Philip Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence

January 15, 2014

Philip Livingston was an American merchant and statesman from New York City. He was a delegate for New York to the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778, and signed the Declaration of Independence.


Philip Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence

He was born January 15, 1716, in Albany, New York, to Philip (1686–1749), 2nd Lord of the Manor. Philip, however, was Lord Livingston’s fourth son, and thus could not inherit. The wife of the 2nd Lord of the Manor was a daughter of Albany, New York, Mayor Pieter Van Brugh. On 14 April 1720 he married Christina Ten Broeck, daughter of Dirk and Margarita (Cuyler) Ten Broeck. Their son Philip Philip Livingston’s daughter Christina (1774–1841) married John Navarre Macomb (1774–1810) who was the son of Alexander and Catherine (Navarre) Macomb and brother of Major General Alexander Macomb.


Philip Livingston, artist unknown

Philip attended and graduated from Yale College in 1737. He then settled in New York City and pursued a mercantile career. He became prominent as a merchant, and was elected Alderman in 1754. He was reelected to that office each year until 1763. Also in 1754, he went as a delegate to the Albany Congress. There, he joined delegates from several other colonies to negotiate with Indians and discuss common plans for dealing with the French and Indian War. They also developed a Plan of Union for the Colonies which was, however, rejected by King George.

Livingston became an active promoter of efforts to raise and fund troops for the war, and in 1759 was elected to the Province of New York assembly. He would hold that office until 1769, serving as Speaker in 1768. In October 1765, he attended the Stamp Act Congress, which produced the first formal protest to the crown as a prelude to the American Revolution. Philip became strongly aligned with the radical block in that Congress. He joined New York City’s Committee of Correspondence to continue communication with leaders in the other colonies, and New York City’s Committee of Sixty.


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

When New York established the New York Provincial Congress in 1775, he was the President. They also selected him as one of their delegates to the Continental Congress that year. In the Congress, he strongly supported separation from Great Britain and in 1776 joined other delegates in the Declaration of Independence.

After the adoption of the new New York State Constitution, he was appointed to the New York State Senate (Southern D.) in 1777, while continuing to sit in the Continental Congress. He died suddenly on June 12, 1778, while attending the sixth session of Congress in York, Pennsylvania and is buried in the Prospect Hills Cemetery there.


Philip Livingston’s grave monument in Prospect Hill Cemetery at York, Pennsylvania.

Livingston was a Presbyterian, a Mason, and an original promoter of King’s College, which became Columbia University.


  1. Philip Livingston at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  2. Biography by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856
  3. Philip Livingston at Find a Grave

William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence

January 14, 2014

William Whipple


Representing New Hampshire at the Continental Congress


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

Born: January 14, 1730

Birthplace: Kittery, Maine

Education: Common School. (Merchant, Soldier, Judge)

Work: Elected to Provincial Congress, 1775, 76; Member of state Council, Committee of Safety, 1776; Elected to Continental Congress, 1776-79; Commissioned Brigadier General of the New Hampshire Militia, 1777- ca. 1781; Appointed Associate Judge to the Superior Court, 1782.

Died: November 28, 1785

William Whipple was born at Kittery Maine, in 1730. He was educated at a common school until his early teens, when he went off to sea to find his fortune. He was an able seaman, earning the position of Ship’s Master by the age of 21. He worked hard and amassed a great deal of money. In 1759 he landed in Portsmouth and, in partnership with his brother, established himself as a merchant. Calls to public duty began almost immediately. He was elected to several local offices and was involved in the Patriot movement.

In 1775 he was elected to represent his town at the provincial congress. The following year New Hampshire dissolved the Royal government and reorganized with a House of Representatives and an Executive Council. Whipple was made a Council member, a member of the Committee of Safety, and was promptly elected to the Continental Congress. He served there through 1779, though he took much leave for military affairs. In 1777 he was made Brigadier General of the New Hampshire Militia. General Whipple led men in the successful expedition against General Burgoyne at the battles of Stillwater and Saratoga.

After the war Whipple was appointed an associate justice of the Superior Court of New Hampshire. He suffered from a heart ailment for several years and he died, fainting from atop his horse while traveling his court circuit, in November of 1785.


Death of Francis Lewis, signer of the Declaration of Independence

December 30, 2013

Francis Lewis, a businessman and politician, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence as a representative of New York.


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

Born on March 21, 1713, in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales, he was the only child of Reverend Francis Lewis, but was orphaned at an early age. He went to live with his aunt and uncle soon after. He was educated in Scotland and attended Westminster School in England. He entered a mercantile house in London, then moved to Whitestone, New York in 1734. He was taken prisoner and shipped in a box to France while serving as a British mercantile agent in 1756. On his return to America, he became active in politics.

He was a member of the Committee of Sixty, a member of the New York Provincial Congress, and was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775. In 1778, he signed the United States Articles of Confederation. From 1779 to 1780, Lewis served as the Chairman of the Continental Board of Admiralty.

His home, located in Whitestone, on Queens, New York, was destroyed in the American Revolutionary War by British soldiers, who also arrested his wife and denied her a change of clothing or adequate food for weeks while in captivity.[1][2]

His son Morgan Lewis served in the army during the Revolutionary War and later held many offices in New York State, including Governor.


Francis Lewis died on December 30, 1803, and was buried at Trinity Church Cemetery.


Grave of Francis Lewis at Trinity Church Cemetery.

Francis Lewis’s great-grandson, Manning Livingston, died at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. He also has many relatives stretching all the way to Idaho. His great-great-great grandson was Hollywood director William A. Wellman, and his great-granddaughter was author and actress Anna Cora Mowatt.

In Queens, New York, Francis Lewis High School and P.S. 79 “The Francis Lewis School” are named for Lewis. There is also Francis Lewis Boulevard, which locals tend to refer to as “Franny Lew,” stretching almost the entire north/south length of the borough, as well as Francis Lewis Park, which is located underneath the Queens approach of the Bronx Whitestone Bridge. A Masonic Lodge, Francis Lewis #273, is also located in Whitestone, NY.


  2. Francis Lewis’ descendants want tribute to Queens signer of Declaration of Independence, New York Daily News, on-line

Major General William Floyd, signer of the Declaration of Independence

December 17, 2013

William Floyd was an American politician from New York, and a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. He was the first New York delegate to the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration.


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, circa 1876, Library of Congress

William Floyd was born on December 17, 1734, in Brookhaven, New York Long Island, into a family of English and Welsh origins and took over the family farm when his father died. His great-grandfather Richard Floyd was born in Brecknockshire, Wales in about 1620 and settled in the Province of New York. William Floyd was a member of the Suffolk County Militia in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War, becoming Major General.

He was a delegate from New York in the First Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776. He was a member of the New York State Senate from 1777 to 1788. In March 1789, he was elected to the 1st United States Congress under the new Constitution as an Anti-Administration candidate and served until March 3, 1791.

Floyd was a presidential elector in 1792, voting for George Washington and George Clinton.


William Floyd portrait pained by Ralph Earle (1792)

In 1795, Floyd ran for Lieutenant Governor of New York with Robert Yates on the Jeffersonian Republican ticket, but they were defeated by Federalists John Jay and Stephen Van Rensselaer.

Floyd was again a presidential elector in 1800, voting for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr; and in 1804, voting for Thomas Jefferson and George Clinton.

Floyd was again a member of the State Senate in 1808.

In 1820, Floyd was again chosen a presidential elector, but did not attend the meeting of the electoral college, and Martin Van Buren was appointed to fill the vacancy.

The William Floyd House, the family home, is located in Mastic Beach, is part of Fire Island National Seashore and is open to visitors. The home is located in the middle of extensive woods, grassland and wetlands.

Among his descendants are cinematographer Floyd Crosby, his son, rock musician David Crosby and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld. A second cousin twice removed was Abraham Lincoln.


Floyd would die on his farm on the NY frontier at the age of 86 on August 4, 1821, and was buried at Westernville Cemetery in Westernville, New York.


Major General Oliver Wolcott signed the Articles of Confederation and Declaration of Independence

November 21, 2013

Oliver Wolcott was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and also the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Connecticut.


Portrait of Connecticut Founding Father Oliver Wolcott by the American painter Ralph Earl, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Museum of Connecticut History. Circa 1789

Wolcott was born on November 20, 1726, in Windsor, Connecticut, the youngest of fourteen children of the royal governor Roger Wolcott. He attended Yale College and was a roommate of Noah Webster, graduating in 1747. He was commissioned to raise a militia company to fight in the French and Indian War, and he served the King as Captain in this unit on the northern frontier. At the end of the war, Wolcott studied medicine, then was appointed sheriff of the newly created Litchfield County, Connecticut, serving from about 1751 to 1771.

He participated in the American Revolutionary War as brigadier general and then major general in the Connecticut militia. The Continental Congress appointed him Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and he was elected to the Congress in 1775. He became seriously ill in 1776 and did not sign the Declaration of Independence until some time later. He was engaged in military affairs between 1776–78, and served again in Congress from 1778-1784.


Oliver Wolcott. Oil painting, 1873, by James R. Lambdin, after Ralph Earl, Gallery: Independence National Historical Park

He served again as an Indian Commissioner, and was elected Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut in 1786, assuming the Governorship on the death of Samuel Huntington in 1796, and was reelected to the position, dying in office on December 1, 1797, in Farmington, Connecticut. He is buried in East Cemetery in Litchfield, Connecticut.


Oliver Wolcott gravesite at East Cemetery, Litchfield, Connecticut.

He was passionate about poetry. His son, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., served as Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents George Washington and John Adams and as Governor of Connecticut.

The town of Wolcott, Connecticut was named in honor of Oliver and his son, Oliver Jr. His home in Litchfield was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971. In Torrington, Connecticut there is a school named after him Oliver Wolcott Technical High School.

William Floyd, signer of the Declaration of Independence

November 17, 2013

William Floyd, who was the first delegate from New York that signed the Declaration of Independence, was born on Long Island, on the 17th of December, 1734. His father was Nicoll Floyd, an opulent and respectable landholder, whose ancestors came to America from Wales, about the year 1680, and settled on Long Island. The father of William died while his son was young, and left him heir to a large estate.


William Floyd, representing New York at the Continental Congress, by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

The early education of young Floyd, by no means corresponded to the wealth and ability of his father. His studies were limited to a few of the useful branches of knowledge, and these were left unfinished, in consequence of the death of that gentleman. The native powers of Floyd were, however, respectable, and his house being the resort of an extensive circle of connections and acquaintance, which included many intelligent and distinguished families, his mind, by the intercourse which he thus enjoyed with those who were enlightened and improved, became stored with rich and varied knowledge. His wealth enabled him to practice a generous hospitality, and few enjoyed the society of friends with more pleasure.

At an early period in the controversy between Great Britain and the colonies, the feelings of Mr. Floyd were strongly enlisted in the cause of the latter. He was a friend to the people; and, with zeal and ardor, entered into every measure which seemed calculated to ensure to them their just rights. These sentiments on his part excited a reciprocal confidence on the part of the people, and led to his appointment as a delegate from New-York to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia on the fifth of September, 1774. In the measures adopted by that body, so justly eulogized by the advocates of freedom, from that day to the present, Mr. Floyd most heartily concurred.

In the following year, he was again elected a delegate to congress, and continued a member of that body until after the Declaration of Independence. On that occasion, he assisted in dissolving the political bonds which had united the colonies to the British government; and in consequence of which, they had suffered numberless oppressions for years. Into other measures of congress, Mr. Floyd entered with zeal. He served on numerous important committees, and by his fidelity rendered essential service to the patriotic cause.

It was the lot of not a few, while thus devoted to the public good, to experience the destructive effects of the war upon their property, or the serious inconveniences arising from it in relation to their families. In both these respects Mr. Floyd suffered severely. While at Philadelphia, attending upon congress, the American troops evacuated Long Island, which was taken possession of by the British army. On this latter event, the family of Mr. Floyd were obliged to flee for safety to Connecticut. His house was occupied by a company of horsemen, which made it the place of their rendezvous during the remainder of the war. Thus, for nearly seven years, Mr. Floyd and his family were refugees from their habitation, nor did he, during this long period, derive any benefit from his landed estate.

