The only person who had signed the Declaration on July 4 was John Hancock, a delegate from Boston who had been elected president of the Continental Congress. He wrote his signature in large, bold letters and as he did, in a reference to the near-sightedness of the British king, he declared, “There! John Bull can read my name without spectacles and may now double his reward of £500 for my head. That is my defiance.”
As the delegates gathered around a desk to sign the Declaration, William Emery, one of the representatives from Rhode Island, moved as close as he could. “I was determined to see how they all looked as they signed what might be their death warrants,” he later wrote. “I placed myself beside the secretary, Charles Thomson, and eyed each closely as he affixed his name to the document. Undaunted resolution was displayed on every countenance.”
Contrasting with Hancock’s confident signature was the shaky scratch of Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island. Hopkins was the second-oldest signer and suffered from palsy. As he handed the quill to the next person, he valiantly proclaimed, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not!”
As one or two delegates hung back, seemingly reluctant to add their signatures to such a momentous declaration, John Hancock encouraged them. “We must be unanimous,” he said. “There must be no pulling different ways. We must all hang together.”
Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin replied, “Yes, we must all hang together. Or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Happily, none of the signers was hanged by the British. But all of them were considered traitors to the Crown. And many of them suffered terribly for the cause they so ardently supported.
When New Jersey signer Richard Stockton returned to his home after signing the Declaration he learned that British troops were coming to arrest him. He fled to a neighbor’s house with his wife and children. But a Loyalist (as supporters of the British cause were called) betrayed the family’s hiding place. Here is how Merle Sinclair and Annabel Douglas McArthur describe what happened to him:
“The judge was dragged from bed and beaten, then thrown into prison. This distinguished jurist, who had worn the handsome robes of a colonial court, now shivered in a common jail, abused and all but starved.
“A shocked Congress arranged for his parole. Invalided by the harsh treatment he had received, he returned to [his home at] Morven to find his furniture and clothing burned, his fine horses stolen, and his library—one of the finest private collections in the country—completely destroyed. The hiding place of exquisite family silver, hastily buried, had been betrayed by a servant.
“The Stockton’s were so destitute that they had to accept charity. For the judge’s fortune was gone, too. He had pledged it and his life to his country. He lost both. He did not live to see the Revolution won.”
John Morton, a delegate from Pennsylvania, was the first of the signers to die. His last words for his family, before his death in April 1777 (just eight months after he signed the Declaration), were, “…tell them that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service I ever rendered to my country.”
The following month Button Gwinnett, the commander in chief of Georgia’s militia, was badly wounded in a duel with a political opponent. He died a few days later—the second signer to die.
But by and large, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were a hardy bunch. Three of them lived until their 90s—a remarkable accomplishment in a time when most men did not see their 50th birthday.
Only two of the signers were bachelors. Sixteen of them married twice. Records indicate that at least two, and perhaps as many as six, were childless. But the other 50 signers were a prolific lot, having a total of 325 children between them! William Ellerey of Rhode Island had 17 children; Roger Sherman of Connecticut had 15.
Fifty years after the united colonies declared their independence from Britain, plans were made for jubilant celebrations on July 4, 1826. (Of course, Jefferson and Adams, both, died July 4, 1826.)
July 2, 2010 by Chip Wood