Leesburg on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, just west of the future Washington D. C. and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1758 to 1776.He was selected to represent Virginia at the Second Continental Congress and served there in Philadelphia through the crucial first three years.
As a member of the “ancient and honorable” family of Lee, Frank Lightfoot came along as the eighth of eleven children, and, like many of his siblings had little relationship with his “preoccupied” mother. His unusual middle name derived from the well-known, and well-heeled Lightfoot family of early Virginia, whose descendants were scattered through a half dozen counties. The Lees, with one of the most vigorous kinship networks in the colony, maintained a keen interest in politics and military service which passed on through the generations. Francis would serve with four of his brothers in the House of Burgesses.
As the relationship between the colony and the Mother Country deteriorated, Francis and Richard Henry pitched in together with the more outspoken and radical of the Virginia patriots. They sought to make America what they called, “the Asylum-elect of liberty.” Along with their brother Tom and cousin Squire Lee, they worked to “keep politics at Williamsburg in step with the Continental Congress.”
When brother Richard Henry left Philadelphia over the perceived slight of being denied the committee assignment to write the Declaration, never to really regain his optimism over the chances for liberty’s success, Francis stuck to his guns, serving on committees of military, foreign and domestic issues. With his wife Rebecca by his side in the Quaker City, Lee went about the business of tirelessly building the Republic. When Richard’s political enemies at home began a whispering campaign that R.H. preferred the Massachusetts’ men more than his own kind, Francis resigned and went home to help shore up the family reputation. After seeing to a suitable constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia, the two brothers, reputation restored, returned to the Continental Congress in triumph.
Another crisis erupted over calumny by Silas Deane in France over brother Arthur Lee, and once again backstairs controversy threatened to downgrade the Lee family, so sensitive of their honor and public character. Once again, Francis weathered the storm but resigned in 1779 to return to Virginia and serve a four year term in the Senate, before finally retiring to his home, Menokin, to live in peace and quiet.
He opposed his brother Richard Henry on the Constitution ratification issues, supporting James Madison in the Virginia vote for the new national governing instrument. The inimitable Mark Twain wrote of Francis Lightfoot Lee in 1877, probably getting nearest to the essence of the man as anyone: “this man’s life was so inconspicuous, that his name would be wholly forgotten, but for one thing—he signed the Declaration of Independence. Yet his life was a most useful and worthy one. It was a good and profitable voyage, though it left no phosphorescent splendors in it wake. In short, Francis Lightfoot Lee was a gentleman—a word which meant a great deal in his day, though it means nothing whatever in ours.
Grandson of Welsh immigrants, first cousin of Daniel Boone, Morgan was destined by providence to take his place among the most honored and successful of the American generals in the War for Independence. First, though, he had to run away from home at age seventeen, slug a British officer in the French and Indian War and receive five hundred lashes, get shot in the face at point blank range fighting Indians, and become one of the most feared frontiersmen in Virginia.
Daniel Morgan began his military adventures as a waggoneer on the Braddock Expedition against Fort Duquesne. He and his cousin Daniel Boone both survived along with a future friend, George Washington. On the rough and tumble of the Virginia frontier, the fiery six foot, two hundred pound Morgan became known as a brawler and two fisted drinker, always giving more than he got. An Indian bullet took out all his teeth on one side and exited his neck but he kept his saddle and escaped the ambush.
When the War for Independence came, Morgan helped raise and command a company of riflemen, inured to hardship and deadly shots. He led them six hundred miles to Boston without one dropping out. His men spearheaded the march against Quebec, in which battle he was captured and later exchanged. He raised a body of five hundred sharpshooters, “the Corps of Rangers,” and joined Washington in New Jersey, later sent to fight the British invasion of New York. His men mowed down the Redcoats and the Hessians on several occasions in the Saratoga Campaign, usually recognized as the turning point battle of the war. His men would scatter after fighting behind trees and be reassembled with a turkey call to go at the enemy from another quarter.
Colonel Morgan refused to join the political and military intrigues against General Washington, threatening the perpetrators with physical harm. The short-tempered and ambitious Virginian joined with the main Continental Army in several other campaigns but resigned pleading ill health and after being slighted by Congress for higher command in 1779. After promotion to Brigadier General, Morgan proceeded to South Carolina where he turned his men to fight at the Cowpens to stop “Bloody Ban” Tarleton. Directed by Morgan’s unique brand of personal heroism and leadership, his Virginia riflemen and militia annihilated the British force, and the doughty Welshman marched his troops through a trap to join Nathaniel Greene’s army in North Carolina.