In the year 1777, General Floyd (we give him this military appellation, from the circumstance of his having some time before been appointed to the command of the militia on Long Island) was appointed a senator of the state of New York, under the new constitution. In this body, he assisted to organize the government, and to accommodate the code of laws to the changes which had recently been effected in the political condition of the state.

In October, 1778, he was again elected to represent the state of New York in the Continental Congress. From this time, until the expiration of the first congress, under the federal constitution, General Floyd was either a member of the national assembly, or a member of the senate of New York. In this latter body, he maintained a distinguished rank, and was often called to preside over its deliberations, when the lieutenant governor left the chair.

In 1784, he purchased an uninhabited tract of land upon the Mohawk River. To the clearing and subduing of this tract, he devoted the leisure of several successive summers. Under his skillful management, and persevering labors, a considerable portion of the tract was converted into a well cultivated farm; and hither, in 1803, he removed his residence. Although, at this time, he was advanced in life, his bodily strength and activity were much greater than often pertain to men of fewer years. He enjoyed unusual health, until a year or two before his death. The faculties of his mind continued unimpaired to the last. A little previous to his death, he appeared to be affected with a general debility, which continuing to increase, the lamp of life was at length extinguished. This event occurred on the 4th of August, 1821, and when he had attained to the extraordinary age of eighty-seven years.

In his person, General Floyd was of a middle stature. He possessed a natural dignity, which seldom failed to impress those into whose company he was thrown. He appeared to enjoy the pleasures of private life, yet in his manners he was less familiar, and in his disposition less affable, than most men. Few men, however, were more respected. He was eminently a practical man. The projects to which he gave his sanction, or which he attempted, were those which judgment could approve. When his purposes were once formed, he seldom found reason to alter them. His firmness and resolution were not often equaled.

In his political character, there was much to admire. He was uniform and independent. He manifested great candor and sincerity towards those from whom he happened to differ; and such was his well known integrity, that his motives were rarely, if ever, impeached. He seldom took part in the public discussion of a subject, nor was he dependent upon others for the opinions which he adopted. His views were his own, and his opinions the result of reason and reflection. If the public estimation of a man be a just criterion by which to judge of him, General Floyd was excelled by few of his contemporaries, since, for more than fifty years he was honored with offices of trust and responsibility by his fellow citizens.

Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 261-282. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)

Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence

September 21, 2013

Francis Hopkinson, an American author, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as a delegate from New Jersey. He later served as a federal judge in Pennsylvania. He played a key role in the design of the Great Seal of the United States.


From The literary history of Philadelphia (1906).

Francis Hopkinson was born at Philadelphia on September 21, 1737, the son of Thomas Hopkinson and Mary Johnson. He became a member of the first class at the College of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania) in 1751 and graduated in 1757, receiving his masters degree in 1760, and a doctor in law (honorary) in 1790. He was secretary to a Provincial Council of Pennsylvania Indian commission in 1761 that made a treaty with the Delaware and several Iroquois tribes. In 1763, he was appointed customs collector for Salem, New Jersey. Hopkinson spent from May 1766 to August 1767 in England in hopes of becoming commissioner of customs for North America. Although unsuccessful, he spent time with the future Prime Minister Lord North and his half-brother, the Bishop of Worcester Brownlow North, and painter Benjamin West.

After his return, Francis Hopkinson operated a dry goods business in Philadelphia and married Ann Borden on September 1, 1768. They would have five children. Hopkinson obtained a public appointment as a customs collector for New Castle, Delaware on May 1, 1772. He moved to Bordentown, New Jersey in 1774, became an assemblyman for the state’s Royal Provincial Council, and was admitted to the New Jersey bar on May 8, 1775. He resigned his crown-appointed positions in 1776 and, on June 22, went on to represent New Jersey in the Second Continental Congress where he signed the Declaration of Independence. He departed the Congress on November 30, 1776 to serve on the Navy Board at Philadelphia. As part of the fledgling nation’s government, he was treasurer of the Continental Loan Office in 1778; appointed judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania in 1779 and reappointed in 1780 and 1787; and helped ratify the Constitution during the constitutional convention in 1787. On September 24, 1789, he was nominated by President George Washington to the newly created position of judge of the United States District Court for the District of Pennsylvania. He was confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission, on September 26, 1789.

Only a few years into his service as a federal judge, Hopkinson died on May 9, 1791, in Philadelphia at the age of 53 from a sudden epileptic seizure. He was buried in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia. He was the father of Joseph Hopkinson, who was a member of the United States House of Representatives and also became a federal judge.


Gravesite of Francis Hopkinson in Philadelphia’s Christ Church Burial Ground

Hopkinson was an amateur author and songwriter at a time when Philadelphia and the colonies were not well known for the arts. He wrote popular airs and political satires (jeux d’esprit) in the form of poems and pamphlets. Some were widely circulated, and powerfully assisted in arousing and fostering the spirit of political independence that issued in the American Revolution.

His principal writings are A Pretty Story . . . (1774), a satire about King George, The Prophecy (1776), and The Political Catechism (1777).[1] Other notable essays are “Typographical Method of conducting a Quarrel”, “Essay on White Washing”, and “Modern Learning”. Many of his writings can be found in Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings, published at Philadelphia in three volumes in 1792 (see Bibliography).


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

Hopkinson was a reputed amateur musician. He began to play the harpsichord at age seventeen and, during the 1750s, hand-copied arias, songs, and instrumental pieces by many European composers. He is credited as being the first American born composer to commit a composition to paper with his 1759 composition “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free.” By the 1760s he was good enough on the harpsichord to play with professional musicians in concerts. Some of his more notable songs include “The Treaty”, “The Battle of the Kegs”, and “The New Roof, a song for Federal Mechanics”. He also played organ at Philadelphia’s Christ Church and composed or edited a number of hymns and psalms including: “A Collection of Psalm Tunes with a few Anthems and Hymns Some of them Entirely New, for the Use of the United Churches of Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia” (1763), “A psalm of thanksgiving, Adapted to the Solemnity of Easter: To be performed on Sunday, the 30th of March, 1766, at Christ Church, Philadelphia” (1766), and “The Psalms of David, with the Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, &c. in Metre” (1767). In the 1780s, Hopkinson modified a glass harmonica to be played with a keyboard and invented the Bellarmonic, an instrument that utilized the tones of metal balls.[2] In 1788 he published a collection of 8 songs dedicated to his friend George Washington and his daughter called “Seven Songs for the Harpsichord” and voice.


  • The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings of Francis Hopkinson, Esq Printed by T. Dobson, 1792
  • Judgments in the Admiralty of Pennsylvania in four suits Printed at T. Dobson and T. Lang, 1789


  • A Pretty Story Written in the Year of Our Lord 1774. Printed by John Dunlap, 1774

Musical compositions

  • Collection of Plain Tunes with a Few from Anthems and Hymns. Printed by Benjamin Carr, 1763.
  • Temple of Minerva. (The First American Opera)[3] Printed by Benjamin Carr, 1781.
  • Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano. Printed by T. Dobson, 1788.[4]


Francis Hopkinson’s design for a US flag, featuring 6-pointed stars arranged in rows.

Hopkinson claimed to have designed the official “first flag” of the United States and sought compensation from Congress. Congress refused on the pretext that many people were involved in the flag’s design, and that Hopkinson was already paid as a public servant.[5][6] Another consideration was that the Flag Resolution of 1777, which defined official United States flags, did not specify the arrangement of stars.[7] Many designs were in use that complied with the flag resolution, with stars arranged in a square, a wreath, rows, patterns, or the familiar “Betsy Ross” circle.

The design of the first Stars and Stripes by Hopkinson had the thirteen stars arranged in a “staggered” pattern technically known as quincuncial because it is based on the repetition of a motif of five units. This arrangement inevitably results in a strongly diagonal effect. In a flag of thirteen stars, this placement produced the unmistakable outline of the crosses of St. George and of St. Andrew, as used together on the British flag. Whether this similarity was intentional or accidental, it may explain why the plainer fashion of placing the stars in three parallel rows was preferred by many Americans over the quincuncial style.

Hopkinson also designed a flag with stars arranged in a circle. It is similar to the familiar Betsy Ross flag, except that it uses 6-pointed stars.[8]

On May 25, 1780, Hopkinson wrote a letter to the Continental Board of Admiralty mentioning several patriotic designs he had completed during the previous three years. One was his Board of Admiralty seal, which contained a red-and-white striped shield on a blue field. Others included the Treasury Board seal, “7 devices for the Continental Currency,” and “the Flag of the United States of America.”[9]

In the letter, Hopkinson noted that he hadn’t asked for any compensation for the designs, but was now looking for a reward: “a Quarter Cask of the public Wine.” The board sent that letter on to Congress. Hopkinson submitted another bill on June 24 for his “drawings and devices.” The first item on the list was “The Naval Flag of the United States.” The price listed was 9 pounds.

The Treasury Board turned down the request in an October 27, 1780, report to Congress. The Board cited several reasons for its action, including the fact that Hopkinson “was not the only person consulted on those exhibitions of Fancy, and therefore cannot claim the sole merit of them and not entitled to the full sum charged.”[10]

Hopkinson’s itemized bill, moreover, is the only contemporary claim that exists for creating the American flag. Although no “Hopkinson flags” exist from the time period, it is believed that his flag contained 13 red and white stripes and 13 white stars arranged symmetrically on a field of blue.

Francis Hopkinson provided assistance to the second committee that designed the Great Seal of the United States. This seal is now impressed upon the reverse of the United States one-dollar bill. The seal, designed by William Barton, contains an unfinished pyramid with a radiant eye, an image used by Hopkinson when he designed the continental $50 currency.[11]


  1. Charles Wells Moulton, ed. (1902). The Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors: 1785–1824. Buffalo, NY: The Moulton Publishing Company. pp. 131.
  2. Francis Hopkinson biography at the Library of Congress Performing Arts Digital Library
  3. Pennsylvania Center for the Book on Hopkinson and his writings
  4. “Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano”. Early American Secular Music and its European Sources, 1589–1839
  5. transcript
  6. Buescher, John. “All Wrapped up in the Flag”,
  7. Mastai, pg. 49
  8. Znamierowski says Hopkinson also used 5-pointed stars. Pg 113.
  9. Leepson, Marc; DeMille, Nelson. Flag: An American Biography. St. Martin’s Griffin. pp. 33. ISBN 978-0-312-32309-7
  10. Journals of the Continental Congress – Friday, October 27, 1780
  11. Univ. of Notre Dame, Coin and Currency Collections
  • Hopkinson holdings at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Online Public Access Catalog.
  • Mastai, Bolesław; Mastai, Marie-Louise d’Otrange. The Stars and the Stripes; the American flag as art and as history from the birth of the Republic to the present. New York, Knopf, 1973.. ISBN 0-394-47217-9.
  • Znamierowski, Alfred. The World Encyclopedia of Flags. Hermes House. ISBN 1-84309-042-2.


  • Francis Hopkinson at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • Francis Hopkinson at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center

The History of the Constitution: the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation

September 16, 2013


The Declaration of Independence

On June 4, 1776, a resolution was introduced in the Second Continental Congress declaring the union with Great Britain to be dissolved, proposing the formation of foreign alliances, and suggesting the drafting of a plan of confederation to be submitted to the respective states. Independence was declared on July 4, 1776; the preparation of a plan of confederation was postponed. Although the Declaration was a statement of principles, it did not create a government or even a framework for how politics would be carried out. It was the Articles of Confederation that provided the necessary structure to the new nation during and after the American Revolution. The Declaration, however, did set forth the ideas of natural rights and the social contract that would help form the foundation of constitutional government.

