Don't Know Much

Whatever Became of 56 Signers? (Part 9)

[Post updated 6/28/202]

As the nation is examines the role slavery played in American History, it is important to recognize its significance to the Founders at Philadelphia in 1776.

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 Part 9 of a blog series profiling the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. The series begins here. The complete series can be found in the website Blog category.

A “YES” following an entry means the Signer enslaved people; “NO” means he did not.

…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)

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)


Betsy Ross’s uncle. The “first psychiatrist.” Youngest signer. The Great Compromiser. An Irishman named Smith. The next five signers:

George Ross (Pennsylvania) The son of a Scottish-born minister, he was a 46-year-old attorney at the signing, a Loyalist or Tory, before turning to the Patriot cause in 1775. He served as a Colonel in the Pennsylvania militia. Yes, he was Betsy’s uncle by marriage, but the rest of the Ross flag story has been dismissed as family legend.

Ross left Congress in early 1777 due to illness — severe gout, a form of arthritis once described as the “rich man’s disease” that afflicted a number of other signers. He later served as a Pennsylvania judge before his death in 1779 at 49, following a severe attack of gout. NO

Dr Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale c. 1783. WInterthur Museum

Dr Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale c. 1783. Winterthur Museum

Benjamin Rush (Pennsylvania) Raised by a widowed mother, he was a 30-year-old physician at the signing, youngest in the influential Pennsylvania delegation. He was elected after the July vote and his diaries, letters, and notes provided some of the best portraits of many of the signers and other founders.

He served as surgeon general of the armies during the war, and became an early abolitionist while still a slaveholder himself. Rush was also an early advocate of many modern medical practices, while at the same time practicing bloodletting. He established the first free medical clinic and remained in Philadelphia during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 when the city was the nation’s capital, spoke against capital punishment, and in favor of the idea that there was mental illness which led to his being called “The Father of American Psychiatry.” He died of typhus in 1813 at age 67. YES

Edward Rutledge (South Carolina) Son of an Irish immigrant physician, he was a 26-year-old attorney at the signing, the youngest of the signers. A wealthy planter as well as a much-admired attorney, Rutledge initially opposed the Declaration before changing his mind to support the favorable vote.

He later left Congress and was captured by the British while serving in the militia when Charleston fell in May 1780. He was held in St. Augustine for nearly a year. After the war, his finances and businesses flourished and he returned to state politics. Offered a Supreme Court seat by George Washington, he was instead elected governor of South Carolina in 1789, but died at age 50 in 1800, before his term ended. YES

Roger Sherman (Connecticut) A self-educated son of a farmer, he was a prosperous merchant, attorney, and politician, aged 55 at the signing. He would sign three of the central documents in America’s foundation: the Declaration (he was a member of the draft committee), the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S.  Constitution.

It was at the 1787 Constitutional convention that Sherman proposed the “Great Compromise” that ended the deadlock between large and small states. He was also a true “Founding Father”– after Carroll (18 children) and Ellery (16 children), Sherman fathered the third most children among the signers -15. A leading Federalist, he served in the House and Senate, where he was serving at his death in 1793 at age 72. NO

James Smith  (Pennsylvania) Another immigrant signer, he was born in  Northern Ireland and was around 57-years-old at the signing, another self-taught attorney. He had been an outspoken advocate of challenging oppressive British laws and called for the boycott of British goods that was later adopted by the First Continental Congress.

He also joined the Pennsylvania militia and was elected an officer. After the July vote, he signed the Declaration and then rode to York, Pennsylvania to have it read aloud on July 6. He served as Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania militia and later returned to law practice and state offices before his death in 1806 at about age 87. NO

Read: “The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles” (Social Education, March/April 2020)

And read about slavery in the founding in my book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY

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