Suffering from rheumatism, arthritis, and probably sciatica, Morgan resigned his commission. After the war however, he commanded the Militia during the Whiskey Rebellion and ran both a successful and an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. He was slow in paying his debts and quick to thrash the man who owed him.
Both his daughters married former Continental officers and between them gave him nineteen grandchildren to play with. Unlikely though it may have seemed to his old comrades, he joined the Presbyterian Church. One of the most colorful, shot-up and successful frontier and army leaders in American history died at the age of sixty six near Winchester, Virginia, celebrated by his own kind across America. He was still the center of attention when his descendants hid his bones during the Civil War, afraid the Yankees would steal them.
Some colleagues saw him only as a sickly widower with nine children to raise on his own and a super-wealthy planter and intellectual who liked spending most of his time at home. Those assessments were true but, to the resume’ must be added, major author of the Fairfax Resolves and Virginia’ Declaration of Rights, the originator of important sections of the Constitution of the United States, and wearer of the title, “father of the Bill of Rights.” The United States would likely have been quite different without the efforts of George Mason IV.
He was a Virginian through and through, with financial, agricultural, and land interests that made him one of the wealthiest men in the colony—more so than his younger neighbor and friend, George Washington. Unlike most Virginians who claimed descent from Cavaliers, but weren’t, Mason truly was. Vestryman in the local parish, public service in the House of Burgesses, tobacco plantations and large land holdings, and a self-disciplined academic brilliance were all part of Mason’s patrimony, and he made the most of it.
Although dependent upon slavery, he abhorred it and sought it’s abolition in the various legal venues in which he found himself throughout life. Realizing the intransigent opposition to emancipation in his own time by Northern slave-trading interests and the Carolinas, he did not free his own slaves, but left them to his nine children to insure their economic well-being, an irresolvable conflict others of his class also took to their graves.
Mason built his home, Gunston Hall, which he hardly ever left even during legislative times. He diversified his crops, produced wine, and made the Mason’s self-sufficient. With such idyllic sounding circumstances, one would not think that George Mason would be soon counted with the rebellious and risky patriot cause against Royal authority. He not only articulated Virginia’s discontent with illegal taxation, he did so with sarcasm and venom. His neighbors, like George Washington, turned to him for advice on practical measures of resistance and found Mason at the forefront of advocacy for non-importation, training militias, and attending rump sessions of the House after their dissolution by the Royal Governor.
The Fairfax Resolves, twenty four items of contention denying the right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies, and setting up embargos of English goods, came largely from Mason’s hand. Pleading ill-health, he did not serve in the Continental Congresses, but chose to stay close to home. He did, however, enter the lists against Britain from the Virginia Legislature, drafting much of the state Constitution and Declaration of Rights in which he penned, “we came equals into this world, and equals we will go out of it. All men are by nature born free and independent.” He was elected to the Committee of Safety for the protection of Virginia, and when he eventually tried to resign, was refused.
As a member of the Fifth Virginia Convention, along with George Wythe, Patrick Henry, and James Madison, they instructed the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. During the Revolutionary War, George Mason spent much time taking measures to defend his county from British raids, serving in the Virginia House, and taking care of his family. His ill-health kept him from accepting his continual election to the Continental Congress, much to the dismay of Washington and Jefferson, who considered him one of the most brilliant theorists and practical thinkers in the nation.
Mason finally joined six other Virginians at the Philadelphia Convention in 1786 to revise the Articles of Confederation, which rapidly became a restructuring of the entire national government. George Mason was in on many arguments over the Constitution and his contributions proved decisive in several areas. In the end, however, Mason could not support the new document because of the lack of guarantees for the very liberties over which Americans had fought the Mother Country. The “Federalists” eventually prevailed in the ratification process and the two neighboring Georges became estranged as a result. However, George Mason’s arguments for a Bill of Rights soon found a permanent place in the Constitution as the guarantors of American liberty. And the rest is history.
He was the greatest teacher of law in America. The George Wythe School of law in Williamsburg, Virginia, today carries on his legacy. Thomas Jefferson called him “my faithful and beloved mentor in youth and my most affectionate friend through life.” Wythe saw something special in Patrick Henry and recommended him to his colleagues for licensure. He dropped clients who lied to him and refused taking a case when he believed the potential client was indeed guilty. He made bold his belief that the only legal tie to Britain was the King and that the monarch forfeited allegiance through tyranny. No one knew the common law better or the standard texts of English law.