The era of the Declaration of Independence is sometimes called the “Continental Congress” period. John Adams famously estimated as many as one-third of those resident in the original thirteen colonies were patriots. Scholars such as Gordon Wood describe how Americans were caught up in the Revolutionary fervor and excitement of creating governments, societies, a new nation on the face of the earth by rational choice as Thomas Paine declared in Common Sense.

Republican government and personal liberty for “the people” were to overspread the New World continents and to last forever, a gift to posterity. Most of these were influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. The adherents to this cause seized on English Whig political philosophy as described by historian Forrest McDonald as a means of justifying for most of their changes to received colonial charters and traditions. It was rooted in opposition to monarchy they saw as venal and corrupting to the “permanent interests of the people”.

To these partisans, voting was the only permanent defense of the people. Elected terms for legislature were cut to one year, for Virginia’s Governor, one year without re-election. Property requirements for suffrage for men were reduced to taxes on their tools in some states. Free blacks in New York could vote if they owned enough property. New Hampshire was thinking of abolishing all voting requirements for men but residency and religion. New Jersey let women vote. In some states, senators were now elected by the same voters as the larger electorate for the House, and even judges were elected to one year terms.

These “radical Whigs” were called the people “out-of-doors”. They distrusted not only royal authority, but any small, secretive group as being unrepublican. Crowds of men and women massed at the steps of rural Court Houses during market-militia-court days. Shays Rebellion is a famous example. Urban riots began by the out-of-doors rallies on the steps of an oppressive government official with speakers such as members of the Sons of Liberty holding forth in the “people’s “committees” until some action was decided upon, including hanging his effigy outside a bedroom window, or looting and burning down the offending tyrant’s home.


The Articles of Confederation, Page 1

The Articles of Confederation was unanimously adopted in 1781 once Maryland agreed. Over the previous four years, it had been used by Congress as a “working document” to administer the early United States government, win the Revolutionary War and secure the Treaty of Paris (1783) with Great Britain. Lasting successes during its life prior to the Constitutional Convention included the Land Ordinance of 1785 where Congress promised settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains full citizenship and eventual statehood. Some historians characterize this period from 1781 to 1789 as weakness, dissension, and turmoil. Other scholars view the evidence as reflecting an underlying stability and prosperity. But signs of returning prosperity in some areas did not slow growing domestic and foreign problems. Nationalists saw that the confederation’s central government was not strong enough to establish a sound financial system, regulate trade, enforce treaties, or go to war when needed.

The Congress was the sole organ of the national government, without a national court to interpret law nor an executive branch to enforce them, in the states or on individuals. Governmental functions, including declarations of war and calls for an army, were supported in some degree for some time, by each state voluntarily, or not. These newly independent states separated from Britain no longer received favored treatment at British ports. The British refused to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785 because the individual American states would not be bound by it. Congress could not act directly upon the States nor upon individuals. It had no authority to regulate foreign or interstate commerce. Every act of government was left to the individual States. Each state levied taxes and tariffs on other states at will, which invited retaliation. Congress could vote itself mediator and judge in state disputes, but states did not have to accept its decisions.

The weak central government could not back its policies with military strength, embarrassing it in foreign affairs. The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the new nation’s Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish officers to the south supplied arms to various Native American tribes, allowing them to attack American settlers. The Spanish refused to allow western American farmers to use their port of New Orleans to ship produce.

Revenues were requisitioned by Congressional petition to each state. None paid what they were asked. Some funded only enough to pay interest to their own citizens. Connecticut declared it would not pay at all, not just for one year, but two. Congress appealed to the thirteen states for an amendment to the Articles to tax enough to pay the public debt as principle came due. Twelve states agreed, Rhode Island did not, so it failed. The Articles required super majorities. Amendment proposals to states required ratification by all thirteen states, all important legislation needed 70% approval, at least nine states. Repeatedly, one or two states defeated legislative proposals of major importance.

Without taxes the government could not pay its debt. Seven of the thirteen states printed large quantities of its own paper money, backed by gold, land, or nothing, so there was no fair exchange rate among them. State courts required state creditors to accept payments at face value with a fraction of real purchase power. The same legislation that these states used to wipe out the Revolutionary debt to patriots was used to pay off promised veteran pensions. The measures were popular because they helped both small farmers and plantation owners pay off their debts.

The Massachusetts legislature was one of the five against paper money. It imposed a tightly limited currency and high taxes. Without paper money veterans without cash lost their farms at sheriff’s auction for back taxes. This triggered Shays Rebellion to stop tax collectors and close the courts until the unfair proceedings were dropped. Troops quickly suppressed the rebellion, but nationalists like George Washington warned:

“There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to.”

James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court

September 14, 2013

James Wilson was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signer both of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Wilson was elected twice to the Continental Congress, and was a major force in drafting the Constitution. A leading legal theorist, he was one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States.


Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court

One of seven children, Wilson was born to a Presbyterian farming family on September 14, 1742 in Carskerdo, Fife, Scotland[4] to William Wilson and Alison Landall. Wilson attended a number of Scottish universities without attaining a degree. Imbued with the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in British America in 1766, carrying valuable letters of introduction. These helped Wilson to begin tutoring and then teaching at The Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). He petitioned there for a degree and was awarded an honorary Master of Arts several months later.

Wilson began to read the law at the office of John Dickinson a short time later. After two years of study he attained the bar in Philadelphia, and, in the following year (1767), set up his own practice in Reading, Pennsylvania. His office was very successful and he earned a small fortune in a few years. By then he had a small farm near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was handling cases in eight local counties, and was lecturing at The Academy and College of Philadelphia.

On 5 November 1771, he married Rachel Bird, daughter of William Bird and Bridget Hulings; they had six children together: Mary, William, Bird, James, Emily and Charles. Rachel died in 1786, and in 1793 he married Hannah Gray, daughter of Ellis Gray and Sarah D’Olbear; the marriage produced a son named Henry, who died at age three. Hannah had previously been the widow of Thomas Bartlett, M.D.

Taking up the revolutionary cause, Wilson published in 1774 “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.” In this pamphlet, Wilson argued that the Parliament had no authority to pass laws for the American colonies because the colonies had no representation in Parliament. It presented his views that all power derived from the people. Though considered by scholars on par with the seminal works of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of the same year, it was actually penned in 1768, perhaps the first cogent argument to be formulated against British dominance.

In 1775 he was commissioned Colonel of the 4th Cumberland County Battalion [1] and rose to the rank of Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania State Militia.[5]

As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, James Wilson was a firm advocate for independence. Believing it was his duty to follow the wishes of his constituents, Wilson refused to vote until he had caucused his district. Only after he received more feedback did he vote for independence. While serving in the Congress, Wilson was clearly among the leaders in the formation of Indian policy. “If the positions he held and the frequency with which he appeared on committees concerned with Indian affairs are an index, he was until his departure from Congress in 1777 the most active and influential single delegate in laying down the general outline that governed the relations of Congress with the border tribes.”[6]


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

Wilson also served from June 1776 on the Committee on Spies, along with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Rutledge, and Robert R. Livingston. They together defined treason. (Page, p. 119.)

On October 4, 1779 the Fort Wilson Riot began. After the British had abandoned Philadelphia, James Wilson successfully defended at trial 23 people from property seizure and exile by the radical government of Pennsylvania. A mob whipped up by liquor and the writings and speeches of Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, marched on Congressman Wilson’s home at Third and Walnut Streets. Wilson and 35 of his colleagues barricaded themselves in his home, later nicknamed Fort Wilson. In the fighting that ensued, six died, and 17 to 19 were wounded. The city’s soldiers, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and Baylor’s 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, eventually intervened and rescued Wilson and his colleagues. The rioters were pardoned and released by Joseph Reed [2] [3]

Wilson closely identified with the aristocratic and conservative republican groups, multiplied his business interests, and accelerated his land speculation. He also took a position as Advocate General for France in America (1779-83), dealing with commercial and maritime matters, and legally defended Loyalists and their sympathizers. He held this post until 1798 (until his death).

One of the most prominent lawyers of his time, Wilson is credited for being the most learned of the Framers of the Constitution. A fellow delegate in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia made the following assessment of James Wilson: “Government seems to have been his peculiar study, all the political institutions of the world he knows in detail, and can trace the causes and effects of every revolution from the earliest stages of the Grecian commonwealth down to the present time.”[7]

Wilson’s most lasting impact on the country came as a member of the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the United States Constitution in 1787 (a year after the death of his first wife). He wanted senators and the president to be popularly elected. He also proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise at the convention, which made slaves count as three-fifths of a person for representation in the House and Electoral College. Along with James Madison, he was perhaps the best versed of the framers in the study of political economy. He understood clearly the central problem of dual sovereignty (nation and state) and held a vision of an almost limitless future for the United States. Wilson addressed the Convention 168 times.[8] A witness to Wilson’s performance during the convention, Dr. Benjamin Rush, called Wilson’s mind “one blaze of light.”[9]

Though not in agreement with all parts of the final, necessarily compromised Constitution, Wilson stumped hard for its adoption, leading Pennsylvania, at its ratifying convention, to become the second state (behind Delaware) to accept the document. His October 6, 1787 speech in the State House courtyard has been seen as particularly important in setting the terms of the ratification debate, both locally and nationally. In particular, it focused on the fact that there would be a popularly elected national government for the first time. Wilson was later instrumental in the redrafting of the 1776 Pennsylvania State constitution, leading the group in favor of a new constitution, and entering into an agreement with William Findley (leader of the Constitutionalist Party) that limited the partisan feeling that had previously characterized Pennsylvanian politics.

He was nominated to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court by George Washington on September 24, 1789, after the court was implemented under the Judiciary Act of 1789. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789, and received commission on September 29, 1789. Only nine cases were heard by the court from his appointment in 1789 until his death in 1798.

He became the first professor of law at the College of Philadelphia in 1790—only the second at any academic institution in the United States—in which he mostly ignored the practical matters of legal training. Like many of his educated contemporaries, he viewed the academic study of law as a branch of a general cultured education, rather than solely as a prelude to a profession.

Wilson broke off his first course of law lectures in April 1791 to attend to his duties as Supreme Court justice on circuit. He appears to have begun a second-year course in late 1791 or in early 1792 (by which time the College of Philadelphia had been merged into the University of Pennsylvania), but at some unrecorded point the lectures stopped again and were never resumed. They were not published (except for the first) until after his death, in an edition produced by his son, Bird Wilson, in 1804. The University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia officially traces its foundation to Wilson’s lectures.

Wilson’s final years were marked by financial failures. He assumed heavy debts investing in land that became liabilities with the onset of the Panic of 1796-1797. Of note was the failure in Pennsylvania with Theophilus Cazenove. In debt, Wilson was briefly imprisoned in a Debtors’ Prison in Burlington, New Jersey. His son paid the debt, but Wilson went to North Carolina to escape other creditors. He was again briefly imprisoned, but continued his duties on the Federal judicial circuit. In 1798, he suffered a bout of malaria and then died of a stroke on August 28 at the age of 55, while visiting a friend in Edenton, North Carolina. He was buried in the Johnston cemetery on Hayes Plantation near Edenton, but was reinterred in 1906 at Christ Churchyard, Philadelphia.[10]


Grave of James Wilson at Christ Churchyard in Philadelphia

“Tracing over the events of Wilson’s life, we are impressed by the lucid quality of his mind. With this went a restless energy and insatiable ambition, an almost frightening vitality that turned with undiminished energy and enthusiasm to new tasks and new ventures. Yet, when all has been said, the inner man remains, despite our probings, an enigma.” – Charles Page Smith[11]

In the lectures mentioned above, James Wilson, among the first of American legal philosophers, worked through in more detail some of the thinking suggested in the opinions issuing at that time from the Supreme Court. He felt, in fact, compelled to begin by spending some time in arguing out the justification of the appropriateness of his undertaking a course of lectures. But he assures his students that:

“When I deliver my sentiments from this chair, they shall be my honest sentiments: when I deliver them from the bench, they shall be nothing more. In both places I shall make ― because I mean to support ― the claim to integrity: in neither shall I make ― because, in neither, can I support ― the claim to infallibility.” (First lecture, 1804 Philadelphia ed.)

