[Post revised June 22, 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 third in a series of posts about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and what became of them. The series begins here.
A printer, a politician with a notable name, a duelist, a Connecticut Yankee, and the most famous signature in U.S. history.
A “Yes” after their names means they enslaved people; “No” means they did not.
-Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania) America’s most famous man in 1776, Franklin was 70 years old at the time of the signing. Printer, publisher, writer, scientist, diplomat, philosopher –he was the embodiment of the Enlightenment ideal. A member of the draft committee that produced the Declaration, Franklin was a central figure in the independence vote and then helped the war effort by winning crucial French support for the America cause.
But he lost no Fortune, reportedly tripling his wealth during the conflict. Franklin returned to the scene of the Declaration’s passage in 1787 to help draft the Constitution. When he died at age 84 in 1790, his funeral was attended by a crowd equal to Philadelphia’s population at the time. Read more on Franklin at this National Park Service site. YES
–Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts) A 32-year-old merchant from Marblehead, Gerry (pronounced with a hard G like Gary) is much more famous for later dividing Massachusetts into oddly-shaped voting districts as the state’s governor. A cartoonist compared the districts to a salamander and the word “gerry-mandering” was born.
Though he voted for independence, Gerry was not present to sign in August, signing later in the fall of 1776. He profited from the war and later joined the Massachusetts delegation to the Constitutional convention in 1787, although he refused to sign the Constitution. He became James Madison’s second vice president in 1813, but died in office in 1814 at age 70. NO
–Button Gwinnett (Georgia) An English-born plantation owner and merchant, he was 41-years-old at the time of the signing. And didn’t last much longer. A political argument with a Georgia general led to a duel in which Gwinnett was mortally wounded. He died in 1777 at age 42, the second of the signers to die. (John Morton of Pennsylvania was first.) YES
–Lyman Hall (Georgia) A Connecticut Yankee Congregational minister and physician transplanted to Georgia plantation owner, Hall was 52 years old at the signing. A vocal patriot when Georgia was far more hesitant about independence, he first came to Philadelphia as a nonvoting delegate. Hall’s plantation was destroyed during the war during the punishing British campaigns in the South. He later served as Georgia’s governor, dying at age 66 in 1790. YES
–John Hancock (Massachusetts) Born into a poor parson’s family in Lexington (National Parks Service site), Hancock was sent to live with a wealthy uncle when his father died. He inherited his uncle’s shipping business and was one of America’s wealthiest men by the time he was thirty. A patriot leader in Boston, it was Hancock and Samuel Adams who the British sought to capture on that April 1775 night when the war began.
President of the Continental Congress when independence was declared, he was 39 at the time of the signing. The out-sized signature on the document cemented his fame in American lore. Elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1780,
Hancock lived a conspicuously opulent life in his mansion crowning Beacon Hill. The citizenry still had weapons and were accustomed to fighting the taxes of remote governments. Recognizing the stirrings of revolution and suffering from reoccurring gout, Hancock resigned the governorship until the resistance, which took the form of Shay’s Rebellion, was put down.
After the war,
Governor Hancock continued to be reelected annually with victory margins frequently well above eighty percent. He died in office in 1793 and was succeeded by his friend, Lieutenant Governor Samuel Adams. (Source: Commonwealth of Massachusetts)