56 men put their lives on the line by signing the Declaration of Independence.

Anything but celebratory. That’s how Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania remembered the atmosphere in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia when delegates affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence: A “pensive and awful silence pervaded the house as we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress,” Rush said, to sign “what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants.” The British government considered the Declaration of Independence a treasonous document. And treason was a capital crime.

Benjamin Harrison, a portly delegate from Virginia, tried to lighten the mood with gallows humor. Standing at the table beside Elbridge Gerry, a skinny delegate from Massachusetts, Harrison said, “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”

The witticism did little to ease the sense of foreboding shared by the 56 signers of the Declaration. By appending their names to the document, the famous and the obscure; the old, young and middle-aged; the planters, the farmers and the businessmen; the recent arrivals to America and the scions of old American families were all risking not only their lives but also loss of property and impoverishment of wives and children.

Independence Day is now a time for family relaxation, patriotic parades and unabashed celebration. Amid the displays of red, white and blue and the dazzling fireworks, it is easy to forget the real-life sacrifices the signers of the Declaration made for the sake of American liberty.

Skinny Elbridge Gerry knew from firsthand experience how much danger the signers were putting themselves in. Gerry, who is remembered today mainly for having served as the fifth vice president of the United States and for giving his name to the word “gerrymandering,” narrowly escaped getting caught and hanged by the British on April 18, 1775, the night of Paul Revere’s fabled ride. Gerry and a militia colonel had taken shelter at a tavern on the road from Boston to Lexington. When a contingent of British soldiers showed up in search of rebel traitors, Gerry and the colonel fled out the back of the tavern and hid in a nearby cornfield, still in their nightclothes.

Another signer, Caesar Rodney of Delaware, put his life on the line to prevent deadlock in the Continental Congress during the debate over proclaiming independence. Rodney, whom John Adams called “the oddest looking man in the world,” with a face “not bigger than a large apple,” was suffering from late-stage cancer of the face when Congress took a trial vote on July 1. If the colonies did not put up a united front, the quest for independence was doomed. But only two Delaware delegates were present, one for and one against, on the eve of an official, final vote scheduled for the next day. So Thomas McKean, the pro-independence delegate, sent an express rider to Rodney, urging him to start for Philadelphia immediately to break the tie.

A violent storm had begun that afternoon. It continued through the evening and would not let up. Still, Rodney rode through it all night. Nearly spent, he arrived in the morning, just in time to flip Delaware’s vote.

Some writers say Rodney arrived covered with mud. Some say it was dust. Some say the congressmen were already assembled when they heard Rodney’s horse clattering up the street, and that they rose as one to greet him. McKean said he met Rodney at the door. All of that may be true.

Rodney’s description of the ride was characteristically modest: “I arrived in Congress, though detained by thunder and rain, in time enough to give my voice in the matter of independence.” The effect of his vote was momentous. The Declaration of Independence was yet to be signed. But now there was no turning back.

On the Fourth of July, 1776, which anniversary we celebrate as Independence Day, probably only one member actually signed a final draft of the Declaration. That was John Hancock of Massachusetts, president of Congress; he would have signed it in order to provide copies to the press and send it around the newly independent states. Hancock was hardly a model of republican simplicity or humility. He wore lavender outfits and rode in a yellow coach pulled by six huge, perfectly matched bay horses.

Hancock had deep pockets, and he’d helped bankroll Samuel Adams’ resistance operation in Boston. But despite long support for the Boston patriots, Hancock took a wavering tack to American independence. As the Revolution began to unfold, John Adams was sure Hancock was working with a faction in the Continental Congress who yearned for reconciliation with Great Britain.

Still, on July 2, Hancock voted with the Adamses and their allies for independence. On July 4, he released the document to the public. When delegates gathered on August 2 to sign a final handwritten copy of the Declaration, his ego and his patriotism came together: John Hancock made his own name forever synonymous with “signature,” writing it in gigantic script above all the others on the suicide pact.

Hancock wasn’t the only one to put substantial wealth on the line when he signed the Declaration. Charles Carroll of Maryland, the ultimate born-and-bred gentleman, probably had the most to lose. Carroll had been educated in Europe and graduated from the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Back home as the patriot cause was gearing up, he received 10,000 acres from his father and soon became one of the richest men in the colonies, with immense plantations and farmlands and investments in development.

Yet as early as 1763, when few patriots dared to speak of severing ties with Great Britain, Carroll made a bold prediction to his father: “America is a growing country; in time it will and must be independent.” By 1772, he began writing passionate letters to Maryland newspapers insisting the colonies had a right to control their taxation. And in 1776, when he was visiting the Congress in Philadelphia, Carroll’s French fluency and his Catholic background were put to good use: Congress sent him on a diplomatic mission to Quebec. Then the colony sent him to Philadelphia as an official delegate.