With this, he raises the most important question of the era: having acted upon revolutionary principles in setting up the new country:

“Why should we not teach our children those principles, upon which we ourselves have thought and acted? Ought we to instil into their tender minds a theory, especially if unfounded, which is contradictory to our own practice, built on the most solid foundation? Why should we reduce them to the cruel dilemma of condemning, either those principles which they have been taught to believe, or those persons whom they have been taught to revere?” (First lecture.)

That this is no mere academic question is revealed with a cursory review of any number of early Supreme Court opinions. Perhaps it is best here to quote the opening of Justice Wilson’s opinion in Chisholm v. State of Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793), one of the most momentous decisions in American history:

“This is a case of uncommon magnitude. One of the parties to it is a State; certainly respectable, claiming to be sovereign. The question to be determined is, whether this State, so respectable, and whose claim soars so high, is amenable to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States? This question, important in itself, will depend on others, more important still; and, may, perhaps, be ultimately resolved into one, no less radical than this ‘do the people of the United States form a Nation?’”

In order to arrive at an answer to this question, one that would provide the foundation for the United States of America, Wilson knew that legal thinkers had to resolve in their minds clearly the question of the difference between “the principles of the constitutions and governments and laws of the United States, and the republics, of which they are formed” and the “constitution and government and laws of England.” He made it quite clear that he thought the American items to be “materially better.” (First lecture.)


  1. Morton, J. C. (2005-12-30). Shapers of the great debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 : a biographical dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 306. ISBN 9780313330216. OCLC 493444554.
  2. “Signers of the Declaration of Independence”.
  3. The Encyclopædia britannica (11 ed.). 1911. OCLC 45504382.
  4. “James Wilson”.
  6. James Wilson: Founding Father, Charles Smith Page, 1956, p. 72
  7. Library of Congress: James Wilson
  8. World Book Encyclopedia, 2003, James Wilson article
  9. “James Wilson: A Forgotten Father,” St. John, Gerald J., in The Philadelphia Lawyer,
  10. St. John, G. J. (2004). “James Wilson: A Forgotten Father”. The Philadelphia Lawyer 66 (4) “During the dedication of Pennsylvania’s new capitol building in Harrisburg, Roosevelt singled out James Wilson for special praise [...] One month after the Harrisburg speech, Wilson’s remains were removed from Hayes Plantation and reinterred at Old Christ Church”
  11. James Wilson: Founding Father, 1956, p. 393
  • Works of James Wilson 3 vol (1804) online edition
  • Collected Works of James Wilson, 2 vols. Edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2007
  • Hall, Mark David (1997). The Political and Legal Philosophy of James Wilson, 1742-1798. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. ISBN 0-8262-1103-8
  • Read, James H. (2000). Power Versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. ISBN 0-8139-1911-8
  • Wexler, Natalie (2007). A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court. Washington: Kalorama Press. ISBN 0615135161

George Sweeney Trial

September 2, 2013

The George Sweeney Trial in 1806 in Richmond, Virginia was a trial in which George Sweeney, the grand-nephew of George Wythe, one of the founding fathers of the United States, was acquitted of murdering Wythe. Wythe was a distinguished attorney who attended the Philadelphia Convention in 1775 and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776; in 1806, he died of arsenic poisoning. Before he died, Wythe accused his nephew of murder and changed his will to exclude him. Wythe’s black housekeeper provided evidence that George Sweeney had tried to poison Wythe, her son and her, but by law was prohibited from testifying in a criminal case against a white man. Sweeney was tried and found not guilty.[1][2]


George Wythe, victim

Although George Wythe was 80 years old, he was healthy and vigorous. He wrote his will leaving a large amount to George Sweeney, his grandnephew.[3] When Sweeney, a 17-year-old drinker and gambler, came to live with him in 1805, he began stealing Wythe’s books for sale and forging Wythe’s name on personal bank account checks to help pay his debts.[4] Wythe had also made settlements for former slaves Lydia Broadnax, whom he had freed in 1787, and her 16-year-old son Michael Brown, as well as Benjamin, an adult man whom he freed in 1797. Sweeney would share his inheritance with them.

Since Sweeney was fearful that Wythe would discover the forgeries, and he knew that he was a beneficiary of Wythe’s estate, evidence suggests that he decided to murder his uncle and/or the other heirs. He bought arsenic, as attested to by the shopkeeper, and Broadnax said she saw him put something in the coffeepot in the kitchen from which Wythe, Broadnax and Brown drank. Brown and Wythe died slow and agonizing deaths over several days: Brown on June 1 and Wythe a week later on June 8, 1806. Broadnax survived.[1][3]

As Wythe lay on his death bed, Sweeney’s forgeries were discovered. On June 1, the judge changed his will to disinherit his grandnephew.[5]

On June 18, Sweeney was arrested and charged with murder. The trial began on September 2. The convincing testimony pointing to Sweeney as the culprit was provided by Lydia Broadnax, a free black woman who had been Wythe’s cook for many years. She had witnessed Sweeney’s suspicious behaviors around the coffee pot, which suggested that he had placed a substance in the coffee on May 25, while she was in the kitchen with him. Broadnax had drunk a small amount of the coffee and become ill. When Wythe and Brown also became ill from drinking the coffee, she testified that she suspected that Sweeney had put something in it.[6]

The two judges did not allow Broadnax’s testimony into evidence nor that of the other black servants who had seen Sweeney’s suspicious behaviors.[1] They adhered to the law at that time, which did not allow blacks to testify against a white person in a criminal trial:

“It was gleaned from negroes, which is not permitted by our laws to go against a white man.”[6]

Hearsay evidence was introduced by the whites who testified that Sweeney had bought arsenic. The jail warden testified that Sweeney had not been searched upon arrest, and that later a packet with arsenic was found in the jail yard, where it could have been thrown from a jail window. Another person testified that Wythe on his death bed, asked him to search Sweeney’s room, where he found a container of arsenic. Wythe changed his will on June 1, to disinherit Sweeney. Because hearsay evidence was excluded by law, the jury’s verdict on September 8 was not guilty.[1]


  1. Kappman (ed.), Edward W. (1994). Great American Trials. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press. pp. 75–77. ISBN 0-8103-9134-1.
  2. “George Wythe”.
  3. “George Wythe 1726-1806″.
  4. Robert A. Peterson. “George Wythe of Williamsburg”. Foundation for Economic Education.
  5. “GBiography – George Wythe”. 1999.
  6. Stephen G. Christianson (1994). “Sweeney Poisons Wythe And Is Tried For Murder”.

Thomas Lynch, signer of the Declaration of Independence

August 5, 2013

Thomas Lynch was the son of a gentleman of the same name, and was born on the fifth of August, 1749, at Prince George’s Parish, in the province of South Carolina. The family was an ancient one, and is said to have originally emigrated from Austria to England, where they settled in the county of Kent; sometime after which, a branch passed over to Ireland, and thence some of the descendants removed to South Carolina. The name of the family is said to have been derived from a field of pulse called lince, upon which the inhabitants of a certain town in Austria lived, for some time, during a siege which was laid to it; and from which circumstance they changed the name of the town to Lince or Lintz, which name was adopted by the principal family of the place.

The precise period when Jonack Lynch, the great grandfather of Thomas Lynch, the subject of the present memoir, emigrated from Ireland to America is uncertain, but, probably, at an early period after the settlement of the colony. At his death, he left his son Thomas a slender patrimony, which however, by his industry, and especially by the purchase of a large tract of land, which he devoted to the cultivation of rice, was increased to a princely fortune. This fortune, at his death, was left to a son by the name of Thomas, father of the subject of the present sketch.


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

At an early age, young Thomas Lynch was sent to a flourishing school, at that time maintained at Georgetown, South Carolina. Before he had reached his thirteenth year, his father removed him from this school and sent him to England, to enjoy those higher advantages, which that country presented to the youth of America. Having passed some time in the collegiate institution of Eaton, he was entered a member of the university of Cambridge, the degrees of which institution he received in due course. On leaving the university, he sustained a high reputation, both in respect to his classical attainments, and for the virtues which adorned his character.

This intelligence, communicated by some friend to his father, was so highly flattering, that he was induced to continue his son abroad for some years longer, and wrote to him, expressing his wish that he should enter his name at the temple, with a view to the profession of law. This he accordingly did, devoting himself with @is characteristic zeal to the philosophy of jurisprudence, and to the principles of the British constitution.

About the year 1772, after an absence of eight or nine years, young Mr. Lynch returned to South Carolina. He returned an eminently accomplished man; in his manners graceful and insinuating, and with a mind enriched with abundant stores of knowledge, justly the pride of his father, and an ornament to the society in which he was destined to move.

Although he was eminently qualified to enter upon the profession of law, he succeeded in persuading his father to allow him to relinquish the pursuit of a profession which his fortune rendered it unnecessary for him to pursue. Such a preliminary course was unnecessary to entitle him to the confidence and esteem of his fellow-citizens. These he at once enjoyed.

In 1775, on the raising of the first South Carolina regiment of provincial regulars, he was appointed to the command of a company. Having received his commission, he soon enlisted his quota of men, in some of the neighboring counties, and at the head of them took up his march for Charleston. Unfortunately, during the march he was attacked by a violent bilious fever, which greatly injured his constitution, and from the effects of which he never afterwards entirely recovered.

On his recovery, he joined his regiment, but was at this time unable, from the feeble state of his health, to perform the duties of his station according to his wishes. Added to this affliction, the unwelcome intelligence was received of the dangerous illness of his father, who was at that time attending in his place upon congress in Philadelphia. He immediately made the necessary arrangements to hasten to a dying father, if possible to administer to him the support and consolation which an affectionate son only could impart. To his surprise, his application for a furlough for this purpose was denied by the commanding officer, Col. Gadsden. This disappointment, however, and the controversy which grew out of the above refusal, were terminated by his election to congress, as the successor of his father. He now lost no time in hastening to Philadelphia, where he found his father still living, and so far recovered that the hope was indulged that he might yet be able to reach Carolina.

The health of the younger Mr. Lynch, soon after joining, congress, began also to decline with the most alarming rapidity. He continued, however, his attendance upon that body, until the declaration of independence had been voted, and his signature affixed to that important instrument. He then set out for Carolina in company with his father, who had hitherto been detained by feeble health in Philadelphia; but the father lived only to reach Annapolis, when a second paralytic attack terminated his valuable life.

After this afflicting event, the son proceeded to Carolina but such was his own enfeebled state of health, that he had little reason to anticipate the long continuance of life. A change of climate, in the view of his physicians and friends, presented the only hope of his ultimate recovery. A voyage to Europe was at that time eminently hazardous, on account of exposure to capture. A vessel, however, was found proceeding to St. Eustatia, on board of which, accompanied by his amiable and affectionate wife, he embarked, designing to proceed by a circuitous route to the south of France.

From the time of their sailing, nothing more is known of their fate. Various rumors were from time to time in circulation concerning the vessel in which they sailed, but their friends, after months of cruel suspense, were obliged to adopt the painful conclusion, that this worthy pair found a watery grave during some tempest, which must have foundered the ship in which they sailed.

Although the life of Mr. Lynch was thus terminated, at an early age, he had lived sufficiently long to render eminent services to his country, and to establish his character as a man of exalted views and exalted moral worth. Few men possessed a more absolute control over the passions of the heart, and few evinced in a greater degree the virtues which adorn the human mind. In all the relations of life, whether as a husband, a friend, a patriot, or the master of the slave, he appeared conscious of his obligations, and found his pleasure in discharging them.

