The signers of the Declaration of Independence: Their triumphs & sacrifices beyond 1776

Declaration of Independence - What it says and who signed it

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The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important and iconic documents in American history. It was adopted on July 4, 1776, by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and announced to the world that the thirteen American colonies, which were then at war with Great Britain, were now independent and free states.

The Declaration is a masterpiece of political philosophy, a bold statement of individual rights and freedoms, and a stirring call to revolution. It has been revered by generations of Americans as a symbol of their nation’s founding ideals, and has inspired countless movements for independence and liberty around the world.

As we reflect on the Declaration’s legacy, we can gain insights into the struggles and aspirations of those who wrote it, the signers of the Declaration of Independence — and find inspiration for our own efforts to build a more just and equitable society.

Here we have the full text of the document, as well as information about the men who added their signatures to the original Declaration of Independence all those years ago.

Who were the signers of the Declaration of Independence? (1971)

By Clark Kinnard, Revolutionary War Historian – Daily Journal (Vineland, NJ) July 2, 1971

John Trumbull’s revered painting, The Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the Capitol in Washington, is an enlargement, with minor variations, of the work preserved in the Trumbull Collection at Yale University.

Trumbull painted 36 men in the original from life; others were done from earlier portraits or memory.

Both paintings are illusory. Of the 48 men depicted (see key below), Thomas Willing, John Dickinson, George Clinton, and R R Livingston were not signers. The latter was on the committee which drafted the Declaration.

The 56 signatures were affixed on August 2, 1776, and at later dates. Some of the signers had not been members of Congress on July 2, when the independence resolution was approved, nor on July 4 when the Declaration was adopted.

Signers of the Declaration of Independence

From the Architect of the Capitol:

This painting depicts the moment on June 28, 1776, when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Second Continental Congress. The document stated the principles for which the Revolutionary War was being fought, and which remain fundamental to the nation.

Less than a week later, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration was officially adopted, and it was signed on August 2, 1776. 

Signers of the Declaration of Independence - Key

What happened to the signers of the Declaration of Independence afterward?

By Clark Kinnard in The Daily Journal (Vineland, New Jersey) July 2, 1971

Members of Congress, in altering the Jefferson draft of the Declaration of Independence, added the noble words with which it concluded as adopted in July 1776 — those in this script:

And for the support of this declaration] we mutually pledge to each other our lives our fortunes, and our sacred honour.

And for the support of this Declaration (1776)

John Hancock, as President of the Congress, and Charles Thomson, as Secretary, were the only signers then.

By August, when the engrossed copy was ready, signing required far more courage than earlier; it was clearer each could be a loser of life or liberty and fortune.

Most were men of substance — tradespeople, farmers, physicians, teachers, a clergyman, lawyers, with much besides lives to lose.

Some were dead before the war was over; several were in brutal captivity; some had to exist as fugitives, apart from their families; the properties of eight were deliberately devastated by the British; five of the richest before August 1776 were bankrupt post-war.

Other sacrifices are indicated in text with authentic facsimiles of their signatures reproduced below. None sacrificed honor.

JOHN HANCOCK, at 40, of Massachusetts, put his name down first of all, in the boldest script, as the President of the Continental Congress, 1775-77,

JOSIAH BARTLETT, 47, of New Hampshire, was a physician ( M.D., Dartmouth). who turned to law, eventually was Chief Justice and Governor of the state. Meanwhile, he had 12 children.

Hancock and Bartlett

THOMAS JEFFERSON, 33, affixed his given name officially Th: (as above). He was the second of the declarers of independence to become President. First was John Adams. (George Washington did not take part in Congress, 1776.)

ALSO SEE: How American independence was won in 1781, when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington

BENJAMIN HARRISON, 50, a rich Virginia planter, a descendant of Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe, was to be the ancestor of two Presidents: William Henry Harrison and the latter’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison II, Republican.

THOMAS NELSON, Jr., 37, Virginia financier, had a home within British lines at besieged Yorktown. When it was reported to be the headquarters of General Cornwallis, Nelson volunteered advice to General George Washington that it be leveled by artillery. He watched it ruined.

Jefferson, Harrison, Nelson

WILLIAM WHIPPLE, 47, a Maine native, and another New Hampshire signer, was a sea captain at 21 in the slave traffic from Africa. He joined the Revolutionary Army in 1777, and liberated slaves he had kept as servants in his household.

