[Post updated 6/23/2021]
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.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and what became of them. The series begins here.
Slave trader turned early abolitionist. Flag designer. “First President.” Member of a Virginia dynasty. And the Author.
-Stephen Hopkins (Rhode Island) Second oldest delegate after Franklin, Hopkins was 69-years-old at the signing. A merchant, he had been Rhode Island’s colonial governor but was an outspoken advocate of independence having written a document entitled, The Rights of the Colonies Examined in 1764.
A partner of the wealthy Brown brothers who were involved in the slave trade –Newport was a key northern slavery port– he enslaved several people. The role of Stephen Hopkins, his brother Esek -captain of a slave ship- and the Brown brothers as enslavers and the founding of what became Brown University is detailed in a report commissioned by Brown called Slavery and Justice.
But in 1774, he secured passage of law prohibiting the slave trade in Rhode Island, one of the first anti-slavery laws in the colonies and he began freeing some but not all of the people he enslaved. In ill health, he retired from politics and public life and died in 1785 at age 78. YES
-Francis Hopkinson (New Jersey) Like Franklin and Jefferson, Hopkinson was a man of many talents, a 38-year-old attorney and musician at the time of the signing. He was the son of the founder –with Franklin– of the University of Pennsylvania and was among the school’s first graduates. Though long overlooked, he has more recently gotten his due as the designer of the “Stars and Stripes.” The claim is based on Hopkinson submitting a bill for his work on the flag and requesting “a quarter cask of the public wine” in payment. He was already on the Congressional payroll so the request was refused. While his home was ransacked during the war, he emerged relatively unscathed and later became a Federal judge before his death in 1791 at 53. YES
-Samuel Huntington (Connecticut) An apprenticed barrel-maker who became a successful attorney, he was a 45-year-old politician at the time of the signing, having resigned his post as “King’s Attorney.” His true distinction is serving as “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” when the Articles of Confederation were adopted –making him the “First President,” sort of. Others have staked that claim as well. He served in a variety of national and state posts, including being the sitting governor of Connecticut at his death in 1796 at age 64. NO
–Thomas Jefferson (Virginia) 33-year-old planter, scientist, writer, and lawyer. You know most of the rest. But Jefferson’s wartime service as Virginia’s governor is sometimes overlooked. In 1781, he was Virginia’s governor when the British attacked the state, including forces led by Benedict Arnold. Jefferson fled and was later investigated by the state legislature but no charges were filed. People enslaved by Jefferson were captured by the British and were being held in Yorktown during the siege in September-October 1781 and were later returned to Jefferson by George Washington.
He died, like John Adams, on the 50th anniversary of the adoption –July 4, 1826. See the Monticello site for more information. YES
–Francis Lightfoot Lee (Virginia) A member of the state’s prominent planter family, he was 41 years old at the signing, the quiet brother of Richard Henry Lee, who offered the first resolution calling for independence in June 1776. After the war, he was a prominent advocate of the new Constitution, unlike his more visible older brother. He left the national scene and died at age 62 in 1797. YES