That a man of so much excellence, of such ability and integrity, such firmness and patriotism, so useful to his country, so tender and assiduous in all the obligations of life, should have been thus cut off, in the midst of his course, and in a manner so painful to his friends, is one of those awful dispensations of Him whose way is in the great deep, and whose judgments are past finding out.

Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 443-447. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

August 2, 2013

Fifty-six delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia signed the United States Declaration of Independence, a statement announcing that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain were now independent states, and thus no longer a part of the British Empire. Although the wording of the Declaration was approved by Congress on July 4, the date of its signing has been disputed. Most historians have concluded that it was signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776, and not on July 4 as is commonly believed.

The date that the Declaration signed has long been the subject of debate. Within a decade after the event, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams all wrote that the Declaration had been signed by Congress on July 4, 1776.[1] This seemed to be confirmed by the signed copy of the Declaration, which is dated July 4. Additional support was provided by the Journals of Congress, the official public record of the Continental Congress. When the proceedings for 1776 were first published in 1777, the entry for July 4, 1776, stated that the Declaration was engrossed (the official copy was handwritten) and signed on that date.[2]


The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, by Armand-Dumaresq, (c. 1873)

In 1796, signer Thomas McKean disputed that the Declaration had been signed on July 4, pointing out that some signers were not then present, including several who were not even elected to Congress until after that date.[3] “[N]o person signed it on that day nor for many days after”, he later wrote.[4] Although Jefferson and Adams disagreed with McKean, his claim gained support when the Secret Journals of Congress were published in 1821.[5] The Secret Journals contained two previously unpublished entries about the Declaration. The entry for July 19 reads:

Resolved That the Declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America” & that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.[6] [7]

The entry for August 2 stated:

The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.[8] [9]

Of the approximately fifty delegates who are thought to have been present in Congress during the voting on independence in early July 1776,[10] eight never signed the Declaration: John Alsop, George Clinton, John Dickinson, Charles Humphreys, Robert R. Livingston, John Rogers, Thomas Willing, and Henry Wisner.[11] Clinton, Livingston, and Wisner were attending to duties away from Congress when the signing took place. Willing and Humphreys, who voted against the resolution of independence, were replaced in the Pennsylvania delegation before the August 2 signing. Rogers had voted for the resolution of independence but was no longer a delegate on August 2. Alsop, who favored reconciliation with Great Britain, resigned rather than add his name to the document.[12] Dickinson refused to sign, believing the Declaration premature, but remained in Congress. Although George Read had voted against the resolution of independence, and Robert Morris had abstained, they both signed the Declaration.


John Hancock’s now-iconic signature on the Declaration is nearly 5 inches long[15]

The most famous signature on the engrossed copy is that of John Hancock, who, as President of Congress, presumably signed first.[13] Hancock’s large, flamboyant signature became iconic, and John Hancock emerged in the United States as an informal synonym for “signature”.[14] Two future presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were among the signatories. Edward Rutledge (age 26) was the youngest signer, and Benjamin Franklin (age 70) was the oldest signer.


Benjamin Franklin was the oldest signer of the Declaration. Statue in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Some delegates, including Samuel Chase, were away on business when the Declaration was debated, but were back in Congress to sign on August 2. Other delegates were present when the Declaration was debated but added their names after August 2, including Elbridge Gerry, Lewis Morris, Oliver Wolcott, and Thomas McKean. Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe were in Virginia during July and August, but returned to Congress and signed the Declaration probably in September and October, respectively.[16]

As new delegates joined the Congress, they were also allowed to sign. Eight men signed the Declaration who did not take seats in Congress until after July 4: Matthew Thornton, William Williams, Benjamin Rush, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, George Ross, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton.[17] Because of a lack of space, Thornton was unable to sign next to the other New Hampshire delegates; he instead placed his signature at the end of the document, on the lower right.[18]


The first published version of the Declaration, the Dunlap broadside, did not list the signers. The public did not learn who had signed the engrossed copy until January 18, 1777, when the Congress ordered that an “authenticated copy”, including the names of the signers, be sent to each of the thirteen states.[19] This copy, the Goddard Broadside, was the first to list the signers.[20]


  1. Warren, “Fourth of July Myths”, 242–43.
  2. Warren, “Fourth of July Myths”, 246; Burnett, Continental Congress, 192.
  3. Hazelton, Declaration History, 299–302; Burnett, Continental Congress, 192.
  4. Hazelton, Declaration History, 302.
  5. Warren, “Fourth of July Myths”, 243–45.
  6. Hazelton, Declaration History, 204, 208.
  7. U.S. Continental Congress, Secret Journals vol. 1, 46
  8. Hazelton, Declaration History, 204.
  9. U.S. Continental Congress, Secret Journals vol. 1, 46
  10. Friedenwald (Interpretation and Analysis, 143) says that 45 delegates can be confirmed present on July 4, and that another four might have been.
  11. Friedenwald (Interpretation, 149) gives the number of non-signers as seven, not counting Dickinson, who absented himself for the final votes.
  12. Hazelton, Declaration History, 525–26.
  13. Hazelton, Declaration History, 209.
  14. Merriam-Webster online;
  15. Malone, Story of the Declaration, 90.
  16. Friedenwald, Interpretation, 148.
  17. Friedenwald (Interpretation, 149) lists seven men; he does not include Charles Carroll of Carrollton, but although Carroll had been working as an emissary for Congress, he did not become an official member of the Maryland delegation until July 4, and did not take his seat as a delegate until July 18; Hazelton, Declaration History, 529, 587.
  18. Friedenwald, Interpretation, 150.
  19. Warren, “Fourth of July Myths”, 247; Hazelton, Declaration History, 284; Friedenwald, Interpretation, 137, where the date is misprinted as January 8, but correct on page 150.
  20. Friedenwald, Interpretation, 137.

Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, signer of the Declaration of Independence, opposed independence from Great Britain

July 29, 2013

June 29, 1776, South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge opposes independence but would later sign the Declaration of Independence.

In 1776, Edward Rutledge, one of South Carolina’s representatives to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, expresses his reluctance to declare independence from Britain in a letter to the like-minded John Jay of New York.


Edward Rutledge, youngest signer of Declaration

Contrary to the majority of his Congressional colleagues, Rutledge advocated patience with regards to declaring independence. In a letter to Jay, one of New York’s representatives who was similarly disinclined to rush a declaration, Rutledge worried whether moderates like himself and Jay could “effectually oppose” a resolution for independence. Jay had urgent business in New York and therefore was not able to be present for the debates. Thus, Rutledge wrote of his concerns. In addition, South Carolina’s leaders were unsure that the time was “ripe” and instructed their delegates to oppose the Resolution for Independence.

Rutledge was born in Charleston, to a physician who had emigrated from Ireland. Edward’s elder brother John studied law at London’s Middle Temple before returning to set up a lucrative practice in Charleston. Edward followed suit and studied first at Oxford University before being admitted to the English bar at the Middle Temple. He too returned to Charleston, where he married and began a family in a house across the street from his brother. As revolutionary politics roiled the colonies, first John, then Edward served as South Carolina’s representative to the Continental Congress. Neither Rutledge brother was eager to sever ties with Great Britain, but it fell to Edward to sign the Declaration of Independence and create the appearance of unanimity to strengthen the Patriots’ stand. At age 26, Edward Rutledge was the youngest American to literally risk his neck by signing the document.

He served as a captain of artillery in the South Carolina militia, and fought at the Battle of Beaufort in 1779. The next year he was captured by the British in the fall of Charleston, and held prisoner until July 1781.


San Antonio Chapter of the Texas State Society of the Sons of the American Revolution

Colonel James Smith, signer of the Declaration of Independence for Pennsylvania

July 11, 2013

James Smith was a native of Ireland; but in what year he was born is unknown. This was a secret which, even to his relations and friends, he would never communicate, and the knowledge of it was buried with him in the grave. It is conjectured, however, that he was born between the years 1715 and 1720.

His father was a respectable farmer, who removed to America with a numerous family, and settled on the west side of the Susquehanna. He died in the year 1761. James, who was his second son, received his education from the distinguished Dr. Allison, provost of the college of Philadelphia. His attainments in classical literature were respectable. In the art of surveying, which at that early period of the country was of great importance, he is said to have excelled. After finishing his education, he applied himself to the study of law, in the office of Thomas Cookson, of Lancaster. On being qualified for his profession, he took up his residence as a lawyer and surveyor, near the present town of Shippensburg; but some time after, he removed to the flourishing village of York, where he established himself, and continued the practice of his profession during the remainder of his life.


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

On the occurrence of the great contest between Great Britain and her American colonies, Mr. Smith entered with zeal into the patriotic cause, and on a meeting of delegates from all the counties of Pennsylvania in 1774, convened to express the public sentiment, on the expediency of abstaining from importing any goods from England, and assembling a general congress, Mr. Smith was a delegate from the county of York, and was appointed one of the committee to report a draft of instruction to the general assembly, which was then about to meet. At this time, a desire prevailed throughout the country, that the existing difficulties between the mother country. and the colonies should be settled, without a resort to arms. Mr. Smith, however, it appears, was disposed to adopt vigorous and decided measures, since, on his return to York, he was the means of raising a volunteer company, which was the first volunteer corps raised in Pennsylvania, in opposition to the armies of Great Britain. Of this company he was elected captain, and when, at length, it increased to a regiment, he was appointed colonel of that regiment; a title, however, which in respect to him was honorary, since he never assumed the actual command.

In January, 1775, the convention for the province of Pennsylvania was assembled. Of this convention, Mr. Smith was a member, and concurred in the spirited declaration made by that convention, that “if the British administration should determine by force to effect a submission to the late arbitrary acts of the British parliament, in such a situation, we hold it our indispensable duty to resist such force, and at every hazard to defend the rights and liberties of America.”

Notwithstanding this declaration by the convention, a great proportion of the Pennsylvanians, particularly the numerous body of Quakers, were strongly opposed, not only to war, but even to a declaration of independence. This may be inferred from the instructions given by the general assembly to their delegates, who were appointed in 1775 to the general congress, of the following tenor: — that “though the oppressive measures of the British parliament and administration, have compelled us to resist their violence by force of arms; yet we strictly enjoin you, that you, in behalf of this colony, dissent from and utterly reject any proposition, should such be made, that may cause or lead to a separation from our mother country, or a change in this form of government.”

This decided stand against a declaration of independence, roused the friends of that measure to the most active exertions, throughout the province. On the 15th of May, congress adopted a resolution, which was in spirit a declaration of independence. This resolution was laid before a large meeting of the citizens of Philadelphia, assembled five days after the passage of it, and in front of the very building in which congress was assembled, digesting plans of resistance. The resolution was received by this assembly of citizens, who were decided Whigs, with great enthusiasm, the instructions of the provincial assembly to the Pennsylvania delegation in congress was loudly and pointedly condemned, and a plan adopted to assemble a provincial conference to establish a new government in Pennsylvania.

Accordingly, such a conference was assembled, on the 18th of June. Of this conference, Mr. Smith was an active and distinguished member. The proceedings of the conference were entirely harmonious. Before it had assembled, the provincial assembly had rescinded their obnoxious instructions to their delegates in congress. Still, however, it was thought advisable for the conference to express in form their sentiments on the subject of a declaration of independence. The mover of a resolution to this effect, was Dr. Benjamin Rush, at that time a young man. Colonel Smith seconded the resolution, and these two gentlemen, with Thomas M’Kean, were appointed a committee to draft it. On the following morning, the resolution being reported, was unanimously adopted, was signed by the members, and on the 25th of June, a few days only before the declaration of independence by congress, was presented to that body.

