The Fates of the Signers

The men who put their “John Hancocks” down on the Declaration put their lives at risk.

Independence Day! The holiday is a time to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and all the fun times (hot dogs! beer! parades! fireworks! NPR tweets!) that resulted from of it.

Sort of.

The adoption of the Declaration remains in most people’s minds an inevitable, patriotic event, a given in our origin story. However, for the men in the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 who approved it, and the men on August 2, 1776 who signed it, theirs was a dangerous act that amounted to treason against the British Crown. As representatives making a bold statement against the the country that controlled them, it’s easy to see why. The Declaration states, in part:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. . . .

We, therefore . . . solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved . . .

So did anything happen to those signers after they put pen to paper? One popular essay has made the rounds on the internet for years and describes the fallout, detailing sad and tragic fates of the men who signed.

Snopes, the hoax-debunking website, has analyzed the article and says it’s a mix of true and false, and offers the real version of what happened to the signers. It’s from them I get this information.

Here’s what happened to a few of those signers (including the signer with the best name, Button Gwinnett):

  • Five signers were captured by the British during the course of the Revolutionary War. None of them died while being held prisoner, and four were taken into custody, not because they were considered “traitors,” but because they were captured as prisoners of war while actively engaged in military operations against the British.
  • Richard Stockton of New Jersey was the only signer taken prisoner specifically because of his status as a signatory to the Declaration. He was “dragged from his bed by night” by local Tories after he had evacuated his family from New Jersey, and imprisoned.
  • A number of signers saw their homes and property occupied, ransacked, looted, and vandalized by the British (and in some cases by the Americans). However, this activity was a common part of warfare. Their property was subject to seizure when it fell along the path of war on the North American continent.
  • Francis Lewis of New York had his Long Island estate raided by the British, possibly as retaliation for his having been a signatory. While Lewis was in Philadelphia attending to congressional matters, the British took his wife prisoner after she disregarded an order for citizens to evacuate Long Island. They held her for several months before exchanging her for the wives of British officials captured by the Americans.
  • Nine signers died during the course of the Revolutionary War, but none from wounds or hardships inflicted on them by the British.
  • According to legend, Thomas Nelson of Virginia had his home confiscated by British General Charles Cornwallis and turned into British headquarters. Nelson urged General George Washington to bombard his own house to drive out the redcoats. The cannon shell, according to folklore, crashed through a window and landed at the dinner table where British officers, including the British commissary general, had just sat down to dine. The commissary general was killed and several others wounded as it burst among their plates. (Another version says the Marquis de Lafayette opened fire on the home, and another still that Nelson ordered the firing on his uncle’s home. Whichever way, Nelson’s house still stands to this day.)

And finally . . .

  • Only one signer, Button Gwinnett of Georgia, died from wounds. Those were received not at the hands of the British, but from a fellow officer with whom he dueled in May 1777.

So when you celebrate the Fourth of July, go ahead and be merry. Just remember the risks, big and small, the signers took and the soldiers who fought to make it happen.

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.