For those wondering why I haven’t been posting anything since last Tuesday, you might be pleased to know that I have been working some unique project for a blog series during this 4th of July weekend. Now since the only common traditions on this 4th of July consist mostly of flags, fireworks, and food, I instead decided to do a series on the white and fairly well-off men who signed the Declaration of Independence. I did this because mainly because while Americans all have different ways of celebrating the holiday, we all share a common reason why we celebrate it. I mean these 56 men pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor when they put their name on this document in which thirteen colonies declared themselves independent from the British Empire where all men are created equal, endowed by by their Creator certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, these guys weren’t concerned with civil rights, feminism, outlawing slavery, or marriage equality. And contrary to popular belief, July 4th was the day that the Declaration of Independence was adopted, not when it was signed (the delegates added on their signatures later). And let’s just say that the story of the Declaration of Independence is a bit more complicated than what most Americans are accustomed to in their American history class, the media, books, or what not. Still, while Americans tend to have a rather idealized portrait of the Founding Fathers, all guys of noble character who stood for traditional values or noble principles, most of them have no idea of who they actually were. This is mainly the reason why I decided to do a series on the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. We must understand that the Founding Fathers were just as human as we are and lived in a very different time from our own. Sure they may have believed that all men were created equal, but many of them participated in a horrible institution that subjugated black people to a lifetime of involuntary servitude with some of those individuals being their own children (I’m talking to you, Jefferson). Then there’s the fact that while they were big on their property rights except when it came to some sweet Native American owned real estate. Also, many of them tended to believe that working class men are too stupid to participate in the political process and that women were too weak and feeble minded even to vote (Abigail Adams called John out on this). Yes, they might’ve believed in the right to bear arms but they were living at a time that simply didn’t have guns with repeating ammunition (which made firearms technology advance by leaps and bounds since the mid-1800s, explaining why guns are so dangerous today and why we need gun control). And as with marriage? Well, many of these guys didn’t even believe in marrying for love. Well, a lot of them did love their wives, it’s just that when it came to marriage, people in the 1700s weren’t really looking for someone to love than perhaps a hot young trophy wife or a sugar daddy with an abundance of disposable assets. And sometimes your marriage partner was picked for you by your parents and there was nothing you can do about it. Well, there was pregnancy through premarital sex, but sometimes being in the family way meant shame for the woman if her baby daddy wasn’t willing to go through with it, even if her daddy threatened him with a musket.
In this section, I turn my focus on the signers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. First, you have John Hancock a merchant and probably smuggler who was the President of the Continental Congress at the time. You probably know him for signing his name real big on the document. Second, you have Josiah Bartlett, a New Hampshire doctor whose descendant would eventually become President of the United States. Well, in the Aaron Sorkin universe and played by Martin Sheen. He’s joined by former sea captain William Whipple and Irish born physician Matthew Thornton. Next you have Sam Adams, a revolutionary firebrand who now has a beer brand named after him as well as his cousin John Adams who became a US President as well as subject of a David McCullough book that was made into an HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti. Finally, you have Robert Treat Paine or the guy on the Massachusetts delegation you most likely haven’t heard of and Elbridge Gerry, a man who’s name will live in infamy because of the term, “gerrymandering.” And they still made him Madison’s runningmate in the 1812 election despite that. So for your patriotic reading pleasure, I introduce you to the first batch of Founding Fathers who put their old John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence, including John Hancock.
- John Hancock
Lived: (1737-1793) He was 39 at the signing and 56 at his death.
Family: Son of Reverend John Hancock Jr. and Mary Hawke Thaxter (later Perkins). Second of 3 children and oldest son. Grandfather John Hancock Sr. was also a minister. Father died when he was 7. Was sent to live with his paternal grandfather and later his uncle Thomas Hancock and his wife Lydia who raised him from the age of 13 (didn’t hurt that Uncle Thomas was one of the richest and well-known men in Boston). Married to Dorothy Quincy (later Scott) in 1776 and had 2 children, neither of whom survived childhood (daughter died in infancy and son died from a fall at 9 while ice skating).