This declaration, though prepared in great haste, contained the substance of that declaration, which was adopted by congress. It declared, that the king had paid no attention to the numerous petitions which had been addressed to him, for the removal of the most grievous oppressions, but (to use the language of the preamble to the resolution) he “hath lately purchased foreign troops to assist in enslaving us; and hath excited the savages of this country to carry on a war against us, as also the Negro’s to imbrue their hands in the blood of their masters, in a manner unpracticed by civilized nations; and hath lately insulted our calamities, by declaring that he will show us no mercy, till he has reduced ,us. And whereas the obligations of allegiance (being reciprocal between a king and his subjects) are now dissolved, on the side of the colonists, by the despotism of the said king, insomuch that it now appears that loyalty to him is treason against the good people of this country; and whereas not only the parliament, but there is reason to believe, too many of the people of Great Britain, have concurred in the arbitrary and unjust proceedings against us; and whereas the, public virtue of this colony (so essential to its liberty and happiness) must be endangered by a future political union with, or dependence on, a crown and nation, so lost to justice, patriotism, and magnanimity:” Therefore, the resolution proceeded to assert that “the deputies of Pennsylvania assembled in the conference, unanimously declare their willingness to concur in a vote of the congress, declaring the united colonies free and independent states: and that they call upon the nations of Europe, and appeal to the great Arbiter and Governor of the empires of the world, to witness, that this declaration did not originate in ambition, or in an impatience of lawful authority; but that they are driven to it in obedience to the first principles of nature, by the oppressions and cruelties of the aforesaid king and parliament of Great Britain, as the only possible measure left to preserve and establish our liberties, and to transmit them inviolate to posterity.”

In the month of July, a convention was assembled in Philadelphia, for the purpose of forming a new constitution for Pennsylvania. Of this body, Colonel Smith was elected a member, and he appeared to take his seat on the 15th day of the month. On the 20th be was elected by the convention a member of congress, in which body he took his seat, after the adjournment of the convention. Colonel Smith continued a member of congress for several years, in which capacity he was active and efficient. He always entertained strong anticipation of success during the revolutionary struggle, and by his cheerfulness powerfully contributed to dispel the despondency which he often saw around him. On withdrawing from congress, in November, 1778, he resumed his professional pursuits, which he continued until the year, 1800, when he withdrew from the bar, having been in the practice of his profession for about sixty years. In the year 1806, he was removed to another world. He had three sons and two daughters, of whom only one of each survived him.

In his disposition and habits, Colonel Smith was very peculiar. He was distinguished for his love of anecdote and conviviality. His memory was uncommonly retentive, and remarkably scored with stories of a humorous and diverting character, which, on particular occasions, he related with great effect.

He was for many years a professor of religion, and very regular in his attendance on public worship. Notwithstanding his fondness for jest, he was more than most men ready to frown upon every expression which seemed to reflect on sacred subjects. It was a singular trait in the character of Mr. Smith, that he should so obstinately refuse to inform his friends of his age. The monument erected over his grave informs us, that his death occurred in the ninety-third year of his age. It is probable, however, that he was not so old by several years.

Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 291-296. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)

Requiem for an American President: July 4, 1826: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Die

July 4, 2013

Declaration of Independence - Writing

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other, on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. There is probably no greater coincidence in American history.

Together, and as political rivals, they had done as much or more to shape the nation in those first 50 years as any two people in the country.

In many respects, the two were poles apart. Adams was a New England overachiever; Jefferson, a southern aristocrat. Adams was a Federalist; Jefferson, the classic Republican. Adams was a political animal; Jefferson was most at home on his Virginia mountaintop. But according to historian Joseph Ellis, They “came to embody the American dialogue.”

In their retirement, they exchanged a memorable correspondence in which they expressed all of their concerns for, as well as their pride in, the new nation. “You and I ought not to die,” Adams wrote Jefferson, “before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

Adams, always the more loquacious of the two, did more explaining. He wrote two letters to every one of Jefferson’s. Both worried about the future of the country, especially as it concerned the growing divide between the north and the south. “I look back with rapture on those golden days when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers,” Adams wrote Jefferson in 1825.

Jefferson had been asked to prepare a speech for that last 4th of July. Though ill health prevented him from delivering this valedictory, it contained some of his most stirring language. Speaking of the celebration, he wrote, “May it be to the world, what I believe it to be, the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”

Adams, too, was asked to help celebrate the occasion in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Likewise, illness prevented him from traveling. He died at about five o’clock on the 4th. His last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams was wrong by about five hours.

In his concern over the relationship between these two, one night several months after Jefferson’s retirement from the Presidency in 1809, Dr. Benjamin Rush had a dream about his two good friends which he felt was important. On October 17, 1809, he wrote down an account of that dream and sent it to John Adams. In describing that dream, he related what he had seen:

“What book is that in your hands?” said I to my son Richard [who later became the Secretary of State under President James Monroe] a few nights ago in a dream. “It is the history of the United States,” said he. “Shall I read a page of it to you?” “No, no,” said I. “I believe in the truth of no history but in that which is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” “But, sir,” said my son, “this page relates to your friend Mr. Adams.” “Let me see it then,” said I. I read it with great pleasure and herewith send you a copy of it.

“1809. Among the most extraordinary events of this year was the renewal of the friendship and intercourse between Mr. John Adams and Mr. Jefferson, the two ex-Presidents of the United States. They met for the first time in the Congress of 1775. Their principles of liberty, their ardent attachment to their country. . . being exactly the same, they were strongly attracted to each other and became personal as well as political friends. . . . A difference of opinion upon the objects and issue of the French Revolution separated them during the years in which that great event interested and divided the American people. The predominance of the party which favored the French cause threw Mr. Adams out of the Chair of the United States in the year 1800 and placed Mr. Jefferson there in his stead. The former retired with resignation and dignity to his seat at Quincy, where he spent the evening of his life in literary and philosophical pursuits, surrounded by an amiable family and a few old and affectionate friends. The latter resigned the Chair of the United States in the year 1808, sick of the cares and disgusted with the intrigues of public life, and retired to his seat at Monticello, in Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his days in the cultivation of a large farm agreeably to the new system of husbandry. In the month of November 1809, Mr. Adams addressed a short letter to his friend Mr. Jefferson in which he congratulated him upon his escape to the shades of retirement and domestic happiness, and concluded it with assurances of his regard and good wishes for his welfare. This letter did great honor to Mr. Adams. It discovered a magnanimity known only to great minds. Mr. Jefferson replied to this letter and reciprocated expressions of regard and esteem. These letters were followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country. Many precious aphorisms [truths], the result of observation, experience, and profound reflection, it is said, are contained in these letters. It is to be hoped the world will be favored with a sight of them. . . . These gentlemen sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country.”

Thru the efforts of Dr. Rush, friendship between the two former presidents was rekindled and several parts of his dream were fulfilled. As accurately described in his dream, Adams and Jefferson did again become close friends, and there did indeed follow the “correspondence of several years” described in the dream. Furthermore, the “world was favored with a sight of the letters” as entire volumes were eventually published which contained the letters written between those two in their latter years. Interestingly, seventeen years after his dream, they did “sink into the grave nearly at the same time” as the two men died within three hours of each other on the same day. Finally, both expired “full of years and rich in the gratitude of praises of their country.”

Renowned American statesman Daniel Webster was called to deliver a eulogy for Adams and Jefferson at Boston’s Faneuil Hall one month after their deaths. His speech praised both men’s achievements, saying that they would influence society for the rest of time: “No two men now live … who, more than those we now commemorate, have … given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. Their work doth not perish with them.”

He encouraged the crowd to honor the liberty granted to them by Adams and Jefferson, saying, “let us cherish a strong affection for it, and resolve to maintain and perpetuate it. The blood of our fathers, let it not have been shed in vain; the great hope of posterity, let it not be blasted.”

In 1831 James Monroe, our Nation’s 5th President, also died on the 4th of July. In 1850 our 12th President, Zachary Taylor participated in July 4th activities at the Washington monument. It was a blistery day and the president became quite ill. He died five days later on July 9th.

Dr. Ladd Addresses the Governor of South Carolina, July 4, 1785

July 4, 2013

A Dr. Ladd, of Charleston, South Carolina, delivered the following address before the Governor of the State, and a large number of other gentlemen, on the 4th of July, 1785, being the anniversary of American independence. It will present the views of the patriots of that day in reference to the special presence of Almighty God through the scenes and triumphs of the Revolution, and their desire to enthrone God as the Governor of the nation. The motto of his oration was, —

Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell

Their children, and their children another generation.

A prophet divinely inspired, and deeply impressed with the importance of the event which had just taken place, breaks into this exclamation, — an exclamation happily adapted to the present occasion, tending to perpetuate the remembrance of an event written upon the heart of every true American, of every friend to his country.

The eventful history of our great Revolution is pregnant with many a source of sublime astonishment. Succeeding ages shall turn to the historic page and catch inspiration from the era of 1776: they shall bow to the rising glory of America; and Rome, once mistress of the world, shall fade on their remembrance.

The commencement of our struggles, their progress and their periods, will furnish a useful lesson to posterity: they will teach them that men desperate for freedom, united in virtue, and assisted by the God of armies, can never be subdued. The youthful warrior, the rising politician, will tremble at the retrospect and turn pale at the amazing story. America, — the infant America, — all defenceless as she is, is invaded by a most powerful nation, her plains covered by disciplined armies, her harbors crowded with hostile fleets. Destitute of arms, destitute of ammunition, with no discipline but their virtue, and no general but their God, — threatened with the loss of their liberties (liberties which were coeval with their existence and dearer than their lives), they arose in resistance and were nerved in desperation. What was the consequence? The invaders were repulsed, their armies captured, their strong works demolished, and their fleets driven back. Behold, the terrible flag of the glory of Great Britain, dropping all tarnished from the mast, bewails its sullied honors.

This, my countrymen, by assistance superhuman have we at length accomplished, — I say superhuman assistance, for one of us has “chased a thousand and two put ten thousand to flight. The Lord of hosts was on our side, the God of the armies of Israel;” and at every blow we were ready to exclaim, with glorious exultation, “The sword of the Lord and of Washington.”

Yet how did even America despair when the protecting hand of our Great Leader (God) was for one moment withheld! Witness our veteran army retreating through the Jerseys; an almost total withering to our hopes, while America trembled with expectation, — trembled ! though shielded and protected by the King of kings and her. beloved Washington.

And now, having in some measure paid our debt of acknowledgment to the visible authors of our independence, let us lay our hands on our hearts in humble adoration of that Monarch who (in place of George the Third) was this day chosen to reign over us; let us venerate the great generalissimo of our armies, from whom all triumph flows ; and be it our glory, not that George the Third, but Jehovah, the first and the last, is King of America — he who dwelleth in the clouds, and whose palace is the heaven of heavens; for, independent as we are with respect to the political systems of this world, we are still a province of the great kingdom, and fellow-subjects with the inhabitants of heaven.

…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

July 4, 2013


On July 4, 1776, delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence. The men who issued that famous document realized they were signing their own death warrants, since the British would consider them traitors. Many suffered hardship during the Revolutionary War.


Francis Lewis, New York delegate saw his home plundered — and his estates in what is now Harlem — completely destroyed by British Soldiers. Mrs. Lewis was captured and treated with great brutality. Though she was later exchanged for two British prisoners through the efforts of Congress, she died from the effects of her abuse.


William Floyd of New York saw the British use his home for a barracks. His family fled to Connecticut, where they lived as refugees. After the war, Floyd found his fields stripped and house damaged.


Philips Livingstone had all his great holdings in New York confiscated and his family driven out of their home. Livingstone died in 1778 still working in Congress for the cause.


Louis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years he was barred from his home and family.


Richard Stockton of New Jersey was dragged from his bed, thrown into prison, and treated like a common criminal. His home was looted and his fortune badly impaired. He was released in 1777,but his health was broken. He died a few yeas later.


At age sixty-three, John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. Hessian soldiers rode after him, and he escaped in the woods. While his wife lay on her deathbed, the soldiers ruined his farm and wrecked his homestead. Hart slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found his wife had already been buried, and his 13 children taken away. He never saw them again. He died a broken man in 1779, without ever finding his family. The New Jersey Gazette reported that he “continued to the day he was seized with his last illness to discharge the duties of faithful and upright patriot in the service of his country.”


