They signed for Us on July 4th
- They Signed for Us
Thomas McKean of Delaware paced up and down the hallway of the State
House in Philadelphia that rainy Tuesday on July 2, 1776. Every few
minutes he would stare up the street, hoping to see his friend and
fellow delegate, Caesar Rodney, come riding up. The Continental Congress
was about to cast the most momentous vote of its brief existence –
whether or not to adopt the declaration that Thomas Jefferson had been
feverishly writing and rewriting over the past several weeks.
Each of the 13 colonies had sent several representatives to the
Congress. But each colony would cast only one vote. The delegates had
agreed that the vote for independence must be unanimous for it to take
effect. It looked like the fate of the declaration would be determined
by the smallest colony – and the two representatives from Delaware were
divided. Thomas McKean was a leader of the pro-independence movement,
but his fellow delegate, George Read, was more cautious. He said a
declaration of independence was premature and vowed to vote “no.”
Unless Delaware’s third delegate, Caesar Rodney, arrived in time,
Delaware would be deadlocked and would be recorded as a “no vote.” That
would be enough to prevent Thomas Jefferson’s declaration from being
The evening before, McKean had dispatched an urgent note to Rodney at
his plantation near Dover: “Get to Philadelphia at the earliest possible
moment,” it said. Although it was pouring rain when he received McKean’s
entreaty, Rodney didn’t hesitate. He ordered his best horse saddled and,
within 10 minutes of receiving the message, set off for Philadelphia.
He rode all night, changing horses that friends had ready for him, and
arrived at the State House just moments before the Congress’s president,
John Hancock, called the meeting to order. Hancock asked Benjamin
Harrison of Virginia to poll the colonies.
When it was Delaware’s turn, Rodney — still wearing the mud-spattered
boots and spurs he arrived in – rose to his feet and said, “As I believe
the voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in
favor of Independence, and my own judgment concurs, I vote for
The motion had passed unanimously! Delegates realized what the vote
meant, both for the colonies and for them personally. King George III
had declared every rebel in the land a traitor. The penalty for treason
was death by hanging. Nevertheless, the 56 men meeting in Philadelphia
pledged “their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor” to the
cause of liberty.
How many of us can name even a handful of the men who signed that
momentous declaration? What do we know, really, about the men who risked
their lives and everything they owned in the cause of freedom?
Because the story of the signers is so inspiring, we've arranged a
special treat for you this week — a free copy of a wonderful little book
called They Signed For Us.
Half a century ago, two patriotic ladies in the Midwest wanted to help
others learn more about the remarkable men who signed the Declaration of
Independence. Merle Sinclair and Annabel Douglas McArthur wrote a
delightful book about the events of that time, including a history of
each of the signers. They called it, They Signed For Us.
At the end of today's column, you'll find a link that will take you to a
copy of the book. You may read it on-line or download it and print your
own copy. The file also includes a list of all of the signers and the
states they represented, plus the complete text of the Declaration of
To whet your appetite a bit, here's an excerpt from They Signed For Us.
"SUDDENLY THE BIG BELL in the State House steeple pealed joyously. The
appointed signal! Cheers rose from the waiting crowds.
"'Proclaim liberty throughout the land....'
"Cannons boomed, drums rolled. Church bells rang, sounding the death
knell of British domination!
"News of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence spread like
wildfire. Ready messengers leaped into their saddles to ride and spread
the word. The Declaration had been ordered printed on a single large
sheet, '45.5 x 37.5 cm.,' or approximately 18 by 15 inches. These
broadsides were distributed with all possible speed, to be read in the
provincial assemblies, pulpits, market places, and army camps."
The story continues:
"On July 8, the Liberty Bell summoned citizens of Philadelphia to the
State House yard for a public reading of the document. Colonel John
Nixon mounted a high platform and spoke the noble lines in a strong,
clear voice. The crowd, now hushed, listened intently throughout.
"'...for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the
protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our
Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.'
"Patriots shouted their approval of the pronouncement of their leaders.
Some of them celebrated by tearing down the King's Arm over the seat of
justice in the courtroom and casting such vestiges of authority into a
bonfire in the street. Processions and demonstrations lasted till
midnight, when thunder and lightning sent the excited townspeople
running to their homes.
"Newport, Williamsburg, Charleston - a great many cities and towns -
held celebrations and patriotic observances with speeches and prayers.
Dover arranged a grand turtle feast. In Savannah, jubilant citizens
burned King George in effigy and conducted a mock funeral service over
"Not even a smallpox epidemic kept a great crowd from assembling in
Boston. The Declaration was read from a balcony of the Massachusetts
State House. At a given signal, thirteen cannons boomed across the New
England shore. Bostonians celebrated with banquets and bonfires, having
special reason to rejoice over their freedom from Britain and her
obnoxious redcoats. According to a Boston newspaper, 'The King's Arms,
and every sign that belonged to a Tory, was taken down and made a
general conflagration of in King Street.'
"In New York, General Washington ordered that the Declaration be read at
the head of each brigade of the army at six o'clock, the evening of July
9. The brigades were drawn up in hollow squares. Washington, mounted on
his horse, took up his position within one of these squares while an
aide read the broadside. Afterward, the commander in chief reported to
Congress on 'the expressions and behavior of officers and men testifying
their warmest approbation of it.'