Occupation: Merchant, philanthropist, and smuggler (but we’re not sure to which degree but Hancock’s Uncle Thomas certainly was).
Early Life: Born in Braintree (now Quincy). Graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1750 and from Harvard in 1754. Joined his uncle’s business that same year known as House of Hancock and would soon rise to partner after a year in England. Upon his uncle’s death in 1764, he inherited the business, Hancock Manor estate on Beacon Hill, and thousands of acres of land (he also got a few slaves but they were eventually freed as Thomas specified. However, there’s no evidence that Hancock bought or sold slaves). Was elected one of Boston’s 5 selectmen in 1765, a position his uncle had for many years. Was among the early resisters to the Stamp Act and though he was an advocate for boycotting, he didn’t approve of mob violence as well as hated the presence of the British troops in Boston. In 1766, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. During this time he became a protégé of Samuel Adams who was a clerk and political party leader. In 1768, his crew on his brig the Lydia got in a physical fight with a couple of customs officials on an unwarranted search, which let him off scot free. Later that year, his sloop the Liberty was seized by the HMS Romney after customs officials found 20 barrels of tar and 200 barrels of oil (while it officially carried 25 pipes of Madeira wine a 1/4th of the ship’s carrying capacity). This, combined with previous impressment of colonists by the Romney’s captain led to a riot breaking out which led the Romney having to flee. Afterwards, British customs would file 2 lawsuits against Hancock and confiscate his Liberty ship, which was later burned by angry Rhode Islanders the following year. He was also charged with smuggling but it was soon dropped after 5 months in a vice admiralty court without explanation. But this led to the colonial secretary ordering 4 British Army regiments to Boston. Following the Boston Massacre in 1770, he led a committee demanding the removal of British troops in Boston and told the new governor that if the redcoats didn’t leave, 10,000 armed colonists were ready to march into the city (this was a bluff though). Was a moderator at the Boston town meeting on the Tea Act in 1773, which would later lead to the Boston Tea Party which he didn’t take part. In 1774, he was elected president of the Provincial Congress and later sent as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress to replace James Bowdoin. In 1775, he and Samuel Adams would leave Concord for his old grandfather’s home in Lexington in order to avoid possible arrest by the British Crown. But they were warned by Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott of British troops so they escaped to Philadelphia.
Significant Roles: In 1775, Hancock was unanimously elected President of the Continental Congress due to his experience, wealth and distinction, and his association with Boston radicals. But his role was ambiguous and not truly defined other than being the presiding officer and handling a great deal of official correspondence, which led him to personally hire his own clerks. Still, his term would see much of the critical moments of the American Revolution such as appointment of George Washington (of whom he was a great admirer by the way, even named his son after him), the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the driving of Washington to New York, and the British occupation of Philadelphia. Used much of his wealth and influence to support the colonial cause from the 1760s and throughout the war.
Ultimate Fate: In 1777, he would leave the Continental Congress and return to Massachusetts. He would soon become estranged from Samuel Adams due to his vanity and extravagance and the other’s somber Puritanism. Rejoined the Continental Congress in 1778 and signed the Articles of Confederation. Charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780 and was elected Governor of Massachusetts the same year. He would go on to serve 2 nonconsecutive terms. Best known action was pardoning the guys responsible for Shays Rebellion. Was president of the Continental Congress from 1785-1786. Was present of the Massachusetts ratifying convention for the US Constitution in 1788 but had misgivings about the document’s lack of a Bill of Rights but supported ratification anyway with Samuel Adams, which was probably a deciding factor for the state. Died of lingering gout at 56 and was buried at the Granary Burial ground in Boston after a lavish funeral (which would be unmarked until the 1870s). However, despite being hugely popular in his lifetime, he faded from popular memory and his Beacon Hill residence was torn down.