Dr. John Witherspoon, signer, was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied the town of Princeton, and billeted troops in the college. They trampled and burned the finest college library in the country.


Judge Richard Stockton, another New Jersey delegate signer, had rushed back to his estate in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The family found refuge with friends, but a Tory sympathizer betrayed them. Judge Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and brutally beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was deliberately starved. Congress finally arranged for Stockton’s parole, but his health was ruined. The judge was released as an invalid, when he could no longer harm the British cause. He returned home to find his estate looted and did not live to see the triumph of the Revolution. His family was forced to live off charity.


Robert Morris, merchant prince of Philadelphia, delegate and signer, met Washington’s appeals and pleas for money year after year. He made and raised arms and provisions which made it possible for Washington to cross the Delaware at Trenton. In the process he lost 150 ships at sea, bleeding his own fortune and credit almost dry.


George Clymer, Pennsylvania signer, escaped with his family from their home, but their property was completely destroyed by the British in the Germantown and Brandywine campaigns.


William Ellery, Rhode Island delegate, saw his property and home burned to the ground.


Thomas Lynch, Jr., South Carolina delegate, had his health broken from privation and exposures while serving as a company commander in the military. His doctors ordered him to seek a cure in the West Indies and on the voyage, he and his young bride were drowned at sea.


Thomas Nelson, signer of Virginia, was at the front in command of the Virginia military forces. With British General Charles Cornwallis in Yorktown, fire from 70 heavy American guns began to destroy Yorktown piece by piece. Lord Cornwallis and his staff moved their headquarters into Nelson’s palatial home. While American cannonballs were making a shambles of the town, the house of Governor Nelson remained untouched. Nelson turned in rage to the American gunners and asked, “Why do you spare my home?” They replied, “Sir, out of respect to you.” Nelson cried, “Give me the cannon!” and fired on his magnificent home himself, smashing it to bits. But Nelson’s sacrifice was not quite over. He had raised $2 million for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them, and Nelson’s property was forfeited. He was never reimbursed. He died, impoverished, a few years later at the age of 50.


Another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, while serving is governor, narrowly escaped advancing British soldiers, led by traitor Benedict Arnold, by galloping into the woods surrounding Monticello as the cavalry descended on his home. The British ravaged his wine cellar but spared the home.

Thomas Heyward, Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge, three South Carolina signers, served in their state’s militia and were captured when the British seized Charleston. They spent a year in a St. Augustine prison and, when released, found their estates plundered.


And, finally, there is the New Jersey signer, Abraham Clark.

He gave two sons to the officer corps in the Revolutionary Army. They were captured and sent to that infamous British prison hulk afloat in New York Harbor known as the hell ship Jersey, where 11,000 American captives were to die. The younger Clarks were treated with a special brutality because of their father. One was put in solitary and given no food. With the end almost in sight, with the war almost won, no one could have blamed Abraham Clark for acceding to the British request when they offered him his sons’ lives if he would recant and come out for the King and Parliament. The utter despair in this man’s heart, the anguish in his very soul, must reach out to each one of us down through 200 years with his answer: “No.”

Of those 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were captured and imprisoned, in each case with brutal treatment. Several lost wives, sons or entire families. One lost his 13 children. Two wives were brutally treated. All were at one time or another the victims of manhunts and driven from their homes. Twelve signers had their homes completely burned. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word. Their honor, and the nation they sacrificed so much to create is still intact.

The 56 signers of the Declaration Of Independence proved by their every deed that they made no idle boast when they composed the most magnificent curtain line in history. “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”


  • The American Patriot’s Almanac, William J. Bennett and John T. E. Cribb (2008) p. 235
  • The Americans Who Risked Everything, Rush Limbaugh, Jr. (2008)

Declaration of Independence: A Transcription

July 4, 2013

Declaration of Independence

Here is the complete text of the Declaration of Independence. This document represents a primary resource in understanding the history of America. The original spelling and capitalization have been retained.


IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.


When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. –Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:

For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing taxes on us without our consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:

For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies:

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:

For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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 connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.


John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, commissioned 1817; purchased 1819;

placed in the Rotunda 1826

The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:

  • Column 1
  • Georgia:
  • Button Gwinnett
  • Lyman Hall
  • George Walton
  • Column 2
  • North Carolina:
  • William Hooper
  • Joseph Hewes
  • John Penn
  • South Carolina:
  • Edward Rutledge
  • Thomas Heyward, Jr.
  • Thomas Lynch, Jr.
  • Arthur Middleton
  • Column 3
  • Massachusetts:
  • John Hancock
  • Maryland:
  • Samuel Chase
  • William Paca
  • Thomas Stone
  • Charles Carroll of Carrollton
  • Virginia:
  • George Wythe
  • Richard Henry Lee
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Benjamin Harrison
  • Thomas Nelson, Jr.
  • Francis Lightfoot Lee
  • Carter Braxton
  • Column 4
  • Pennsylvania:
  • Robert Morris
  • Benjamin Rush
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • John Morton
  • George Clymer
  • James Smith
  • George Taylor
  • James Wilson
  • George Ross
  • Delaware:
  • Caesar Rodney
  • George Read
  • Thomas McKean
  • Column 5
  • New York:
  • William Floyd
  • Philip Livingston
  • Francis Lewis
  • Lewis Morris
  • New Jersey:
  • Richard Stockton
  • John Witherspoon
  • Francis Hopkinson
  • John Hart
  • Abraham Clark
  • Column 6
  • New Hampshire:
  • Josiah Bartlett
  • William Whipple
  • Massachusetts:
  • Samuel Adams
  • John Adams
  • Robert Treat Paine
  • Elbridge Gerry
  • Rhode Island:
  • Stephen Hopkins
  • William Ellery
  • Connecticut:
  • Roger Sherman
  • Samuel Huntington
  • William Williams
  • Oliver Wolcott
  • New Hampshire:
  • Matthew Thornton

Source: The Pennsylvania Packet, July 8, 1776

The Committee of Five appointed to write the Declaration of Independence

June 11, 2013

The Committee of Five of the Second Continental Congress drafted and presented to the Congress what became known as the United States’ Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. This Declaration committee operated from June 11, 1776 until July 5, 1776, the day on which the Declaration was published.


Committee of Five: Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Robert Livingston.

On the Monday afternoon of June 10, 1776, the delegates of the United Colonies in Congress resolved to postpone until Monday July the 1st the final consideration of whether or not to declare the several sovereign independencies of the United Colonies, as proposed by the North Carolina resolutions of April 12 and the Virginia resolutions of May 15, and moved in Congress on June 7 by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia; henceforth the Lee Resolution. During these allotted three weeks Congress agreed to appoint a committee to draft a broadside statement to proclaim to the world the reasons for taking America out of the British Empire, if the Congress were to declare the said sovereign independencies. The actual declaration of “American Independence” is precisely the text comprising the final paragraph of the published broadside of July 4. In the broadside’s final paragraph is repeated the text of the Lee Resolution as adopted by the declaratory resolve voted on July 2. Hence, “American Independence”, of these “Free and independent States”, was actually declared in the Congress on the afternoon of July 2 and reported as such afterwards, unofficially in a local newspaper that very evening and officially in the published broadside dated July 4.[1]

On June 11, the members of the Committee of Five were appointed; they were: John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Because the committee left no minutes, there is some uncertainty about how the drafting process proceeded—accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are contradictory and not entirely reliable.[2] What is certain is that the committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft.[3] Considering Congress’s busy schedule, Jefferson probably had limited time for writing over the next seventeen days, and likely wrote the draft quickly.[4] He then consulted the others, made some changes, and then produced another copy incorporating these alterations. The committee presented this copy to the Congress on June 28, 1776. The title of the document was “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.”[5]

Throughout the Monday of July 1, the Congress debated the question of whether or not to declare independence. The debates resulted in a favorable vote 9 to 2 (with two abstentions) by the Committee of the Whole, and thus a decided majority vote for the declaration assured that a formal declaration of independence was only a matter of agreement to be reached on the timing of the adoption of the necessary resolve.[6] The Congress then heard the report of the Committee of the Whole and declared the sovereign status of the United Colonies the following day, during the afternoon of July 2. The Committee of the Whole then turned to the Declaration and it was given a second reading before adjournment.[7]


The Committee of Five presenting their work to the Congress on June 28, 1776. Painting by John Trumbull.

On Wednesday, July 3, the Committee of the Whole gave the Declaration a third reading and commenced scrutiny of the precise wording of the proposed text. Two passages in the Committee of Five’s draft were rejected by the Committee of the Whole. One was a critical reference to the English people and the other was a denunciation of the slave trade and of slavery itself. The text of the Declaration was otherwise accepted without any other major changes. As John Adams recalled many years later, this work of editing the proposed text was largely completed by the time of adjournment on July 3. However, the text’s formal adoption was deferred until the following morning, when the Congress voted its agreement during the late morning of July 4.[8][9] The draft document as adopted was then referred back to the Committee of Five in order to prepare a “fair copy,” this being the redrafted-as-corrected document prepared for delivery to the broadside printer, John Dunlap. And so the Committee of Five convened in the early evening of July 4 to complete its task.[10]

At this point in the process of the Declaration’s creation, the documentary data trail goes cold, and so historians have had no documentary means by which to determine the identity of the authenticating party. Was the Declaration authenticated by the Committee of Five’s signature or did the Committee submit the fair copy to President Hancock for his authenticating signature? Or did the authentication await President John Hancock’s signature as affixed to the printer’s finished proof-copy of what became known as the Dunlap broadside? Either way, upon the July 5 release of the Dunlap broadside of the Declaration, the Committee of Five’s work was done.[11]

Also, after the July 5 release of the Dunlap broadside the public could read for itself just who had signed the Declaration. At the bottom of the broadside, thus: “JOHN HANCOCK, President, Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress”. Just one signature as attested by Secretary Charles Thomson. Memories of the participants proved to be very short on this particular historic moment. Not three decades had elapsed by which time the prominent members of the Committee of Five could no longer recollect in detail what actually took place, and by their active participation, on July 4 and 5 of 1776. And so during these early decades was born the myth of a one grand ceremonial general signing on July 4, by all the delegates to Congress. The myth continues to have a very long life.[12]


