Don't Know Much

Whatever Became of 56 Signers? (4th in a series)

[Post revised 6/23/2021]

…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and what became of them. The series begins here.

Or follow the series here in the blog.

Now that Juneteenth has become a national holiday observed as the other “Independence Day,” it is time to look back on the first Independence Day –July 4th, 1776. As the nation is going through an examination of the role slavery played in American History, it is important to recognize its role at Philadelphia.

You cannot teach American History without acknowledging the role slavery played. And talking about the men who signed the Declaration is one way to do that. Slavery existed in all thirteen of the future states and at least 40 of the 56 signers enslaved people or were involved in the slave trade. One focus of the series is to show which of these men enslaved people or otherwise participated in the slave trade.

Father and great-grandfather of presidents. A simple farmer. A Quaker workaholic. More lawyers. The next five signers, in alphabetical order. (“Yes” following the entry means slaveholder; “No” means not a slaveholder.)

-Benjamin Harrison V (Virginia) A member of the Virginia aristocracy, he was a well-to-do planter, around 50-years-old at the the signing.

On June 7, 1776, Benjamin Harrison was chosen to introduce fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee whose resolution called for independence from England. He was selected to read Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence to the assembled delegates on July 1… [Source: Berkeley Plantation]

Besides his role in the July 2 and 4 votes in Philadelphia, he is mostly distinguished as being the father of 9th president William Henry Harrison and great-grandfather of namesake Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president.

Although his famed Berkeley Plantation on the James River was attacked and partially burned by British forces led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, it clearly survived the war. So did Harrison, who went on to serve three terms as governor of Virginia before his death in 1791 at age 65.    YES

-John Hart (New Jersey) Described as a well-meaning “Jersey” farmer with little education, Hart was a 65-year-old planter at the time of the signing, and devoted to the patriot cause. Although supposedly hounded by the British during the war, he was later able to entertain General Washington and allow 12,000 troops to camp in his fields in 1778. He died of kidney stones in 1779, aged 68. YES

Joseph Hewes (North Carolina) Born in New Jersey, he moved to North Carolina and was a 46-year-old Quaker merchant at the signing. At first a reluctant patriot, he broke with the Quakers over the possibility  of a violent rebellion and was considered a key influence in Congress by John Adams. His shipping experience was significant enough for him to be described as the first “secretary of the Navy,” responsible for getting his friend John Paul Jones a commission. Working relentlessly for the Congress, Hewes fell sick and died in 1779 at age 49 and was deeply mourned by his Congressional colleagues. YES

-Thomas Heyward, Jr. (South Carolina) Son of a wealthy planter, he was a 30-year-old lawyer at the signing. Heyward counts as one of the few signers actually captured by the British, who then took his enslaved people, apparently shipping them to bondage in the West Indies. Initially paroled –released under an agreement– he was later taken aboard a prison ship and held in St. Augustine, Florida under a form of house arrest until released in a prisoner exchange. While a hostage, he is credited with writing verses to a song called “God Save the Thirteen States.” He dabbled in politics after the war, but focused on rebuilding his family plantation where he died at 63 in 1809. YES

-William Hooper (North Carolina) Born in Boston, he was a 34-year-old attorney who had moved South at the signing. He missed the key July vote but returned to sign the Declaration in August. Hooper was one of the signers who suffered losses during the war when the British invaders evacuating the Wilmington, North Carolina area destroyed his home. He later pressed for ratification of the Constitution but lacked popularity in his adopted state and, suffering from a variety of illnesses, including malaria, died in 1790 at age 48. YES


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