George Wythe’s father died when George was only three. He was home-educated by his Quaker mother, who taught him both Latin and Greek. He attended the College of William and Mary and then read law in his uncles firm, attaining admission to the bar at the age of twenty four. He was married twice and had no children who lived. After beginning his own law practice at thirty, men who rose to great prominence came to him to learn, such as Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. He was known for paying the tuition and costs for poor students to study law. He served as the Burgess for William and Mary and was a personal advisor to the Royal Governor.
As perhaps the most well-known Virginia delegate after George Washington, Wythe’s contributions to the debates over independence proved legally helpful if not decisive in the course of action taken by the whole. He steered the debate over the King’s actions rather than Parliament’s, made practical proposals for a kind of independence within the empire and promoted foreign alliances to help win independence. He wasn’t present on August 2nd when most of the delegates signed and may even have had a proxy sign for him, but there is no question as to his total commitment to independence.
Wythe left the Congress in 1776 to assist Thomas Jefferson set up the new Virginia government and legal principles. He drafted the state constitution and designed the state seal. He became America’s first law professor at The College of William and Mary and even boarded some of his students in his home. He offered free classes in the classics and spoke out strongly for ratification of the Constitution. One of the unusual actions for which George Wythe was remembered in later years was his manumission of his slaves and seeking to educate one of them in the law.
Wythe’s presumptive heir, his grand-nephew George Sweeny, a man of low morals, gambling debts, and greediness discovered that part of the inheritance would go to an ex-slave. Sweeny poisoned a pot of coffee, the drinking of which killed the free servant and sickened George Wythe. The cook witnessed the deed, not understanding at first what she saw. Wythe changed the will, disinheriting the nephew, and died that day at age eighty. The murderer got off because slave testimony against a white man in a court of law was illegal in Virginia. The beliefs and sentiments of at least part of George Wythe’s legal mind would have to wait another hundred fifty years to reach fruition.
James Madison could not be elected President of the United States today, just based on his diminutive frame, five feet four inches and under one hundred pounds. But his education, genius, and leadership qualities might disqualify him as well! Educated by Presbyterian clergymen, student of the President of Princeton, the Rev. John Witherspoon and holder of hundreds of slaves, this Founding Father would eclipse most of the others as the epitome of political incorrectness. Nonetheless, Madison was the principle author of the Constitution of the United States, led the nation against the mightiest military forces on the planet in 1812, and helped construct Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Short of stature and of ill health though he may have been, James Madison was a giant of a Founding Father.
Madison was the oldest of twelve children born to tobacco planters on both sides of his family in Orange County, Virginia. His early tutor instilled in James Madison a love and intensity of learning. James was such a voracious scholar that he remained at Princeton after graduation to master Hebrew and political philosophy. During the War for Independence, Madison served in the Virginia House of Delegates and became a protégé of Thomas Jefferson, a man with whom he would commiserate the rest of his life and exchange visits between Montpelier, Madison’s home and Monticello, the beautiful mountain home of the Sage many times.
As the youngest member of the Congress, Madison spent many hours of careful negotiation and coalition-building in order to achieve the various compromises that would govern the nation as the Articles of Confederation. With the perceived inadequacy of that governing document, Madison and others called for a convention to make the nation stronger. The Constitutional Convention brought together thirteen states who could not agree on the most basic major issues. James Madison had created an outline for a new government, which became known as “the Virginia Plan.” Using that as a starting point, the representatives of the states hammered out a new instrument of governance and Madison became known as “The Father of the Constitution.” He fought even harder in the ratification debates in Virginia for he was up against some of the foremost orators and wise men of his day, Patrick Henry and George Mason. The majority sided with Madison.
“Jemmy’s” district elected him to Congress where he fought hard for the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, as he had promised in the ratification debates. He married at the age of forty two, the widow Dolly Todd; her extraordinary social skills came in handy when the Madisons lived in Washington.
James Madison served as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, a period of American history fraught with difficult foreign policy decisions. Madison won the election of 1808 and added to what historians would call the “Virginia” dynasty. Madison’s term in office included a second war with Great Britain, fought to a mutually agreed upon status quo ante bellum, perhaps the most disagreeable period of his life.
James Madison outlived all the Founding Fathers dying at the age of eighty five, lionized as the man who most contributed to the creation of the Constitution of the United States.