MATTHEW THORNTON, born circa 1714 in Ireland, was another New Hampshire signer trained in medicine, who became a lawyer and provincial legislator. He signed November 19. Post-war, he was Chief Justice of state. The epitaph at his grave: “He was an honest man.”

Whipple and Thornton

SAMUEL ADAMS wrote for his master’s degree at Harvard a thesis upholding the lawfulness of resisting supreme magistrates. When he signed, at age 54, he had been Massachusetts leader of resistance to royal authority for a decade. He fathered the Sons of Liberty activities.

JOHN ADAMS, 41, had, with Hancock, escaped capture — with a price upon his head — in a British sortie that preceded the battles of Lexington & Concord. Eventually the second President, he lived to see his son as the sixth. He died on July 4, 1826.

Adams and Adams

ROBERT TREAT PAINE, 45, had acted as prosecutor of “Boston Massacre” soldiers John Adams defended on principle. As a post-war judge, Paine was a founding member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston.

ELBRIDGE GERRY, 32, absent from Congress July-August, was not a Massachusetts signer till September. As a post-war political power, he begat the tricky term, “Gerrymander,” while governor.

Paine and Gerry

STEPHEN HOPKINS, 69, was the second oldest of the fifty-six signers. He had been an office-holder in Rhode Island almost continuously for 45 years; elected governor of the Colony for nine terms.

WILLIAM ELLERY, 49, Rhode Island’s other signer, graduated from Harvard at 20, and was a lawyer and original incorporator of Rhode Island College (now Brown University at Providence).

Hopkins and Ellery

ROGER SHERMAN, 55, learned the cobbler’s trade from his father, educated himself by candlelit reading, and rose high in Connecticut as a lawyer and merchant. He was the father of 15 children.

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON, 45 on July 3, 1776, married at age 20, studied law while working as a cooper. He had been a judge in Connecticut courts 11 years when he was a signer. He became President of Congress, 1779-81.

Sherman and Huntington

WILLIAM WILLIAMS, 45, businessman, married, at 40, the daughter of Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, the prototype of “Brother Jonathan.”

OLIVER WOLCOTT, 50, the son of a Connecticut colonial governor, was No. 1 in his Yale class, at 18, and lawyer at Litchfield (where his home is preserved). His signature was in October 1776.

Williams and Wolcott

WILLIAM FLOYD, 42, like Lewis Morris an inheritor of wealth, suffered financial ruin as a New York signer. His home was seized, and the family had to flee.

PHILIP LIVINGSTON, who signed for New York when 61, was a cousin of R. R. Livingston, a drafter of the Declaration whose later absence from Congress made him a non-signer of the document.

Floyd and Livingston

FRANCIS LEWIS, the native of Wales, was 63, a retired businessman with a fortune, was the eldest signer for New York. His home on Long Island was burned, and other belongings were lost in war.

LEWIS MORRIS, 55, left Congress in June for militia service. Told when he returned in September he might spare his property by refusing to sign the Declaration (some did), he said “There are many homes, only one country.”

RICHARD STOCKTON, 45, was Chief Justice of New Jersey before entering Congress. Taken captive after the signing, he emerged from prison an invalid.

JOHN WITHERSPOON, 54, a native of Scotland, was President of the College of Jersey (later Princeton) and a clergyman who had generally disapproved of the participation of ministers in politics. One son was killed as a soldier.

Lewis, Morris, Stockton, Witherspoon

WILLIAM PACA, 36, of Italian-Swiss ancestry, was a lawyer described as a “zealous patriot and a man of spotless life,” by a contemporary. He was Chief Justice of Maryland, Governor, and Federal Judge before he died at 55.

THOMAS STONE, 33, had been admitted to Maryland bar at age of 21. Coincidental with his signing, he was a member of the committee drafting the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” provided for in resolution (July 2) declaring independence.

CHARLES CARROLL, 39, added “Of Carrollton,” because he had a cousin of like name. As the richest Marylander signed courageously, a bystander remarked: “There goes a few million.” He outlived all the other signers.

Paca, Stone, Carroll

GEORGE WYTHE, 50, became, after signing, the first professor of law in any American college (William & Mary) He was poisoned by a grand-nephew named as inheritor of the Wythe estate.

RICHARD HENRY LEE, 45, moved in Congress, on instructions from Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the resolution for independence. Absent from Philadelphia when it was passed, he became belated signer in September.

