Excerpts for Signers : The Fifty-Six Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence

Chapter One

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The place where the Pilgrims settled, the site of America's oldest college [Harvard], and the birthplace of Thanksgiving and America's public school system, Massachusetts had 250,000 people by 1775. That sounds paltry today, but back then when all thirteen colonies together had only about two and a half million people, Massachusetts was the third most populous colony, trailing only Virginia and Pennsylvania. Boston, the Massachusetts capital then as now, had about 16,000 people in the mid-1770s. That would make it only a small town today, but America's only larger cities at the time were Philadelphia and New York. Massachusetts people worked at farming, fishing, shipbuilding, and, in the towns, shopkeeping.

Starting in the 1760s, Massachusetts became known as the most rebellious of the thirteen colonies, and Samuel Adams of Boston was considered the most rebellious American. In 1770 five Americans, including a black man named Crispus Attucks, were killed in a street fight with British soldiers. Samuel Adams named this clash the Boston Massacre and used it to stir up hatred against the British. Three years later Samuel Adams organized the Boston Tea Party. And the Revolution began when the British tried to capture Samuel Adams and his friend John Hancock in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Besides Samuel Adams and John Hancock, Massachusetts' other signers were Samuel's cousin John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and Elbridge Gerry. Later, Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Gerry all served as governor of the Bay State; Paine was its first attorney general; and John Adams served as the second president of the country he had helped to create.


Name Birth Date Age at Signing Marriage[s] Children Death Date Age at Death

Samuel Adams September 27, 1722 53 Elizabeth Checkley 6 October 2, 1803 81
Betsy Wells

John Hancock January 12, 1737 39 Dolly Quincy 2 October 8, 1793 56 John Adams October 30, 1735 40 Abigail Smith 5 July 4, 1826 90

Robert Treat Paine March 11, 1731 45 Sally Cobb 8 May 11, 1814 83

Elbridge Gerry July 17, 1744 32 Ann Thompson 10 November 23, 1814 70

Note: "Children" refers to the total number of children each signer was known to have fathered by his wife [or wives if married more than once].

"The Father of American Independence"

More than anyone else, a Massachusetts man ignited America's rebellion against England. In fact, during the decade before the war began, Samuel Adams was basically a one-man revolution.

He was born in Boston in 1722. Despite graduating from Harvard, Samuel failed at nearly everything he tried for many years. He went to work at a Boston countinghouse-a business similar to a bank. Samuel lost that job because he spent his time talking politics. His father gave him a large sum of money to start any business he wanted. Samuel passed along half the money to a needy friend, and he somehow lost the other half. The bottom line was that all the money was soon gone. His father then put Samuel to work in the family brewery. Samuel neglected the business until it was eventually destroyed.

Bostonians elected Samuel to the job of tax collector. People who wanted to avoid paying their taxes could not have picked a better man! As he listened to his neighbors' tales of woe about their financial problems, he felt sorry for them, and ended up collecting little of the money.

Samuel had six children with his first wife, Elizabeth Checkley. After she died, he married Betsy Wells, with whom he didn't have any children. It was said that Samuel Adams was so poor that his family would have starved had not the rich merchant John Hancock helped support them.

There was one thing that no one could do as well as Samuel Adams. By the 1760s, he was the most outspoken critic of England. He and Patrick Henry of Virginia both argued in favor of independence by about 1765 and are considered the first Americans to do so. But while Patrick made speeches, Samuel wrote thousands of letters about British injustice, which he sent to newspapers and colonial leaders around the country. He signed the newspaper letters with dozens of false names. This gave readers the impression that all of Boston was up in arms-when really just Samuel Adams was doing much of the complaining!

Samuel also recruited young men and turned them into revolutionaries. Paul Revere, Samuel's cousin John Adams, and John Hancock all considered Samuel their "political father," as Revere expressed it. All three became more famous than their political father. That was fine with Samuel Adams, who liked to remain in the shadows and let others receive the credit.

Samuel Adams took part in some of the main events that sparked the Revolution. He organized Boston's Sons of Liberty, a group of rebels who protested British injustice by destroying British property and picking fights with British officials. Dozens of towns throughout the thirteen colonies formed Sons of Liberty organizations modeled after the famous group in Boston. After England passed a tax on tea, Samuel planned the Boston Tea Party and gave the signal for the tea to be destroyed, lie also began the Committees of Correspondence, the letter-writing networks through which colonial leaders kept in touch.

The British called Samuel Adams "the Grand Incendiary," meaning someone who stirs up trouble, and "the most dangerous man in Massachusetts." The Revolution began when the British marched to Lexington, Massachusetts, in an attempt to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Fortunately, Paul Revere warned Adams and Hancock of the enemy's approach, allowing them to slip away. Soon after the war began, the British offered to pardon all Americans who would "lay down their arms and return to the duties of peaceable subjects" except for two persons: Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Had Britain won the war, the pair probably would have been among the first Americans executed.

But America triumphed, and a grateful nation called Samuel Adams "the Father of American Independence" and "the Father of the Revolution." Thomas Jefferson called him "truly the Man of the Revolution."

Later in life, Adams served as governor of the new state of Massachusetts from 1793 to 1797. Following his death, his deeds were largely forgotten, and he faded back into the shadows. He wouldn't have minded, for he often said that he worked not for personal glory but so that "millions yet unborn" could enjoy independence.

Put Your "John Hancock" Here

People who are about to sign important papers are often asked to "put your John Hancock here." The first person to sign the Declaration of Independence inspired this expression.

John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1737. His father, a minister, died when John was seven. The family had more than their grief to contend with. Their home was reserved for the minister, so they had to move out to make room for the new preacher. John's mother couldn't afford to keep the family together. She and her other two children moved in with Grandfather Hancock in Lexington, Massachusetts, while John went to live with his wealthy uncle Thomas and aunt Lydia Hancock in their mansion on Boston's Beacon Hill.

His aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own, showered John with love and everything that money could buy, including a Harvard education. John adored them, too, but all his life he was haunted by being separated from his mother, brother, and sister.

Following college graduation, John went to work for Uncle Thomas. In 1764, Thomas Hancock died, leaving most of his fortune to his nephew. Suddenly, at twenty-seven, John Hancock was one of the richest people in Massachusetts.

John enjoyed his wealth. He owned enough suits to open a clothing store, drove about in a fancy carriage, and gave parties that were the talk of Boston, He also used his money for the public good, which made him very popular. For example, he helped rebuild damaged structures after a fire, and every winter he donated food to poor Bostonians.

Samuel Adams decided to recruit Hancock for the Liberty Party, as the radicals were called. He took Hancock to his political meetings and convinced him to join the patriot cause. They were an odd couple-Adams in his threadbare suit accompanied by the dashing young merchant. At Samuel's prodding, John ran for office, and in 1766 he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature.

Hancock poured his heart, soul-and money-into the patriot cause. He gave so much money to the rebels that Bostonians joked, "Samuel Adams writes the letters [to the newspapers], and John Hancock pays the postage." Hancock was also the central figure in a famous act of defiance. In May 1768 his ship, Liberty, entered Boston Harbor. A British tax man climbed aboard to inspect the vessel. By Hancock's order, the crew locked him in a cabin. John Hancock was arrested, but his lawyer, John Adams, managed to have the charges dropped. However, the British seized the Liberty and never returned it to him. In 1774 he further enraged the British by making a speech in which he suggested that the colonists form an independent nation called the United States of America-one of the first times this name was proposed.

As war approached, Hancock was elected president of a new Massachusetts government that was the forerunner of its state government. Under Hancock, Massachusetts raised bands of "minutemen." These soldiers, who claimed they could get ready to fight in sixty seconds, were soon needed. On the morning of April 19, 1775, British troops came to capture Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were hiding in Lexington. Thanks to Paul Revere's famous ride, Hancock and Adams were warned. A little-known fact is that Samuel had a tough time convincing John to flee. Hancock wanted to join the minutemen who fought the Battle of Lexington on the village green, beginning the Revolutionary War.

John Hancock and Samuel Adams soon headed to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. In May 1775, Hancock was elected president of Congress. Three months later Hancock married Dolly Quincy, with whom he would have two children. Their daughter, Lydia, lived less than a year. Their other child, John George Washington Hancock, hit his head while ice skating and died at the age of eight.

As president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence. Reportedly, while signing in large, bold letters on July 4, 1776, Hancock said, "There! John Bull [a nickname for England] can read my name without spectacles and may double his reward on my head!"

Hancock was immensely popular with the American patriots after signing the Declaration. In 1780 he was elected the first state governor of Massachusetts in a landslide. He served as governor for a total of eleven years, but suffered so severely from a painful disease called gout that at times he couldn't walk and had to be carried about Boston. He was still governor of the Bay State when he died in 1793 at the age of fifty-six.

"Survive or Perish with My Country"

Two signers went on to become president of the new nation. The first was John Adams of Massachusetts.

Born in Braintree [today Quincy], near Boston, in 1735, John graduated from Harvard, then taught school for a year. Although he later claimed that he learned all that he needed to know about human nature from his students, he was not very fond of teaching, so he turned to the study of law. Just after he became an attorney, he met Abigail Smith. He and "Miss Adorable," as he called her, were married in 1764. The couple had five children and enjoyed a lifelong love affair that ended only with her death after fifty-four years of marriage. The many letters John and Abigail Adams exchanged when apart provide us with a vivid picture of revolutionary times.

Like many other young men, John was led to the patriot cause by his cousin Samuel Adams. In 1770 John was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, where he and Samuel spearheaded the right against English oppression. John served in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777. One of the hardest-working congressmen, he awoke at four each morning and kept going until ten at night. By 1775 he believed that America must become independent. "The die is now cast," he wrote in a letter. "Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish with my country is my unalterable determination."

Thanks partly to John's efforts, the new nation survived. In Congress, he and his cousin were instrumental in appointing George Washington to command the Continental Army. As a member of the committee assigned to draft the Declaration, he convinced Thomas Jefferson to do the writing. Years later, Adams described his discussion with Jefferson about it:

TJ: "You should do it!"

JA: "Oh! No."

TJ: "Why will you not? You ought to do it."

JA: "I will not."

TJ: "Why?"

JA: "Reasons enough."

TJ: "What can be your reasons?"

JA: "Reason first-you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear
at the head of this business. Reason second-I am obnoxious,
suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason
third-you can write ten times better than I can."

TJ: "Well, if you are decided, I will do as well as I can."

John Adams and Benjamin Franklin made a few minor changes in Jefferson's stirring document that called a new nation to arms. John Adams put his "John Hancock" on the Declaration right below his cousin Samuel's signature.

Early in 1778, Congress sent John Adams to obtain help for America in France. John and Abigail decided that their ten-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, should go, too. John and John Quincy Adams were at sea when their ship engaged in a battle with a British vessel. John grabbed his musket and went out on deck with his young son. Suddenly a cannonball slammed into the ship near where the father and son were standing. Had it struck a few feet away, it might have killed two future U.S. presidents.

Following the Revolution, John Adams helped negotiate the peace treaty. He later served his country in many ways. In the first election for president in 1789, George Washington received the most votes; John Adams came in second.


Excerpted from THE SIGNERS by Dennis Brindell Fradin Copyright © 2002 by Dennis Brindell Fradin
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