In the 1950s, country western singer Johnny Horton sang that John Paul Jones “was a fightin man, a fightin man was he, he sailed to the east and he sailed to the west and helped set America free.” And so he did. No American fighting captain has captured the interest of American boys in the past as did Jones. His colorful life– full of controversy, swagger, violence, and patriotic fervor has dominated the other great masters of the sea in history.
Born John Paul near Kirkudbright in Scotland, in 1747, to a gardener, the lad joined the merchant marine at the age of thirteen. Sailing aboard traders and slaving ships, he learned the art of navigation and command till on a cruise the captain and first mate died of yellow fever; he guided the ship safely home to port. As a reward he was made master of his own vessel by his Scottish benefactors. On his second voyage, he had a sailor flogged, a common punishment, but the man died a few weeks after of other causes. Paul was arrested for the incident but released on bail. On another occasion he killed a mutinous crewmember in a dispute over wages and, unwilling to face an admiralty court, fled to America where his brother lived, near Fredericksburg, Virginia. He added Jones to his name to escape detection.
When war broke out between the colonies and Great Britain, Jones volunteered for naval service, a decision that would eventually immortalize the name of the young Scotsman. Delegate Richard Henry Lee recognized Jones’s potential and recommended him to Congress. They commissioned him as a Lieutenant in the Continental Navy aboard the twenty two gun frigate, USS Alfred. He raised the first American flag on a naval vessel—the Grand Union flag.
After successful cruise to raid the Bahamas, Jones was given his own command, a small raider named the USS Providence, with which he captured sixteen British merchantmen prizes. He quarreled with his superior officer over command of a bigger ship and permission to fulfill his own raiding plans. Given a smaller ship than promised, USS Ranger, Jones was sent to harass British shipping around England. He docked in France and met the American ambassadors, befriending Benjamin Franklin, especially. They joined the Masonic Lodge together.
With a somewhat indifferent and recalcitrant crew, Jones raided around the Irish Sea, attempted to burn the ships in Whitehaven, and even tried to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk in his former hometown in Scotland. The crew were set on privateering and profit rather than serving as a warship of the United States, which proved a great difficulty for Captain Jones. The Ranger finally engaged a British warship, HMS Drake and captured her. Controversy followed in the wake when he arrested his own first officer and alienated the crew once again, but the victory signaled that the fledgling American navy could beat His Majesties ships at their own game.
The greatest victory for American naval forces in the entire war pitted Jones’s new ship, the forty two gun Bonhamme Richard and four other American vessels against the fifty gun HMS Serapis and twenty two gun Countess Scarborough on 23 September, 1779 near Flamborough Head. The English Captain demanded Jones’s surrender to which he replied, “I have just begun to fight!” The Bonhomme Richard captured the Serapis, but sank after a vicious battle of broadsides and boarding. Jones became a hero and received honors from the French government. He insisted he be called “Chevalier” Jones by Congress. Not receiving the rewards of rank and recognition he believed he should, Jones searched for new places his skills would be more appreciated.
Jones joined the Russian navy, where he quarreled with almost everyone, got recalled to Moscow after fighting the Turks, was accused of improprieties with a Russian girl, and returned to France, where he was found dead in his room at the age of forty five, controversial to the end. He was buried in a royal cemetery that disappeared, long forgotten, after the French Revolution. His grave was rediscovered in 1905 and his remains returned to the United States with great ceremony by President Theodore Roosevelt. He found his final resting place beneath a beautiful mausoleum at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. John Paul Jones had finally received the recognition and rank that were only his due.
Young men of courage and daring are always prized in time of war. So much the better when providence places them in a situation that calls forth their natural talents. Such was the course of the Virginian Henry Lee in the War for American Independence. A member of the large and politically connected Lee families, he graduated from Princeton at age 17 but saw his burgeoning law career cut short by the War. After receiving a cavalry commission in the dragoons from Governor Patrick Henry, the patriotic young soldier showed real promise as a leader of light cavalry, performing dangerous reconnaissance behind enemy lines in the 1st Continental Dragoons.
Lee’s handling of men in an action near Valley Forge in January of 1778, resulted in a resolution from Congress which stated that “by the whole tenor of his conduct . . . he has proved himself a brave and prudent officer rendering essential service to his country and acquired to himself and the corps he commanded distinguished honor.” They raised his rank to Major and allowed him to recruit two regiments of cavalry and attach three regiments of infantry, all to become known as “Lee’s Legion.” His elite force struck the British a severe blow in the Battle of Paulus Hook, for which Congress awarded Lee one of only eight medals struck in the war and the only one presented to an officer below the rank of General. By November he was raised to Lieutenant Colonel and made a Corps commander. Not bad for a twenty three year old with only on the job training.
