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We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes And Our Sacred Honor
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence had very few illusions about what they were risking. How much of what they pledged did they actually lose?
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Eight of the signers were declaring the independence of a land in which they weren’t even born, and all eight of these were natives of the British Isles. The last to arrive in the colonies was Dr. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, who came from Scotland only eight years before the Declaration. All the rest of the signers were born in America.
The average age of the fifty-six signers was fortyfive—not young by eighteenth-century standards, but not ancient. Franklin was at seventy the oldest, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was the youngest at twenty-six years and eight months, being just four months younger than his fellow South Carolina delegate, Thomas Lynch. These were the only two delegates in their twenties. (If either of these men had lived as long as Charles Carroll, they would have lived until S. F. B. Morse telegraphed “What hath God wrought” and the United States admitted Texas to the Union—but they both died young.) Sixteen of the signers were in their thirties; twenty—the largest single age-group—in their forties; eleven in their fifties; six in their sixties; and only one, Franklin, in his seventies.
Nine of the signers, all of whom had pledged their lives to the support of the Declaration, died during the Revolution—all but three as a direct or indirect result of it. The first to die was John Morton, a Pennsylvania farmer, who had been severely criticized for favoring independence. On his deathbed eight months after signing, he said of his critics, “…they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service that I ever rendered my country.” Button Gwinnett, a cantankerous merchantlandowner who had served as governor of Georgia, died a month after Morton. Gwinnett challenged a brigadier general of a Georgia Continental brigade to a duel over a military dispute. The two fired pistols simultaneously at four paces (about twelve feet), shooting low and wounding each other in the thigh. The general recovered, but Gwinnett died three days later of a gangrenous infection.
Another signer, John Penn of North Carolina, was challenged to a duel by Henry Laurens, who succeeded Hancock as President of the Congress in 1777. On the morning of the duel, Penn, who was thirty-eight, had breakfast with his fifty-three-year-old opponent; then the two set out together for the dueling ground. Laurens stumbled as they crossed a street, and Penn rescued him from falling. His sense of etiquette apparently disturbed by rescuing from slight injury an older man whom he was about to try to injure severely, Penn proposed that they call off the duel, and Laurens agreed.
The longevity of the forty-seven signers who survived the war was impressive. Four lived into their nineties, ten into their eighties, and nine into their seventies. The average age at death was sixty-nine—strikingly high for the time. Thomas Lynch, the second youngest signer, was the youngest at death—thirty; and Charles Carroll, who was thirty-nine when he signed, was the oldest, at ninety-five in 1832—the last of the signers to die. The last widow of a signer to die was Elbridge Gerry’s relict, who went to her reward the year that Abraham Lincoln turned down an appointment by President Zachary Taylor as governor of the Oregon Territory—1849.
Of the fifty-six signers, all but two were married, and fourteen were married twice. Caesar Rodney, the Delaware delegate who had made the mad ride to Philadelphia to cast his state’s decisive vote for independence, was apparently the only doctrinal bachelor. The other single signer, Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, who was talked into supporting independence by John Adams, had been engaged to be married, but his fiancée died a few days before the wedding. Benjamin Franklin, whose views of marriage were functional at best, had a common-law wife, but the other fifty-three married signers had more formally acquired consorts.
All but four signers risked their lives and fortunes in spite of considerable family obligations. Altogether they had some 305 children (figures are not available for two), and the number of their grandchildren ran well into four figures. Since fifty-two of the signers are known to have had children, the average per father was nearly six. Seven of these were illegitimate; two, including the Loyalist governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, were Benjamin Franklin’s by unknown predecessors to his wife Deborah, and five were those of another Pennsylvanian, George Taylor, who had two children by his wife and five children by his housekeeper. The largest number of children—eighteen—belonged to Carter Braxton of Virginia, who had married twice. Ten signers had ten or more children, and two of them, John Adams and Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, had sons who became Presidents.
The eighteenth century was an age of admirable generalists—men like Franklin and Jefferson who could turn with equal skill to many fields. Insofar as they had predominant occupations, however, more—twentyfive—were lawyers than anything else. Next most numerous were merchants (twelve) and landowners (nine). There were four physicians, two farmers, and two fulltime politicians with no other occupation. Franklin was the only printer. There was also only one clergyman, although two others, Robert Treat Paine and Lyman Hall, had been clerics, Paine later turning to the law as nearer his real interests, and Hall to medicine after having been deposed from his Connecticut parish for “confessed immorality.” Fifteen per cent of the signers, however, were sons of clergymen. Twelve of the lawyers were jurists, and so were two of the physicians, three of the merchants, one of the farmers, and one of the politicians—nineteen judges altogether.