…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.
The Grand Flag of the Union, first raised in 1775 and by George Washington in early 1776 in Boston. The Stars and Stripes did not become the “American flag” until June 14, 1777. (Author photo © Kenneth C. Davis)
A slaver. A forgotten founder who died in debt and disgrace. A college president. A legendary bullet maker. Jefferson’s teacher –and a murder victim. Last but not least among the 56 signers.
-William Whipple (New Hampshire) Usually described as a 46 year old merchant, he was more precisely a sea captain who made a fortune sailing between Africa and the West Indies — in other words, the slave trade. He also owned slaves and one of those people, known as Prince, accompanied Whipple throughout his illustrious career as an officer in the Revolution. It was thought that Prince was the black man depicted in the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting, but that is not accurate because Prince and Whipple were far from the action that night. Whipple later served in a variety of state offices in New Hampshire and legally manumitted Prince –who also went by the name of Caleb Quotum — in 1784. Whipple died in Portsmouth in 1785.
-William Williams (Connecticut) A 45 year old merchant, he was a veteran of the French and Indian War who had married the daughter of Connecticut’s Royal Governor. He was not present for the July vote but signed the Declaration and was a tireless supporter of the war effort. After a long career in public service, he died in 1811, aged 71.
-James Wilson (Pennsylvania) Scottish born, he was a 33 year old lawyer at the time of the signing and one of the most important Founding Fathers you probably never heard of. A key supporter of the Declaration, he was among the signers and Philadelphia elites who were attacked in Wilson’s home during the war in a riot over food prices and scarcity. He was also a key member of the Constitutional Convention, credited with several significant compromises. Although hopeful to be made Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court, he was appointed an associate by Washington. But land speculation ruined him and he ended up in debtor’s prison, like his colleague William Morris (See previous post #7) before his death in disgrace at age 55 in 1798, an embarrassment to his Federalists friends and colleagues.
-John Witherspoon (New Jersey) Another profoundly influential immigrant, the Scottish born minister was 53 year old president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) where his hatred of the British influenced many students including notable schoolmates Aaron Burr and James Madison. He lost a son at the battle of Germantown in 1777 but continued his career in Congress. After the war, he attempted to rebuild the college and was a prime mover in the growth and organization of the Presbyterian Church. He died in 1794 in Princeton, where the is buried, at age 71.
-Oliver Wolcott (Connecticut) A 49 year old lawyer, he was a veteran of the French and Indian War who was not present for the vote and signed at a later date. Wolcott was in New York when Washington’s troops tore down a statue of King George III after hearing the Declaration of Independence read. He is credited with the plan to melt down the lead statue and turn it into bullets for the war effort. He served in the Connecticut militia during the Revolution and held a series of state posts after the war including as governor of Connecticut at his death in 1797 , aged 71.
-George Wythe (Virginia) A 50 year old lawyer, he made his greatest mark as a teacher of law to Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary –as well as later students including James Monroe, future Chief Justice John Marshall and congressman Henry Clay, earning him the title “America’s first law professor.” He died in 1806 , around 80, apparently murdered by a nephew who was perturbed that Wythe was planning to free the slaves that the young man was supposed to inherit. (The nephew was acquitted of murder but convicted of forging his uncle’s checks).
Longer sketches of these signers can be found at this National Park Service site.
Read the story of James Wilson and the Philadelphia Riot in America’s Hidden History.
America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “Forgotten Founders”