Lee’s most brilliant service came in the Southern Campaign where he joined with Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” and General Nathaniel Greene against Lord Cornwallis and his green-jacketed bad-boy dragoon goon Banastre Tarleton. Detached for independent raids, Light Horse Harry shattered a Tory force at Haw River in North Carolina and conducted constant reconnaissance and intelligence gathering throughout the South Carolina expedition. His “Partisan Corps” fought in every engagement until the British were finally bottled up in Charleston. He was allowed to rejoin his George Washington’s forces at Yorktown, Virginia so he could be in on the kill that brought about the end of the war. He returned to South Carolina for some final action and was honorably discharged, probably suffering from depression and true battle fatigue. He had known nothing but constant war from the age of 19 to 27.
In 1782 Henry Lee married his second cousin, “the divine Matilda” and produced three children before her death in 1790. He then married Anne Hill Carter of “Shirley Plantation” who bore him six more children, the fifth of whom was Robert Edward Lee, who became the lion of the Confederacy in the 1860s, a man who was constantly reminded of his father’s heroism and service in the first Republic. He remained a good friend of the Great Washington and he supported the ratification of the Constitution. Lee when on to serve as Governor of Virginia and as a congressman. It was Light Horse Harry Lee who proclaimed upon Washington’s death that “he was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen!”
In his elder years Henry Lee suffered severe financial losses due to ill-advised investments and the bankruptcy of the financial wizard of the Revolutionary war, Robert Morris. He lost his fortune, his property, and his reputation. Lee was severely tortured and beaten by a Baltimore mob in 1815 when he came to the defense of a newspaper publisher who opposed the War of 1812. His health deteriorated and he died on an island in Georgia near the home of his old commander, Nathanial Greene.
The hero of the Revolution had served faithfully at lower ranks commensurate with his inexperience and age, but he moved quickly to the top as his talents for commanding dragoons and his leadership and courage on the battlefield proved his merits; he is the perfect example of a man who was faithful in small acts and was rewarded with the opportunity to earn the trust of his country in large ones. The providential result in the case of Light Horse Harry Lee, was a key role in the creation of the American Republic.
Son of Scottish immigrants to Virginia and named after his clergyman-uncle, Patrick Henry with his ringing voice and unvarnished rhetoric led his countrymen into rebellion against the tyranny of King George; he was christened “The Trumpet of the Revolution.”
As a youngster he had sat at the feet of the great preacher Samuel Davies during the “Great Awakening,” much to the displeasure of his father but with the insistence of his mother. Patrick married his seventeen year old neighbor and began his working life as a rather unsuccessful farmer and tavern-keeper near the county courthouse.
The sandy-haired fiddle player enjoyed hearing the give and take of court days and the repartee of legal debate. He decided to make his way to the capitol in Williamsburg and apply for a law license. Perhaps noticing his uncommon good sense and force of personality appropriate to frontier legal wrangles, the Virginia barristers awarded him his license though his knowledge of the actual law appeared to be rather sparse. From there he made his way in back-country county courts with his powerful voice, wit, and sang froid. An action known as “The Parson’s Case” secured his reputation and from the successes that followed, his election to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Even as a freshman House member he challenged the Tidewater Grandees who ruled the colony as their private fiefdom and he became the outspoken leader of all the piedmont frontier representatives. His law practice continued to thrive as he defended the frontier yeomen and the religiously persecuted dissenters from the established church. The royal governor and his supporters did not always appreciate Henry’s loud talk of liberty and ancient rights and especially his sympathy with the rhetoric and rebellion of the “Massachusetts malcontents.”
At the Second Virginia Convention, held secretly at St. John’s Church in Richmond because the governor had dismissed the assembly for their resolves of support for fellow colonists in New England, Patrick Henry delivered one of the most famous and fateful speeches in American history. After arguing for the formation of militias for defense against royal troops he concluded by saying “give me liberty or give me death!” That ringing endorsement of rebellion against tyranny vaulted Virginia and Patrick Henry to the first ranks of common cause with all thirteen colonies. He subsequently attended the Continental Congress with his fellow Virginia patriots like Thomas Jefferson and new-found soul mates like John Adams. Needless to say, when the war came, Virginia turned to Patrick Henry to lead them as war governor. He created a state navy, marshaled the armies, and preached perseverance and patriotism.