Trivia: Best known for his large, flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence (though it kind of describes his personality but he remained popular even though he and Samuel Adams didn’t always get along. But it’s said that he presumably signed first). Still, he left few personal writings and most of what depictions rely on him comes from the voluminous works of his opponents and let’s just say it’s pretty scathingly critical. Was a casual childhood acquaintance of John Adams who lived in the same hometown of Braintree and attended the same church. He’d later be Hancock’s lawyer during the Liberty affair. Wife’s aunt was the subject of an Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. poem called, “Dorothy Q.” Was worth $350,000 at the time of his death which consisted of about 1/714th of the nation’s GNP at the time. Had a fondness for expensive clothes and extravagant aristocratic living.
- Josiah Bartlett
Lived: (1729-1795) He was 46 at the signing and 65 at his death.
Family: Son of Stephen Bartlett and Hannah Mary Webster. Was their fifth child and fourth son. Married his first cousin Mary in 1754 and had 10 children with 8 surviving to adulthood. All three sons and 7 grandsons would follow him into the medical profession.
State: New Hampshire
Early Life: Born in Amesbury, Massachusetts. After learning some Latin and Greek was apprenticed to a Dr. Ordway in medicine and became a doctor at 20. At 21, he moved to Kingston, New Hampshire where he started his medical practice. He would practice medicine for 45 years. In 1754, he helped stave off an epidemic of throat in Kingston after discovering that Peruvian bark would relieve symptoms long enough to allow recovery. Elected to the colonial assembly in 1765. Became militia colonel and justice of the peace in 1767. Joined New Hampshire’s Committee of Correspondence in 1774 and lost his house to a fire that same year (which might’ve been politically motivated arson). Declined his appointment to the First Continental Congress to spend more time with his family (well, wouldn’t you?). After being stripped of his political offices, he was selected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, which he attended.
Significant Roles: From 1775 to early 1776, he was the only delegate from New Hampshire. And since the most important committees required a delegate from each state, he was on all of them. Was the first New Hampshire delegate to give the affirmative for independence and was the second to sign. Declined to serve in 1777 citing fatigue but served as a physician at the Battle of Bennington. Returned to Congress in 1778 where he helped draft the Articles of Confederation but returned to New Hampshire permanently once they were adopted. This was the last of his federal service.
Ultimate Fate: Returned to his roles as a judge serving in the Court of Common Pleas in 1779 and was appointed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court in 1782 despite not being a lawyer and would soon become Chief Justice in 1788. That year he was selected as delegate to the New Hampshire convention to ratify the US Constitution. Was elected as US Senator but declined the offer. Founded and was first president of the New Hampshire Medical Society in 1790 (guess he had enough of federal politics). That same year he was elected Governor of New Hampshire where he served a 4 year term. Is buried next to his wife in Plains Cemetery. Relatives still live in his home to this day and give tours throughout the year but it’s said to be up for sale since 2014. Is pretty well known in New Hampshire but nowhere else save for one thing.
Trivia: Best known for being a direct ancestor of a fictional US president from The West Wing (that is outside New Hampshire). Delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth when his son Ezra graduated where they were both awarded MDs.
- William Whipple
Lived: (1731-1785) He was 45 at the signing and 55 at his death.
Family: Son of William Whipple and Mary Curtis. Married his first cousin Catherine Moffat in 1767 and had a child who died in infancy.
State: New Hampshire
Occupation: Ship’s captain, soldier, and merchant
Early Life: Born in Kittery in southern Maine (then part of Massachusetts). Was educated at a common school until he went off to sea as a teenager, becoming a ship’s master at 21. Earned his fortune participating in the Triangle Trade dealing cargo such as wood, rum, and slaves (though he totally believed in racial equality, ironically). Settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and established himself as a merchant with his brother. Was elected to the colony’s Provincial Congress in 1775 prior to being elected to the Continental Congress where he served through 1779.
Significant Roles: As far as the Declaration of Independence goes, he didn’t really do much. However, in 1777, he was made Brigadier General as well as participated in a successful expedition against Burgoyne in the battles of Stillwater and Saratoga. Also led his brigade in the Battle of Rhode Island.