Wythe and Lee

FRANCIS HOPKINSON, 38, most versatile signer, next to Benjamin Franklin, was a lawyer, engineer, painter, artist, poet, and composer. He was identified more closely with Pennsylvania, but was elected to Congress from New Jersey.

JOHN HART, of New Jersey, underwent much suffering as a signer. Mrs Hart died while his farm and mill were being ravaged, and he was a fugitive for a year. He was in the Army as a private in 1777, aged 65, until elected Speaker of the new State Assembly.

ABRAHAM CLARK habitually abbreviated his name. A self-educated surveyor, “Poor Man’s Counselor,” and one-time sheriff, he was signer at 50.

ROBERT MORRIS, 43, was no relation of his fellow signer, Lewis Morris. An immigrant from England at 13, he amassed a fortune as a merchant and land speculator that enabled him to be a principal financier of the Continental Army in the times of greatest need.

Hopkinson, Hart, Clark, Morris

FRANCIS LIGHTFOOT LEE, 42, younger brother of Richard Henry and Arthur, the latter Continental Congress’ agent in Europe, was a Virginia framer of the Articles of Confederation, and kinsman of Major General “Lighthorse Harry” Lee.

CARTER BRAXTON, 40, inherited for-tunes from his father and the heiress he married when both were 19. She died in second childbirth, and he had a second bride when he was signer for Virginia. She, nee Margaret Corbin, was to bear him another 14 children.

Lee and Braxton

BENJAMIN RUSH, physician, medical educator, hospital co-founder, pioneer in psychiatry, married in Jan. 1776, when he was 30, the 16 – year – old daughter of another signer-to-be, Richard Stockton, of New Jersey.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN counseled the delegates at Congress: “We must hang together, or we shall hang separately,” and was, at 70, oldest of the signers.

ALSO SEE: Benjamin Franklin’s obituary, details of his death & the epitaph he wrote (1790)

JOHN MORTON, 52, of Swedish ancestry (as was his wife), joined with Franklin and Wilson in swinging Pennsylvania’s dissident delegation to vote for independence. He survived less than a year after this; he was the earliest of the 56 signers to die.

Rush, Franklin, Morton

GEORGE CLYMER, 37, a Philadelphia merchant, was another not elected to Congress until July. Oddly, a grave tablet in Trenton, N.J. identifies him only with the Federal Constitution.

JAMES SMITH, 57, from Ireland, a lawyer, engaged in the iron business with less success than George Taylor (below). He was a leader in western Pennsylvania counties’ struggle against domination by eastern counties.

GEORGE TAYLOR, 60, was brought to Pennsylvania from Ireland as a bound servant. Marriage to the widow of his late owner enabled him to build up an iron business in Bucks County. He served less than a year in the Congress.

Clymer, Smith, Taylor

WILLIAM HOOPER, 34, a Bostonian, educated at Harvard, had been advised by James Otis, under whom he prepared for law, “Go South young man.” He did so, a fervent advocate of free-dom chosen for North Carolina office.

JOSEPH HEWES, 46, eldest of signers for North Carolina, was a merchant and shipping master at Edenton, original capital of the Colony. As chairman of Marine Committee of Congress, he brought John Paul Jones into the navy.

JOHN PENN, 36, first signer for North Carolina, was a Virginia-born lawyer, unrelated to the Penns of Pennsylvania. He also was a signer for his State of the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” agreed on in 1777.

Hooper, Hewes, Penn

EDWARD RUTLEDGE, youngest of the signers at 27, suffered captivity in Florida with Heyward. He was brother of the President of South Carolina General Assembly, and brother-in-law of the great Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

THOMAS HEYWARD, Jr., 30, member of a rich planter family and lawyer, volunteered for military service after signing for South Carolina. He was wounded, captured, and in brutal confinement at St. Augustine for a year.

Rutledge, Heyward

JAMES WILSON, 34, an immigrant from Scotland, made the first open proposal for independence in the Congress in Feb. 1776, but in June he advocated postponement of the formal Declaration. Then, in July, he voted for it.

GEORGE ROSS, 46, was a lawyer said to be noted for his wit. No examples are cited. He was not in Congress until after July. It was said Ross “did nothing memorable except to sign Declaration of Independence.”

CAESAR RODNEY, 48, rose from his sickbed for a famous 80-mile night and day ride, Dover to Philadelphia, to swing Delaware delegation’s vote in favor of Declaration. The action also made Delaware a separate State.