When the states assembled to reform the Articles of Confederation, America’s first Constitution, he stayed away, allegedly saying “I smell a rat.” Sure enough, Henry found himself opposed to what he foresaw as an imperial presidency and his beloved state losing its hard-fought independence. In the end, he was instrumental in getting the Bill of Rights passed and retired to his little farm with and near his seventeen children, the real father of his country!
No family became so closely associated with Virginia than the Lees. Richard Henry was one of two Lee brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence and one of five who served simultaneously in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Epileptic and accident prone, fiercely loyal to his family even to his own hurt, his elegant manner did not prevent Lee from leading the fight against English tyranny side by side with his co-conspirator Patrick Henry. Missing four fingers on one hand due to a swan hunting accident, he held a black silk kerchief in his hand, which gave additional flourish to his accomplished and powerful oratory.
Born at Stratford Hall in Westmorland County, Virginia, the eldest of six sons, Lee was tutored at home in the family school house until being sent to England for formal instruction from age 11 to 18. His first marriage produced four children and his second, five more. By the time he was elected to serve in the Continental Congress, Richard Henry had captained the Westmorland militia in the French and Indian War, surviving both British arrogance and the price paid for it by General Braddock at the Monongahela River. He also served faithfully as Justice of the Peace and in the House of Burgesses, along with four of his brothers, until it was dissolved by the Royal Governor. He and Patrick Henry formed the core of the Sons of Liberty and with Thomas Jefferson, the Committee of Correspondence.
While the majority of the delegates to the First Continental Congress hoped for a reconciliation with the Crown, Lee advocated the establishment of militias in preparation for further depredations by the British army, a proposal rejected by the Congress. He linked up with the outspoken Samuel Adams and he wrote letters to the King, which no doubt enraged his majesty; he proposed in the Second Congress, winning approval this time:
“Resolved: That these United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, dissolved.”
Seconded by John Adams, it was approved on 2 July, 1776. Historians have noted that King George desired more than any others, the heads of George Washington and Richard Henry Lee in nooses on Tower Hill. Lee’s signature adorns the Declaration, of course, as well as The Articles of Confederation. He served in the Continental Congress till 1779 and then in the Virginia legislature till 1784.
During the war Lee also led the county militia in a number of actions against British attack, one time suffering a horse fall as the British raced toward him up the beach. He conducted a successful fighting retreat. One British officer complained that whenever they landed in Westmorland, the militia were always on them in minutes.
Richard Henry Lee opposed ratification of the Constitution, allying himself with Patrick Henry, George Mason, Judge Tyler and others who believed the new instrument of government granted too much power to the President and left room for future tyranny against the states. He wrote a series of public articles known as “Letter from the Federal Farmer” in which he argued his case to the voters. Like his anti-federalist colleagues, he acquiesced to the new order and served in the United States Senate. He became known as a defender of religious freedom and an opponent of slavery. In 1794 Lee died from injuries sustained in a carriage accident, universally mourned as one of the most devout Christians and effective patriots of the age.
Unlike most of his fellow signers and politicians, he was a farmer and not a lawyer. He probably could not have sat still long enough to bother. Nonetheless, he knew the law, was considered the Cicero of his day and in his personal life, “a kind and affectionate husband, a generous neighbor, a constant friend, and in all the relations of life, he maintained a character above reproach.”
Born of modest lesser gentry in the piedmont of Virginia, no one would ever have guessed that this son of a frontier tobacco grower would go down in history as one of the most important and influential men America ever produced. Although he was a shy man who shunned the limelight and never gave public speeches, Jefferson possessed a towering intellect which explored many fields of thought including the sciences, architecture, literature, culture, agriculture, politics, religion, history, and philosophy. The Second Continental Congress turned to the thirty three year old Virginia polymath to write the Declaration of Independence.
Drawing on several other documents that expressed some of the ideas that the Congress had heartily debated, Jefferson’s version underwent revision in eighty five places by the other four members of the Committee, then the Congress as a whole, before reaching the published form. He went on to write the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which took seven years to pass the House of Burgesses. The political life of the red-headed autodidact had only begun. His greatest desire was to live at his home, Monticello, and pursue his hobbies and intellectual interests but the American people and his political colleagues would not hear of it. He served in the Virginia House, a term as Virginia Governor, five years as Ambassador to France, Secretary of State to President George Washington, Vice-President to his revolutionary comrade in arms and friend (but soon to be estranged) John Adams, and President of the United States for two terms.