Ultimate Fate: After the Revolution, he became an Associate Justice of New Hampshire’s Superior Court before dying of a heart attack after fainting from atop his horse while traveling his court circuit. He was buried in the Old North Burial Ground in Portsmouth where his headstone was replaced with a memorial by a local historical association in 1976.
Trivia: Freed his closest slave in 1781 because he believed owning one disqualified him as a freedom fighter.
- Matthew Thornton
Lived: (1714-1803) He was 62 at the signing and 89 at his death.
Family: Son of James Thornton and Elizabeth Jenkins who were Ulster Scots. Married Hannah Jack in 1760 and had 5 children.
State: New Hampshire
Occupation: Physician, military surgeon, farmer, ferry operator, pundit and political essayist
Early Life: Born in Limerick, Ireland. Family moved to North America in 1716 and settled in Brunswick, Maine. But in 1722, the community was attacked by Native Americans so his family was forced to flee to Worcester, Massachusetts. Completed his medical studies in Leicester and established a practice in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Would be elected selectman as well as representative and president of the Provincial Assembly where he helped draft the state’s new constitution, which was the first adopted after the start of hostilities in England.
Significant Roles: Elected to the Continental Congress only after the debates occurred and arrived so late in Philadelphia that he was granted permission to sign. Served as Associate Justice of the Superior Court of New Hampshire from 1777 to 1784.
Ultimate Fate: Retired from medicine in 1780. Became a New Hampshire state senator from 1784-1786. Spent later years writing for newspapers, farming, and operating a ferry with his family. Died in Massachusetts while visiting his daughter.
Trivia: Grave reads, “An Honest Man.” Nephew was a suspected Loyalist and shared the same name who was tried for treason but “honorably acquitted” (he would later flee to Canada). Has a town and elementary school named after him. Descendants live all over the country and even Paris, France.
- Samuel Adams
Lived: (1722-1803) He was 54 at the signing and 81 at his death.
Family: Son of Samuel Adams Sr. and Mary Fifield. One of 12 children though only him and 2 of his siblings would only live past their third birthday. Father was a prosperous church deacon and merchant as well as a leading figure in Boston politics that would lead him to become justice of the peace, selectman, and member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives (but he was basically a man almost just like Sam but not as interested in politics). The elder Sam would later get into some banking controversy which led to lawsuits and the younger Sam to defend the family estate for years (even after his dad’s death in 1748). Married Elizabeth Checkley in 1749 (his pastor’s daughter) and had 6 children over the next 7 years but only a son and daughter would survive to adulthood (but his Samuel wouldn’t survive him and die at 37 who was a Revolutionary War surgeon). Elizabeth would die in childbirth in 1757. Married Elizabeth Wells in 1764 but had no children with her.
Occupation: Businessman, maltster, tax collector, newspaperman, activist, and political pundit
Early Life: Born in Boston and was raised in a devout Puritan family (a fact he was most proud of). Attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard in 1740, though he disappointed his parents for opting for politics over the ministry. But he earned a master’s degree in 1743 leaving a thesis that indicated some of his early political views. Elected to his first political office in 1747 as a clerk in the Boston Market. Launched his own newspaper with friends in 1748. Elected tax collector in 1756 but did his job poorly which had no effect on his popularity with the populace though his opponents took him to court. Was very much against British policy after the French and Indian War and wasn’t afraid to show it. This led to a lot of violence in Massachusetts associated with the Stamp was blamed on him for years (though he was more of an advocate for non-violent resistance and hated mob violence). In 1765, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and wrote instructions for the Boston delegation during the town meeting. He was the primary author of a series of many anti-Stamp Act resolutions there, more radical than those passed by the Stamp Act Congress. He’d also be the first to argue that mankind possessed certain natural rights that governments couldn’t violate (like you know, inalienable rights). Became clerk to the Massachusetts House in 1766 and became a mentor to John Hancock. Wrote the Massachusetts Circular Letter with James Otis calling the other colonies to join Massachusetts in resisting the Townshend Acts. Though often cited as such, he was more of reformer than an early advocate for independence (though he did say that the colonies would split from the empire if Britain didn’t clean up its act). As soon as the first British troops entered Boston, he wasted no time writing a series of articles known as the Journal of Occurrences (with others) up to 1769, which was probably not entirely accurate but it claimed to be factual since professional journalism didn’t really exist. After the Boston Massacre in 1770, he insisted that the soldiers involved would receive a fair trial and convinced John Adams and Josiah Quincy to defend them (even though he wrote essays condemning the outcome believing they should’ve been convicted of murder). Helped set up the first Committee of Correspondence in 1772, which would lead to similar groups throughout the colonies. Was a leader in the events that led to the Boston Tea Party. Was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774. In 1775, he and John Hancock would flee from Concord to Lexington where they made their escape thanks to warnings from Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott.