"Civilians rushed to Bowling Green, where stood a life-sized equestrian
statue of George III. They tore down the figure, which was made of lead,
richly overlaid with gold. What fine ammunition it would make!"
And it did indeed make a lot of fine ammunition. The metal was taken to
the home of Brigadier General Oliver Wolcott in Litchfield, Connecticut,
where it was melted down. His wife and children, assisted by several
ladies in the village, began casting bullets. Mary Ann Wolcott, the
general's 11-year-old daughter, made 10,790 of them. In all, the statue
was transformed into 42,088 bullets for the continental army.
It was almost a month later that the Declaration was engrossed on
parchment and ready for signing by the delegates to the Continental
Congress. Members gathered on August 2 for the ceremony.
The only person who had signed the Declaration on July 4 was John
Hancock, a delegate from Boston who had been elected president of the
Continental Congress. He wrote his signature in large, bold letters and
as he did, in a reference to the near-sightedness of the British king,
he declared, "There! John Bull can read my name without spectacles and
may now double his reward of £500 for my head. That is my defiance."
As the delegates gathered around a desk to sign the Declaration, William
Emery, one of the representatives from Rhode Island, moved as close as
he could. "I was determined to see how they all looked as they signed
what might be their death warrants," he later wrote. "I placed myself
beside the secretary, Charles Thomson, and eyed each closely as he
affixed his name to the document. Undaunted resolution was displayed on
Contrasting with Hancock's confident signature was the shaky scratch of
Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island. Hopkins was the second-oldest signer
and suffered from palsy. As he handed the quill to the next person, he
valiantly proclaimed, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not!"
As one or two delegates hung back, seemingly reluctant to add their
signatures to such a momentous declaration, John Hancock encouraged
them. "We must be unanimous," he said. "There must be no pulling
different ways. We must all hang together."
To which Benjamin Franklin replied, "Yes, we must all hang together. Or
most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
Happily, none of the signers was hanged by the British. But all of them
were considered traitors to the Crown. And many of them suffered
terribly for the cause they so ardently supported.
When New Jersey signer Richard Stockton returned to his home after
signing the Declaration, he learned that British troops were coming to
arrest him. He fled to a neighbor's house with his wife and children.
But a Loyalist, as supporters of the British cause were called, betrayed
the family's hiding place.
Here is how Merle Sinclair and Annabel Douglas McArthur describe what
happened to him: "The judge was dragged from bed and beaten, then thrown
into prison. This distinguished jurist, who had worn the handsome robes
of a colonial court, now shivered in a common jail, abused and all but
"A shocked Congress arranged for his parole. Invalided by the harsh
treatment he had received, he returned to [his home at] Morven to find
his furniture and clothing burned, his fine horses stolen, and his
library — one of the finest private collections in the country —
completely destroyed. The hiding place of exquisite family silver,
hastily buried, had been betrayed by a servant.
"The Stockton's were so destitute that they had to accept charity. For
the judge's fortune was gone, too. He had pledged it and his life to his
country. He lost both. He did not live to see the Revolution won."
John Morton, a delegate from Pennsylvania, was the first of the signers
to die. His last words for his family, before his death in April 1777
(just eight months after he signed the Declaration), were, "...tell them
that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to
have been the most glorious service I ever rendered to my country."
The following month, Button Gwinnett, the commander in chief of
Georgia's militia, was badly wounded in a duel with a political
opponent. He died a few days later -- the second signer to die.
But by and large, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were a
hardy bunch. Three of them lived until their nineties — a remarkable
accomplishment in a time when most men did not see their fiftieth birthday.
Only two of the signers were bachelors. Sixteen of them married twice.
Records indicate that at least two, and perhaps as many as six, were
childless. But the other 50 signers were a prolific lot, having a total
of 325 children between them! William Ellerey of Rhode Island had 17
children; Roger Sherman of Connecticut had 15.
Twenty-four of the signers were lawyers and jurists, eleven were
merchants, and nine were farmers or plantation owners. They were
well-educated men of means. All of them had a great deal to lose when
they voted to defy what was then the most powerful nation on earth.
Charles Carroll of Maryland was the longest-lived signer. He died in
1832, at the age of 95. Four years earlier he lifted the first spade of
dirt for the construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad -- an
essential link in the train system that would ultimately unite the East
with the West.
Fifty years after the united colonies declared their independence from
Britain, plans were made for jubilant celebrations on July 4, 1826. Only
three of the original signers were still alive -- Charles Carroll,
Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Here is how Sinclair and McArthur
describe what occurred that day:
"In a dramatic climax that even their agile minds would not have
contemplated, these two principals in the struggle for Independence left
the nation awestricken and touched, by dying hours apart on the Fourth
of July. Jefferson died at one o'clock in the afternoon, Adams toward
Ten days earlier, Jefferson had written the mayor of Washington,
expressing his regret that ill health prevented him from coming to the
nation's new Capitol to join the festivities.
"I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met ... with the small
band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that
day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country,
between the submission or the sword."
And he concluded by writing, "Let the annual return of this day forever
refresh our recollection of these rights, and an undiminished devotion
As part of that "undiminished devotion," we are delighted to provide you
with a copy of They Signed For Us. Please click here for it.
And please share this copy of Straight Talk with others you know, so
they may enjoy it as well. Just forward this column with a short note,
urging them to read about the incredibly brave patriots who won our
freedom for us when They Signed For Us.