Jefferson became a polarizing figure, even among those whose political philosophies matched his own. He and Patrick Henry became enemies due to a perceived public slight. Jefferson opposed Alexander Hamilton in Washington’s cabinet and experienced strained relations with George Washington himself. A full believer in state authority, he opposed attempts to make the Federal government more powerful and obtrusive over the states. He stated his views with unmistakable vigor: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Thomas Jefferson read thousands of books, wrote several himself, while building, managing, and modifying Monticello and its attending gardens, lands and produce. He designed the initial buildings and was instrumental in establishing the University of Virginia. As President, Jefferson doubled the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase and sent Lewis and Clark to map and explore the land. He was inconsolable after the death of his beloved wife, Martha, who had given him six children. Nonetheless, his hospitality was legendary and people came to visit and stayed for weeks.
Some historians consider Jefferson an enigma, but that is because they can’t keep up with him. It is true he had no fondness for slavery, but in that, he was neither unique, nor uncommon, among his class. He maintained a vigorous slave population on his plantations and could see no alternatives to the institution, in his generation. Jefferson spent his fortune perfecting his house and collections, his wine and his travels and left his heirs so indebted they had to sell off his house and assets. Fortunately, he left behind an intellectual and political legacy that defined American history and the liberties of generations to come.
Although battling serious spells of asthma, direct British attacks on his hometown, and never receiving compensation for his donations to the war effort and independence, Brigadier General Thomas Nelson Jr., nonetheless, lived a full and victorious life to the very end.
In 1738 Thomas Nelson Jr. was born to one of Virginia’s “first families” in Yorktown, and at the age of fourteen sailed to England to receive an education at Trinity College, Cambridge. At twenty-three, on his return home to join in the family mercantile business, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. One year later, in 1762, Nelson met and married Lucy Grymes with whom he had eleven children.
As the year 1774 neared its end, so did the Virginia House of Burgesses. Out of response to the closed port in Boston Thomas Nelson Jr. and others in Yorktown arranged a “tea party” and toppled some tea barrels into the York River. Although appointed colonel in the Virginia militia, Nelson decided to take his place as a Virginia delegate to the first Continental Congress. Making a motion to approve the resolution made by fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee, Nelson dipped the quill with other patriots and enthusiastically signed the Declaration of Independence. Nelson represented Virginia as a delegate until 1777 when he was obliged to resign due to severe asthma attacks and a series of strokes. In his work for the Congress he supervised the treasury and helped frame the Articles of Confederation.
However, in the year 1781 Nelson once again joined the fray, but this time with his sword. Succeeding Thomas Jefferson to the Governorship of Virginia, Nelson defended the Old Dominion against British incursions and prepared defenses against the oncoming attacks of General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, who had positioned his army in Governor Nelson’s hometown.
When General George Washington arrived with the American and French armies to lay siege to Yorktown, Nelson joined him with the Virginia militia. He suggested the artillery shell his own magnificent home since it was the greatest in town and would be full of British officers. The enemy scampered from the house and set up headquarters in a cave by the beach. As a testimony to this patriotic and zealous action there are cannon balls still imbedded in the old façade!
Only six months after his election as Governor of Virginia he was forced to resign due to returning poor health. Coupled with this natural misfortune Nelson also bore the burden of $2,000,000 war collateral with which he had paid the troops with his own money and outfitted a cavalry troop. Although never compensated and forced to live in a small home in another county, he later stated that he “would do it all over again.”
Nelson was one of those patriots who embodied the words of the Declaration of Independence where it so boldly stated: “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Nelson had applied both his pen and his sword for the cause of freedom and for the hope of future fortune and happiness.
His good friend Colonel Innes testified to the strong character of Thomas Nelson Jr.:
In the memorable year 1781, when the whole force of the southern British army was directed to the immediate subjugation of this state, he was called to the helm of government; this was a juncture which indeed ‘tried men’s souls.’ He did not avail himself of this opportunity to retire in the rear of danger; but on the contrary, took the field at the head of his countrymen; and at the hazard of his life, his fame, and individual fortune, by his decision and magnanimity, he saved not only his country, but all America, from disgrace, if not from total ruin. Of this truly patriotic and heroic conduct, the renowned commander in chief, with all the gallant officers of the combined armies employed at the siege of York, will bear ample testimony; this part of his conduct even contemporary jealousy, envy, and malignity were forced to approve, and this, more impartial posterity, if it can believe, will almost adore.