Significant Roles: Said to be a major influence or possible whip in the Second Continental Congress even though his role is unclear since he’s credited for steering them toward independence. But he was a cautious advocate despite his Boston radical image. In 1776, he praised Thomas Paine for Common Sense. Served on military committees during the American Revolution, advocating paying bonuses for Continental soldiers who decided to reenlist as well as harsh state legislation to punish Loyalists in Massachusetts. He was also appointed to the committee to draft the Articles of Confederation.
Ultimate Fate: Returned to Massachusetts in 1779 where he would draft the Massachusetts state constitution with John Adams and James Bowdoin. Would soon have a falling out with John Hancock. In 1781, he retired from the Continental Congress citing ill health. Played a major role in establishing free public education in Boston (for both boys and girls). Was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. Was elected to the Massachusetts ratifying convention for the US Constitution in 1788 where he reconciled with Hancock and became a firmer advocate after the Bill of Rights was issued. Was elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 1789 and assumed governor in 1793 where he emerged as leader of the Democratic Republicans. Left office in 1797 due to his long suffering tremors which left him unable to write in the last 10 years of his life. Interred at Granary Burying Ground in Boston. Was and continues to remain a highly controversial figure in American history as his significance and reputation continues to be debated.
Trivia: Was second cousin to John Adams. Has a beer brand named after him. Had little money that friends had to finance his trip to Philadelphia in 1774 as well as buy him a new set of clothes (luckily his strict Puritan upbringing made him a rather frugal man, even after his son died and left him and his second wife with some financial security). Called, “Father of the American Revolution.”
- John Adams
Lived: (1735-1826) He was 40 at the signing and 90 at his death.
Family: Son of John Adams Sr. and Susanna Boylston. Oldest of 3 sons. Father was a farmer, church deacon, selectman, and militia lieutenant. Was from the sixth generation of his family from Massachusetts and very close to his dad. Mother came from a leading colonial medical family. Married his third cousin Abigail Smith in 1764 and had 5 children, including future president John Quincy Adams as well as started a famous American dynasty that included politicians, diplomats, and historians.
Occupation: Teacher, author, lawyer, statesman, diplomat, historian, and political theorist
Early Life: Born in Braintree (now Quincy). Began his studies in Harvard at 16 and graduated in 1755 but after a few years teaching in Worcester decided to become a lawyer (though he disappointed his parents who wanted him to be a minister. Not only that, but he rejected his family’s age old Puritanism and became a Unitarian). Earned his law degree in 1758 after studying under lawyer John Putnam. In 1765, in opposition to the Stamp Act, he drafted instructions to Braintree’s representatives which served as a model for other towns as well as contributed anonymous articles to the Boston Gazette. In that, he said that it violated the rights of citizens to be taxed without their consent and by tried by a jury of their peers. Was elected as selectman to Braintree the next year. In 1770, he was recruited by Samuel Adams to represent the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, which resulted in 6 of their acquittals and 2 convictions to Sam’s dismay. But he was elected to the General Court during the trial preparation. Wrote the Novanglus Essays in 1772 win which he argued the colonists have never been under the sovereignty of Parliament in the first place. Was elected to the First and Second Continental Congress in 1774, 1775, and 1777.