  1. The Pennsylvania Evening Post, a Philadelphia newspaper: the Tuesday, July 2, 1776 edition. See also Charles Warren, “Fourth of July Myths”, in the William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. II, No. 3, July 1945, pp. 237-272. See also Garry Wills, INVENTING AMERICA: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978), Chapter 24: National Symbol, pp. 336-37.
  2. Maier, American Scripture, 97–105; Boyd, Evolution, 21.
  3. Boyd, Evolution, 22.
  4. Maier, American Scripture, 104.
  5. Becker, Declaration of Independence, 4.
  6. “Two ‘no’ votes, one divided, one withdrawn, nine votes ‘aye’. The members (as Committee of the Whole) Thomas Jefferson wrote, were ‘exhausted by a debate of nine hours, during which all the powers of the soul had been distended with the magnitude of the object.’ . . The resolution was agreed to, and recommended to pass. Independence had carried, by the skin of its New Jersey teeth. . . The next day’s vote would make it official.”, in Philadelphia historian John H. Powell’s essay, “The Day of American Independence. July 1, 1776.” Published in “GENERAL WASHINGTON AND THE JACKASS: And Other American Characters, in Portrait”. Chapter 4, pp. 119-175. [NY: A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., 1969, p. 173]. Speculatively, an estimated time moment of 18:26 LMT appears to be the least unlikely for the official recording of this historic vote.
  7. For verification of the afternoon July 2 date of this vote of Congress, see Harold Eberlein & Cortlandt Hubbard, Diary of Independence Hall (J.B. Lippincott Co., 1948), entry: Tuesday, July 2, 1776, pp. 171-72. See also John M. Coleman, THOMAS MCKEAN; Forgotten Leader of the Revolution (American Faculty Press, 1975), Chapter 11: Independence 1776, p. 174. See also Jane Harrington Scott, A GENTLEMAN AS WELL AS A WHIG: Caesar Rodney and the American Revolution (University of Delaware Press, 2000), Chapter 15: Independence is Declared, p. 117 therein. Speculatively, an estimated time moment interval of 14:00 LMT up to 18:00 LMT appears to be the period during which this day’s historic events reached completion.
  8. A New Jersey delegate to Congress wrote to a friend during the early morning of the 4th, explaining Congress’ recent editing of the Declaration: “Our Congress Resolved to Declare the United Colonies Free and independent States. A Declaration for this Purpose, I expect, will this day pass Congress, it is nearly gone through, after which it will be Proclaimed with all the State & Solemnity Circumstances will admit. It is gone so far that we must now be a free independent State, or a Conquered Country.” So wrote Abraham Clark to Elias Dayton, in LETTERS OF DELEGATES TO CONGRESS, Vol. 4 May 16, 1776 – August 15, 1776, p. 378.
  9. For verification of the late morning July 4 time of Congress’ agreement to the text of the Declaration, see Paul H. Smith, “Time and Temperature: Philadelphia, July 4, 1776″, in The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 33, No. 4, October 1976, p. 296. See also Pauline Maier, AMERICAN SCRIPTURE: Making the Declaration of Independence (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), Chapter III: Mr. Jefferson and His Editors, p. 150. Speculatively, an estimated time moment interval of 10:30 LMT up to 11:00 LMT appears to be the least unlikely period during which the voted adoption of the precise wording of the text of the Declaration was completed.
  10. For corroboration of the early evening time moment of completion of the ‘fair copy’ of the Declaration by the Committee of Five, see Edward Channing, A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (N.Y: The MacMillan Co., 1912), Volume III: The American Revolution, 1761-1789; Chapter VII: The Declaration of Independence, pp. 182-209, wherein July 4th, p. 205. See also Edward Channing, A SHORT HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (N.Y: The MacMillan Co., 1908), Chapter V-15: The Great Declaration and the French Alliance, p. 146. Speculatively, an estimated time moment interval of 16:45 LMT up to 18:35 LMT appears to be the least unlikely period during which the committee’s authenticating sign-off completed the corrected draft, the ‘fair copy’.
  11. The Congress left no record of when, during the night of July 4/5, President John Hancock affixed his authenticating signature to either the Committee’s fair copy or the Dunlap broadside master copy (the printer’s proof-copy). On the extant original copies of the printed broadside one finds this: “Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, JOHN HANCOCK, President.” For a scholarly appraisal of this national tragedy of the absent record of Hancock’s signature moment, see Julian P. Boyd, “The Declaration of Independence: The Mystery of the Lost Original”, in THE PENNSYLVANIA MAGAZINE, Vol. C, No. 4, October 1976, pp. 438-467.
  12. Congress may have taken as little as 33 days from the debates of July 1 to the opening of business on August 2, in order to establish “THE unanimous DECLARATION of the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA”, being the revised-format edition of the July 4 Declaration. This ‘unanimous thirteen’ edition remains on permanent public display, enshrined in the rotunda of the National Archives at Washington, D.C. For a partially successful effort to piece together the fragmented record of the genesis of the Declaration’s creation during this 33 day interval, see Wilfred J. Ritz, “The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776″, in the Cornell Law School’s LAW AND HISTORY REVIEW, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1986, pp. 179-204. See also, Herbert Friedenwald, THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: An Interpretation and an Analysis (MacMillan & Co., 1904), pp. 138-51.

Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe, mentor of Thomas Jefferson

June 8, 2013

George Wythe was an American lawyer, a judge, a prominent law professor and “Virginia’s foremost classical scholar.” He was a teacher and mentor of Thomas Jefferson.[1] Wythe’s signature is positioned at the head of the list of seven Virginia signatories on the United States Declaration of Independence. Wythe served as a representative of Virginia and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention—though he left the Convention early and did not sign the final version of the Constitution.[2]

Wythe is believed to have been murdered in June 1806 by arsenic poisoning by his grandnephew George Wythe Sweeney. He was likely targeting Lydia Broadnax, Wythe’s housekeeper, and Michael Brown, a 16-year-old mixed-race boy who lived in the household, to whom Wythe had made bequests in his will. Brown died a week before Wythe but Broadnax survived. As blacks were prevented by law from testifying at trials against whites, Broadnax and other servants could not tell about having seen Sweeney’s suspicious actions, and he was acquitted.

Some historians have suggested that Broadnax was Wythe’s concubine, or common-law wife, and Brown their son, but Philip D. Morgan disagrees and suggests Brown was not related to either Broadnax or Wythe.[3]


George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Wythe was born in 1726 in Hampton, Virginia. His mother, a learned woman, had taught him at home, and started Wythe on extensive study. After the early deaths of both his parents, Wythe lost his way for a while, but had the benefit of a patrimony from his father.

At about age 30, Wythe started “reading the law” with John Lewis, and was admitted to the bar. He made law and learning his life.

In turn, Wythe later had numerous students assist in his law office, including Thomas Jefferson, his law clerk for five years; Henry Clay, and John Breckinridge.[4] Of these men, Wythe was closest to Thomas Jefferson, whom he first met as his student at William and Mary College. In their friendship, together the two men read all sorts of other material, from English literary works, to political philosophy, to the ancient classics.

Wythe served as mayor of Williamsburg, Virginia, from 1768 to 1769. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, voting in favor of the resolution for independence and signing the Declaration of Independence. He helped form the new government of Virginia, and was elected Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1777. As part of a committee, he designed the Seal of Virginia, inscribed with the motto “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, which is still in use today.

In 1779 he was appointed to the newly created Chair of Law at William and Mary, becoming the first law professor in the United States. During his decade there, Wythe taught many students, including the future presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, and future Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, John Marshall.

In 1787, George Washington appointed Wythe, along with Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney, to draw up rules and procedures for the Constitutional Convention. In 1789 Wythe was appointed a Judge of the Chancery Court of Virginia.


by Ole Erekson, Engraver, c1876, Library of Congress

Wythe married Elizabeth Taliaferro. They had one child. Her father, Richard Taliaferro, built the Wythe home in Williamsburg, Virginia.

After her death, he married again and was widowed again. He had no children with his second wife.

After the death of his second wife in 1787, Wythe moved to Richmond from Williamsburg in 1791. He took with him his housemaid and cook Lydia Broadnax (1740-after 1806), whom he had freed on September 15, 1787, a month after the death of his second wife. She was about 45 at the time.[3] A young mixed-race son Michael Brown, born free in 1790, lived with her in Wythe’s household in Richmond.[5] Wythe took an interest in Brown’s education. He had freed another adult slave, Benjamin, on 29 January 1797, as well as others after that. Benjamin worked as Wythe’s servant in Richmond and was named in his will.[3]

By 1805, Wythe’s’ grandnephew George Wythe Sweeney had come to live with him, but the judge found the young man had trouble with alcohol and gambling, even at age 17. He stole some of his uncle’s books for sales and tried to cash a forged check to get funds.[3]


In John Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence, Wythe is in profile farthest to the viewer’s left. Trumbull’s painting was used for the back of the U.S. $2 bill, but Wythe’s image was cut out of that depiction.[6]

A planter and slaveholder, Wythe became an abolitionist after the Revolutionary War. After his second wife’s death, he divested himself of most of his slaves. He freed his housemaid Lydia Broadnax, as well as Benjamin, a house servant, and other slaves. He also provided them with support for their transitions to freedom.[3] During the first two decades after the war, so many Virginians freed slaves that the percentage of free blacks in the state rose from less than 1 percent to nearly 10 percent by 1810. As noted, Broadnax accompanied Wythe and continued to work for him, but by 1797 Broadnax owned her own home in Richmond and took in boarders. The historian Philip D. Morgan suggests Brown may have been the son of another woman, whom, Broadnax took in.[3]

Wythe provided a settlement in his will for Broadnax and Michael Brown, by then 16 years old. Broadnax had worked for decades as his cook. Wythe also provided in his will money for the boy Brown’s education. He had taken interest in Michael, taught him Greek and shared his library with him.[7]

The Jefferson biographer Fawn M. Brodie and others have suggested that Broadnax was Wythe’s concubine and Brown was their son. In her book of 1973, she was the first to write seriously that Thomas Jefferson likely had a relationship with Sally Hemings, 25 years before much historiography was reevaluated, and a DNA study showed a match between the Jefferson male line and a Hemings descendant. The historian Philip D. Morgan believes that the fact that Wythe fathered no children with his two wives, and his and Broadnax’s ages at the time of Brown’s birth, suggest that he was not the son of either person. He also noted in his 1999 essay on interracial relations in the Chesapeake Bay area, that there had been no gossip about them at the time.[3]


On May 25, Wythe, Broadnax and Brown all became violently ill. Two days later, Wythe’s other heir, his 18-year-old grand-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, tried to cash a $100 check drawn on his great-uncle’s account. Although gravely ill, Wythe contended that Sweeney had tried to murder him, but doctors at first diagnosed the three with cholera. Broadnax said she had seen Sweeney put a powder in their morning coffee.[5]

Sweeney was charged with poisoning Wythe, Broadnax and Brown with arsenic. The judge at age 80 lingered long enough to change his will and eliminate his bequest to Sweeney. Brown died on June 1, 1806, and Wythe on June 8, but Broadnax survived the poisoning. The Virginia race laws prohibited her as a black from testifying at the trial. [8]

At trial in Virginia, Sweeney was acquitted of murder. Historians believe this was primarily because of a law forbidding testimony by black witnesses, whether free or enslaved. [9] Sweeney was tried for forgery of the check and convicted. With his conviction overruled on appeal, Sweeney was said to have gone to Tennessee. There he reportedly stole a horse, was convicted and served a term in a penitentiary. Afterward he was lost to history.[5]

In his will, Wythe left his extraordinary book collection to Thomas Jefferson. This became part of Jefferson’s own sale to create the Library of Congress. He described Wythe as “… my ancient master, my earliest and best friend, and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have [been] the most salutary on the course of my life.”


George Wythe gravestone at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia

Wythe’s funeral was the largest in state history until that time. Richmond businesses closed for the day, and thousands lined the funeral route. The service was conducted at the state capitol.[5] Wythe was buried at St. John’s Church in Richmond, where Patrick Henry had given his “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” speech.


Will of George Wythe, 1806, leaving books to Thomas Jefferson

  • Wythe’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia stands next to Bruton Parish Church, of which Wythe was a vestryman.[10] It was acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1938. Today it serves as a museum, the Wythe House.
  • Several places in Virginia were named for him: Wythe County, Virginia, its county seat Wytheville; high schools in Wytheville and Richmond; an elementary school in Hampton; a section of US-301 named Wythe Street in Petersburg; and the Olde Wythe Neighborhood in Hampton.
  • The Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
  • George Wythe College of Cedar City, Utah was named for him.
  • George Wythe Randolph, the Secretary of War of the Confederate States of America was named after him.


Thomas Jefferson’s notes on biography of Wythe, 1820


  1. Online site for Colonial Williamsburg
  2. Notes on the Constitution
  3. Philip D. Morgan, “Interracial Sex in the Chesapeake”, in Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture, Eds. J.E. Lewis and P.S. Onuf. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 55-6-
  4. Courthouse History, U.S. District Court, Washington, DC
  5. Bruce Chadwick, “The Mysterious Death of George Wythe”, American History, on, February 2009, pp. 36-41
  6. “Key to Trumbull’s picture”,
  7. Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, “George Wythe”, in Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, New York: William Reed & Co., 1856, pp. 364-372
  8. Kappman (ed), Edward W. (1994). Great American Trials. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press. pp. 75–77. ISBN 0-8103-9134-1.
  9. Stephen G. Christianson (1999). “George Sweeney Trial: 1806 – Sweeney Poisons Wythe And Is Tried For Murder”.
  10. Williamsburg site, supra


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