What ever happened to the 56 men who signed
by Gary Hildreth
Have you ever wondered what happened to the fifty-six men who signed the
Declaration of Independence? This is the price they paid:
Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before
they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in
the revolutionary army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the fifty-six
fought and died from wounds or hardships resulting from the Revolutionary War.
These men signed, and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their
What kind of men were they? Twenty five were lawyers or jurists. Eleven were
merchants. Nine were farmers or large plantation owners. One was a teacher, one
a musician, one a printer. Two were manufacturers, one was a minister. These
were men of means and education, yet they signed the Declaration of
Independence, knowing full well that the penalty could be death if they were
Almost one third were under forty years old, eighteen were in their
thirties, and three were in their twenties. Only seven were over sixty. The
youngest, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, was twenty-six and a half, and the
oldest, Benjamin Franklin was seventy. Three of the signers lived to be over
ninety. Charles Carroll died at the age of ninety-five. Ten died in their
The first signer to die was John Morton of Pennsylvania. At first his
sympathies were with the British, but he changed his mind and voted for
independence. By doing so, his friends, relatives, and neighbors turned against
him. The ostracis hastened his death, and he lived only eight months after the
signing. His last words were, "tell them that they will live to see the hour
when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service that I
ever rendered to my country."
Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships
swept from the seas by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay
his debts, and died in rags.
Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his
family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family
was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his
The signers were religious men, all being Protestant except Charles Carroll,
who was a Roman Catholic. Over half expressed their religious faith as being
Episcopalian. Others were Congregational, Presbyterian, Quaker, and Baptist.
Vandals or soldiers or both, looted the properties of Ellery, Clymer, Hall,
Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.
Perhaps one of the most inspiring examples of "undaunted resolution" was at
the Battle of Yorktown. Thomas Nelson, Jr. was returning from Philadelphia to
become Governor of Virginia and joined General Washington just outside of
Yorktown. He then noted that British General Cornwallis had taken over the
Nelson home for his headquarters, but that the patriot's were directing their
artillery fire all over the town except for the vicinity of his own beautiful
home. Nelson asked why they were not firing in that direction, and the soldiers
replied, "Out of respect to you, Sir." Nelson quietly urged General Washington
to open fire, and stepping forward to the nearest cannon, aimed at his own
house and fired. The other guns joined in, and the Nelson home was destroyed.
Nelson died bankrupt, at age 51.
Caesar Rodney was another signer who paid with his life. He was suffering
from facial cancer, but left his sickbed at midnight and rode all night by
horseback through a severe storm and arrived just in time to cast the deciding
vote for his delegation in favor of independence. His doctor told him the only
treatment that could help him was in Europe. He refused to go at this time of
his country's crisis and it cost him his life.
Francis Lewis's Long Island home was looted and gutted, his home and
properties destroyed. His wife was thrown into a damp dark prison cell for two
months without a bed. Health ruined, Mrs. Lewis soon died from the effects of
the confinement. The Lewis's son would later die in British captivity, also.
"Honest John" Hart was driven from his wife's bedside as she lay dying, when
British and Hessian troops invaded New Jersey just months after he signed the
Declaration. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and his
grist mill were laid to waste. All winter, and for more than a year, Hart lived
in forests and caves, finally returning home to find his wife dead, his
children vanished and his farm destroyed. Rebuilding proved too be too great a
task. A few weeks later, by the spring of 1779, John Hart was dead from
exhaustion and a broken heart.
Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.
Richard Stockton, a New Jersey State Supreme Court Justice, had rushed back
to his estate near Princeton after signing the Declaration of Independence to
find that his wife and children were living like refugees with friends. They
had been betrayed by a Tory sympathizer who also revealed Stockton's own
whereabouts. British troops pulled him from his bed one night, beat him and
threw him in jail where he almost starved to death. When he was finally
released, he went home to find his estate had been looted, his possessions
burned, and his horses stolen. Judge Stockton had been so badly treated in
prison that his health was ruined and he died before the war's end, a broken
man. His surviving family had to live the remainder of their lives off charity.
William Ellery of Rhode Island, who marveled that he had seen only
"undaunted resolution" in the faces of his co-signers, also had his home
Only days after Lewis Morris of New York signed the Declaration, British
troops ravaged his 2,000-acre estate, butchered his cattle and drove his family
off the land. Three of Morris' sons fought the British.
When the British seized the New York houses of the wealthy Philip
Livingston, he sold off everything else, and gave the money to the Revolution.
He died in 1778.
Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward Jr. went home to South
Carolina to fight. In the British invasion of the South, Heyward was wounded
and all three were captured. As he rotted on a prison ship in St. Augustine,
Heyward's plantation was raided, buildings burned, and his wife, who witnessed
it all, died. Other Southern signers suffered the same general fate.
Among the first to sign had been John Hancock, who wrote in big, bold script
so George III "could read my name without spectacles and could now double his
reward for 500 pounds for my head." If the cause of the revolution commands it,
roared Hancock, "Burn Boston and make John Hancock a beggar!" In the face of
the advancing British Army, the Continental Congress fled from Philadelphia to
Baltimore on December 12, 1776. It was an especially anxious time for John
Hancock, the President, as his wife had just given birth to a baby girl. Due to
the complications stemming from the trip to Baltimore, the child lived only a
Here were men who believed in a cause far beyond themselves. Such were the
stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution. These were not wild eyed,
rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means and education. They
had security, but they valued liberty more. Standing tall, straight, and
unwavering, they pledged: "For the support of this declaration, with firm
reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each
other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
They gave you and me a free and independent America. The history books never
told you a lot of what happened in the revolutionary war. We didn't just fight
the British. We were British subjects at that time and we fought our own
government! Perhaps you can now see why our Founding Fathers had a hatred for
standing armies, and allowed through the second amendment for everyone to be
So, I ask you reader, What makes YOUR HOMES, YOUR LIVES,
YOUR WIVES, YOUR CHILDREN better? When will YOU be willing to sacrifice
all for the future of your children?