Though arriving too late to vote for independence on July 2, Carroll did get to sign the Declaration on August 2 with most of the other delegates. As he wrote his signature, somebody (possibly Benjamin Franklin) is said to have dryly remarked, “There go millions.”

While many of the wealthy signers inherited their money and land, adding to it through enterprise, Franklin was famous for having worked his way up from humble origins as an apprentice printer. George Taylor of Pennsylvania overcame even more extreme obstacles in his rise to prominence: He had come to America as an unfree laborer. In 1736 he’d been indentured to the owner of an iron foundry in Bucks County. Taylor quickly became manager of that foundry, and after the death of his master, he married the widow. He had only one child with her, but after she died he had five children with his housekeeper, to whom he was never legally married. An energetic man in more ways than one, Taylor had mouths to feed, security to provide and businesses to grow. He leased and operated furnaces owned by richer men. In his “spare time” he ran a tavern.

And he put his entrepreneurial initiative together with his patriotism. Shortly after shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, in April 1775, Taylor sought a contract with Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety to provide cannon ammunition. That August, George Taylor’s furnace became the first ironworks in Pennsylvania to ship munitions to the Continental Army: 258 balls weighing from 18 to 32 pounds.

Yet a twist ensued after Taylor signed the Declaration. The most important iron furnace Taylor leased belonged to Joseph Galloway. At one time the top political operator in Pennsylvania, Galloway was now a loyalist who had fled behind British lines. The Pennsylvania Assembly convicted Galloway in absentia of treason. It confiscated all his many properties. That included George Taylor’s furnace. While Taylor was allowed to complete the first few years of his lease, in 1779 Congress sold off the very furnace that had been so eager to supply it with ammunition.

George Taylor was soon out of the iron business. It’s impossible to imagine him not dreaming up new endeavors. But we’ll never know how they would have fared: Taylor died in 1781.

Losing property was a natural concern for all of the signers. For William Floyd of New York, it became a painful reality almost immediately. Even as Floyd sat through the final debate on independence in Philadelphia, the British armada was arriving in New York Harbor. On July 19, 1776, the British Army arrived at Floyd’s estate on Long Island, confiscated his house and farm and used the property as a cavalry barracks for the next seven years. The occupying troops lived by slaughtering Floyd’s livestock and harvesting his produce.

The year turned into a bad one for John Hart of New Jersey, too. Hart was an old man; he and his wife Deborah had 13 children. When Hart signed the Declaration, Deborah was desperately ill. She died in October 1776 and the British invaded New Jersey soon after. Troops ran amok on Hart’s farm, destroying his mills, tearing up his crops, butchering his cattle. The elderly signer was marked for arrest. He hid out in the Sourland Mountains, sleeping in caves and outhouses, and once in a dog kennel. He died in 1778, having given over the last part of his 69 years to danger and sorrow on behalf of American independence.

As the war progressed, Lyman Hall suffered a similar fate. A Congregationalist minister originally from Connecticut, Hall had moved to the Georgia coast, where he operated a rice plantation. In 1778, when the British invaded Georgia, Hall was well known as an early, activist patriot and a Declaration signer. The invading army destroyed his home and his entire plantation. Another wealthy rice planter, Arthur Middleton of South Carolina, faced even more frightening consequences of signing the Declaration. In 1779, the British Army destroyed Middleton’s plantation while he was serving with the South Carolina militia in Charleston. When Charleston fell to the British in 1780, Middleton was taken prisoner. He was sent to Florida and placed in one of the notorious British prison ships there, along with his fellow South Carolina signer Edward Rutledge. Middleton was not exchanged until late the following year. In the meantime, his substantial lands and fortune had been confiscated.

Richard Stockton of New Jersey paid for signing in nearly every way. His ordeal began right away, in 1776, when he returned from inspecting the Continental Army in upstate New York. In the process of evacuating his family, Stockton was dragged from his bed by New Jersey loyalists, marched to Perth Amboy, handed to the British Army and put in irons. He spent weeks in prison in occupied New York, deliberately subjected to short rations and frigid weather. Meanwhile, his estate was ransacked, his livestock killed, his library burned, his house used as a headquarters by British General Cornwallis. Stockton was paroled in 1777; as a term of parole, he signed an agreement to stay out of the war effort. His health had been broken by his imprisonment. He died of cancer in 1781.

The first recorded use of the expression “Independence Day” occurred in 1791, and over the years the country celebrated the Fourth with increasing gusto. Observing Independence Day festivities in July 1811, 35 years after members of the Continental Congress made their suicide pact, an aging Benjamin Rush lamented that the role the signers played had been overlooked. “The military men ran away with all the glory of the day,” Rush wrote to John Adams, whose friendship had been forged in the ordeal of 1776. “Scarcely a word was said of the solicitude and labors and fears and sorrows and sleepless nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended, and subscribed the Declaration of Independence.” And amid all the Fourth of July hoopla since then, the personal courage of the signers has been largely forgotten.

 

William Hogeland’s most recent book is Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.