After years of declining health, the Governor died in 1789, just after his fiftieth birthday. He had given his all for the cause of liberty and independence though the cost was immense in both health and wealth. He died beloved, especially by the soldiers whose service had depended on his personal guarantee and support.
Abigail Adams, early in the fight for independence and growing anxious in their noble cause, wrote to her husband that, “We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She was most definitely not referring to George Washington.
George Washington is, by most any reckoning, the only indispensable man in American history. Physically imposing and a head taller than nearly all his contemporaries, the American leader was a “rock star” before there was such a thing. He was an athlete and a warrior – a statesman, gentleman, sage, and the very personification of virtue, all wrapped into one. He was John Wayne, Indiana Jones, and Joe Montana amalgamated. If that sounds like an exaggeration, perhaps you haven’t truly made his acquaintance.
Washington’s exploits were every bit as heroic in real life as Wayne’s and Indiana Jones’ were in fiction. His physical prowess and iron resolve were unmatched, as his friends and enemies alike would attest. There has never been a man like him nor is there likely ever to be again. We owe him no less than our freedom – and that is but a part of the ledger.
While he did not possess Jefferson’s, Franklin’s or Adam’s towering intellect, he was the master of them all. Washington literally towered over his fellow-patriots, standing 6 foot 3 1/2 inches tall (as measured by his secretary at his death) in an age when the average male was but 5 foot 7. He was rugged, even as a young boy. By the tender age of 16, Washington was already comfortable in the treacherous wilds of the American frontier, and had conducted, in the most dangerous of conditions, several of nearly 200 land surveys for wealthy landowners of Virginia. His self-control is the stuff of legend. He was all but impossible to rattle which he demonstrated time and again.
It may surprise many that, except for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington had the least amount of formal education of all the presidents who have since followed, which makes the level of knowledge and wisdom that he attained, simply mind-boggling.
As a teenager, the young and future president copied by hand and memorized 110 Rules of Civility. Originally written to denote proper behavior in the company of equals, Washington applied them to everyone he met, including his soldiers, and they loved him for it. All the stories of soldiers trudging through the snow, shoeless, with blood draining from their feet are true. They endured these extraordinary hardships and much, much more for their beloved Commander-in-chief.
With chronological distance we tend to look at the famous words “we pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” as a mere lyrical utterance. But the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, put everything on the line, their lives included, even as the ink was drying. Benjamin Franklin famously said that “we must, indeed, all hang together, or we shall assuredly, all hang separately.”
As the popular historian Stephen Ambrose writes, “[Washington] would have been brought to London, tried, found guilty of treason, ordered executed, and then drawn and quartered. Do you know what that means? He would have had one arm tied to one horse, the other arm to another horse, one leg yet to another, and the other to a fourth. Then the four horses would have been simultaneously whipped and started off at a gallop, one going north, another south, another east, and the fourth to the west.” This is what Washington was risking to establish your freedom and mine.”
No other man could command such respect and admiration. Ambrose reflects that, “Washington came to stand for the new nation and its republican virtues, which was why he became our first president by unanimous choice and, in the eyes of many, including this author, our greatest.”
Of the nine presidents who owned slaves, Washington was the only one who freed his. Like Jefferson, he could not reconcile the institution of slavery with the promise of America — a promise they, themselves made. The difference is that Washington had the courage of his convictions and, in the end, kept his promise.
Washington’s Farewell Address is one of the seminal documents in American history. Every American should read it. Never has one man held so much power, with the blessing of the people, as did Washington, only to let it go. A popular commentator once wrote of him, “the final component of Washington’s indispensability was the imperishable example he gave by proclaiming himself dispensable.” No less than George the III, after suffering defeat at his hands, admired him from afar, when he said, “If George Washington goes back to his farm, he will be the greatest character of his age.” He did just that, and he was. The heroic man retired to his farm to pick up where he left off, growing tobacco, distilling spirits, and enjoying the comforts of a life well lived.
He was larger than life but did not claim himself so. No American in his day compared to George Washington, nor has anyone ever since. His cavalry commander in the War for Independence, “Light Horse Harry” Lee summed him up this way: “He was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Indeed he was, indeed he is.