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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
One of the most zealous public servants among the signers was Thomas McKean, who signed the Declaration as a delegate from Delaware but who had acquired a second house in Philadelphia two years earlier. Thereafter, one state was too few to contain his activities. While a member of Congress from Delaware, he commanded a force of Pennsylvania militia in New Jersey. In 1777, he was made chief justice of Pennsylvania, while still a member of Congress from Delaware. In 1781, he was both chief justice of Pennsylvania and president of Congress. He was also governor (acting president) of Delaware, while chief justice of Pennsylvania, but in 1799 became governor of Pennsylvania, after having occupied its top judicial post for twentytwo years. He was re-elected in 1802 and again in 1805. In his third administration his political enemies, who were legion and were frustrated by his zest, started impeachment proceedings against him on a variety of trivial charges. He outmaneuvered them, however, and never came to trial. He retired in 1808 and died at eighty-three in 1817, the only signer to have served as chief executive of two states.
Political turbulence also haunted the post-Revolutionary path of Samuel Chase of Maryland, whose career was in many respects more inflammatory than the Revolution itself. He had led the independence movement in his state, getting the convention to reverse itself after it had voted against independence. He then carried the new resolution favoring independence to Philadelphia and threw himself with unprecedented energy into the war, serving on twenty-one committees in 1777 and on thirty in 1778. He also continued some concentrated private activities, including an effort to corner the flour market based on knowledge to which he was privy as a member of Congress. Alexander Hamilton exposed this economic venture, and Maryland removed Chase as a delegate to Congress for the two years 1779 and 1780. By the time he was reappointed in 1784, he was too busy selling munitions to the Maryland militia to attend further to his congressional duties. He also speculated in mines, lost heavily, and went bankrupt. In 1788, he became a chief judge of Maryland, first in the criminal and then in the general court, holding both posts simultaneously. For this McKean-like political pluralism, he was almost removed from both offices by the Assembly, the majority—but not the necessary two-thirds—of the members condemning him.
Although Chase vigorously opposed the Constitution, President Washington saw fit to appoint him an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to interpret it. His performance in that tribunal was extremely impressive—as history has shown is often the case with unpromising appointees—and his opinions were of outstanding distinction. Nevertheless, turbulence followed him there, too. Some injudicial behavior in court proceedings, coupled with hostility to President Jefferson, led the latter to suggest his impeachment by the House, which occurred in 1804. Chase was acquitted of all eight charges, but his powers declined steadily until his death in 1811.
Another sort of difficulty besieged James Wilson of Pennsylvania, as likely a prospect for the Court as Chase was unlikely, for he had been one of the architects of the Constitution. Conversely, after his appointment to the first Supreme Court by President Washington, Wilson failed to distinguish himself. He speculated heavily in lands, attempted to influence legislation, and had to move from state to state to avoid arrest for debt. He died in acute nervous collapse at fifty-six, while threatened with impeachment, his great intellectual powers wasted in an uncontrollable quest for lesser things.
The only other signer to incur censure was George Walton, who as governor of Georgia took sides with General Lachlan Mclntosh, the man who mortally wounded signer Button Gwinnett in the duel. Walton sent a forged letter in 1779 to Congress in connection with Mclntosh’s military service, and four years later he was censured by resolution of the state legislature for his pains. But any distress he felt was considerably alleviated by the fact that, on the day before, the same body had chosen him as chief justice of Georgia.
Although Jefferson directed that his authorship of the Declaration be cited in his epitaph, most of the signers, politically sophisticated and living in the midst of eventful times, did not in their later years dwell on the historic moment when they had signed it. They did not write memoirs of the event or, for the most part, even refer to it in their letters. In doing a job that had to be done, they seemed, like Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire, to have made up their minds to do it—and then to have taken it in their stride. Bartlett had written at the time, with orthodox New England respect for understatement, “The Declaration before Congress is, I think, a pretty good one.”