That Significant, Sensational Signing: The Signers of the Declaration of Independence Knew That They Might Pay a Price-Yet They Signed Anyway. over Time, Their Sacrifices May Have Been Exaggerated, but Their True Stories Are Fascinating Enough without Embellishment

Article excerpt


You might think that defying a powerful government, convening an illegal Congress, and signing one of liberty's most lyrical documents would be exciting enough for anyone. But no. Over the decades, folks have embellished the history of the Declaration of Independence and its signers. They've neatened the chronology: Congress approved and signed the text on the Fourth of July, then read it publicly that evening while gentlemen removed their tricorns, ladies wept, and fireworks lit the skies. They've written quips for the ever-witty Ben Franklin, who certainly needed no help in that department. And they've invented heartbreaking fates for the signers at the hands of the vengeful British.

An anonymous author eventually summed up how the British government dealt with the signers in a short essay that permeates what we "know" about the Fourth, entitled "The Price They Paid." It reads like good fiction because it is. The abuse his heroes supposedly suffered so transported the writer that he spumed mere fact, including the signers' correct names (Lewis Morris of New York becomes "Lewis Norris," South Carolina's Edward Rutledge gets an extra "T," William Ellery from Rhode Island goes incognito as William Dillery) and the reasons for events: the British Army did capture a few of the signers, but it took them in battle, as prisoners of war, not because they autographed the Declaration. Nor did any of the signers die of wounds inflicted by the British-though Button Gwinnett of Georgia did succumb to one sustained in a duel. Most of the others not only survived the signing, they flourished as judges, congressmen, and senators in the new country.

Debunking the legends, sifting reality from hyperbole and distortion, doesn't diminish the signers' heroism. But it does rescue patriots who honor them from charges of foolishness and historical illiteracy. Those who believe that the British Army punished New Jersey's signers when it invaded the state in the fall of 1776, for example, look silly: Congress didn't release the signed copy of the Declaration until the following January.

Common Misconception

Perhaps it is no surprise that "The Price They Paid" couldn't get it right: neither did John Adams, and he was there. "The Second Day of July 1776," he mistakenly but famously forecast, "will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty."

The "Second Day of July 1776" began like many others in the Continental Congress, with correspondence received and answered, committees endlessly debating, and decisions major and minor rendered. The congressional minutes tell us, "Sundry letters were laid before Congress, and read" that Tuesday morning, including "One from General Washington." Eventually, "the Congress resumed the consideration of the resolution agreed to by and reported from the committee of the whole; and the same being read, was agreed to as follows: Resolved, 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 connexion between them, and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." No wonder John Adams enthused that the Second "ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."


But the delegates discussed, debated, and disputed instead of deciding. "After some time" Benjamin Harrison "desired leave to sit again" because the hours hadn't been long enough "to go through the same." And so the members "Resolved, That this Congress will, to morrow, again ... take into their farther consideration the declaration on independence. …