Have You Ever Wondered What Happened to the 56 Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence?

“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 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the revolutionary war.

They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

What kind of men were they? Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners, men of means, well educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.

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 reward.

Vandals or soldiers or both, looted the properties of Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.

At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson Jr., noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. The owner quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months.

John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.

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.’”

Michael W Smith

Published by markskidmore

Mark Skidmore is Professor of Economics at Michigan State University where he holds the Morris Chair in State and Local Government Finance and Policy. His research focuses on topics in public finance, regional economics, and the economics of natural disasters. Mark created the Lighthouse Economics website and blog to share economic research and information relevant for navigating tumultuous times.

3 thoughts on “Have You Ever Wondered What Happened to the 56 Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence?

  1. A similar fate occurs to almost everyone who takes on the department of justice. That is why sentences are 10 times as harsh to those innocent ones who try to defend themselves as to those who capitulate and plead guilty “master”.

  2. Just as a way of verifying what Michael W Smith wrote, I arbitrarily picked one signer, Carter Braxton, so see what some other sources (https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/braxton-carter-1736-1797/ , https://www.theconstitutional.com/blog/2020/01/07/carter-braxton-one-americas-founding-fathers , https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Carter_Braxton ) have to say about him. It seems that he died in debt, not “in rags,” due partly to loans he made to the revolutionary gov’t and British aggression, but also due to other unwise or unlucky investments. In financial difficulty after the Revolution, his political connections helped him get a salaried post with the State of Virginia.
    None of which is intended to minimize the real risks that the signers took, but maybe there’s a bit of exaggeration here.

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