Wilson, Ross, Rodney

GEORGE READ, 43, was opposed to Declaration as untimely when Rodney resolved Read’s tie with McKean in the Delaware delegation vote. Changing his mind, the lawyer signed his as-sent before either Rodney or McKean.

THOMAS McKEAN, 42, remained Chief Justice of Pennsylvania even after Delaware’s separation from that State. He was to be the last signer, in 1781. Also a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to Constitutional Convention.

SAMUEL CHASE, 35, when Maryland delegates rebelled against approving Declaration, announced he would quit that Commonwealth. His influence, abetted by Carroll and Paca, was to swing the delegation in favor of it.

Read, McKean, Chase

CHARLES THOMSON, 46, from County Derry, Ireland, was one of two signers of the original Declaration (as Secretary of Congress) with John Hancock. He continued as Secretary of Congress until 1789.

THOMAS LYNCH, Jr.. 27, born 2-1/2 months before Edward Rutledge, was in failing health when he signed, after Army service. He sailed for West Indies in 1779, and the ship vanished at sea, making him a casualty when only 30.

ARTHUR MIDDLETON, 34, was a signer for South Carolina who had taken his father’s place in Congress. He suffered imprisonment at St. Augustine and at the infamous hulk in New York.

Thomson, Lynch, Middleton

BURTON GWINNETT signatures, indisputably authentic, have brought over $20,000 each from autograph collectors. The native of England was mortally wounded in a duel with a Georgia political rival near Savannah in May 1777.

LYMAN HALL, 52, oldest of signers for youngest of Colonies, Georgia, was a physician and planter from Connecticut who had abandoned the ministry when 32 to study medicine. He was tallest of signers, six feet four inches.

GEORGE WALTON, 35, a carpenter’s apprentice in his teens, studied law nights and was a leading barrister when he signed for Georgia. Captured in 1778, he was a prisoner a year. Georgians made him Governor, then Senator.

Gwinnett, Hall, Walton

ALSO SEE: The original Constitution of the United States (1787)

The Declaration of Independence (1776)

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Writing the Declaration of Independence

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

The Declaration of Independence (1776)

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies 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 totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Who actually wrote out the Declaration of Indenpendence?

Adapted from a post by Jessie Kratz, the US National Archives (July 1, 2021)

Timothy Matlack is the name of the scribe whose impeccable handwriting adorns the official, signed parchment on display in the National Archives Rotunda.

Matlack, who was an assistant to the Secretary of the Second Continental Congress, set to work with parchment, ink, and quill to transcribe the document using a patrician style called English round hand or Copperplate.

Although the printing press began to replace handwritten documents at this time, Matlack’s handwritten document lends a sense of elegance, authority, and — most important — anonymity to the Declaration of Independence.

The purpose of the document is to justify American independence and raise support for an independent United States, both within the colonies and abroad. The formality and skill of the engrossed copy strengthened the persuasiveness of the Declaration by distancing its arguments from any individual. The document not only helped protect the identities of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — the names were kept secret until 1777 — but it also announced the official standing of the new government by giving sophisticated visual expression to its collective voice.

ALSO SEE: The fascinating history of the American flag, and its evolution since 1777

The handwritten Declaration of Independence

The Dunlap broadsides

The Second Continental Congress turned to Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to publish the Declaration of Independence in the form of a broadside (essentially an announcement poster) several weeks before commissioning an engrossed version on parchment. 

On the evening of July 4, 1776, Dunlap printed the first edition of the proclamation for entry in the Rough Journal of the Continental Congress. Additional broadsides went to the states and troops to publicly announce and explain the reasons for the delegates’ decision to break away from Great Britain.

Congress kept its own copy, which was inserted into the Rough Journal of the Continental Congress’s July 4 entry, and George Washington had his own personal copy as well. 

While the exact number Dunlap printed remains unknown, it is thought that he made around 200 copies. The Dunlap Broadside at the National Archives is one of only 26 copies known to survive.

Declaration of Independence - Dunlap Broadside

Resolution of July 2, 1776 – From Congress’ Journal

Facsimile of entry in Journal of Congress, July SECOND 1776, attesting approval by majority of each delegation (see checkmarks at bottom) or resolution declaring independence.

Resolution of July 2 1776 - From Congress' Journal

ALSO SEE: How to have a festive 4th of July with a vintage vibe

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