Significant Roles: Had a lot of influence in the Continental Congress and supported independence from Britain almost from the beginning. In June 1775, he nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. In 1776, he wrote Thoughts on Government which would be influential in the writing of state constitutions, defended bicameralism, as well as advocated measures like separation of powers, 3 branches of government, and the concept of enumerated powers. Joined in Richard Henry Lee calling the colonies to set up their own independent governments with their efforts setting the stage for the formal adoption of American independence. Was among the Committee of Five which helped draft the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. He’s said to persuade that the committee choose Jefferson to write the document. In 1779 he helped draft the Massachusetts Constitution with Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin which derived from his Thoughts on Government ideas (but he was the primary author). Served as a diplomat to France, Britain, and the Netherlands from 1777 to well into the 1780s. During this time, he was charged with negotiating a peace treaty with the British, resulting in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Ultimate Fate: Was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. Was a strong advocate for the ratification of the US Constitution and published A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States in 1787 which advocated a mixed government of checks and balances. Was elected Vice President under George Washington in 1789 and 1792, but while his role was minor in the administration, he was quite active in the Senate. Was elected President in 1796 as a Federalist. His administration saw the XYZ Affair and the Alien and Sedition Acts which made him rather unpopular (even though he was competent enough to narrowly avoid a war with France, which the US could not afford). Lost out on reelection in 1800 which led him to retreat into private life where he spent his remaining days working on his autobiography, getting back in touch with old friends, defending his reputation, and farming. He and Abigail are now buried in the crypt of the United First Parish Church.
Trivia: Was baptized by the Reverend John Hancock Jr. who was the father of the famous Founding Father. Was Hancock’s lawyer during the Liberty Affair. Was a second cousin of Samuel Adams. From an early age, he kept a diary in which he wrote descriptions of events and impressions of men, particularly cases he observed. Was anti-slavery, owned no slaves, and was proud of it. Had an on-again and off-again friendship with Thomas Jefferson, but he didn’t attend the latter’s inauguration mostly due to the death of his alcoholic son Charles and a desire to rejoin his wife Abigail (they had a very loving relationship. But Adams and Jefferson would reconcile in 1812 and they would correspond for the next 14 years of which 158 letters still survive). Called, “His Rotundity.” Was the first US president to live in the White House. Died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence as well as on the same day as Thomas Jefferson. Was subject of an HBO miniseries. First biography was written by son John Quincy and grandson Charles Francis. Was a stubborn and prideful man with an argumentative personality who did not get along well with even his closest allies and it’s these personality traits that hindered him as a leader. Was no fan of Benjamin Franklin whom he thought was a hypocrite. Was not the guy you’d want to talk about the working class. Also, really hated Alexander Hamilton who tried to go to great lengths to discredit him. Described himself as “obnoxious and disliked.”
- Robert Treat Paine
Lived: (1731-1814) He was 45 in 1776 and 83 at his death.
Family: Son of the Reverend Thomas Paine and Sarah Treat. Father was also a merchant. Was one of 5 children. Maternal grandfather was the Reverend Samuel Treat who was one of the founders of New Jersey. Mother’s family had been in the New World since the Mayflower. Married Sally Cobb in 1770 and had 8 children.
Occupation: Merchant, whaler, teacher, chaplain, and lawyer
Early Life: Born in Boston. Attended the Boston Latin School and entered Harvard at 14 where he graduated in 1749 at 18. After dabbling in teaching at the Boston Latin School, making merchant journeys to the Azores and Carolinas, and going on a whaling expedition to Greenland, he decided to become a lawyer. So he decided to study law under his mom’s cousin in Lancaster, though he took a break to volunteer as a chaplain during the French and Indian War. In 1756, he returned to his legal studies under Samuel Prat in Boston and was admitted to the bar the next year. In 1770, he and Samuel Quincy served as the prosecutors against the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Represented Massachusetts in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778 and signed the Olive Branch Petition.
Significant Roles: Paine doesn’t seem to do much outside Massachusetts where he returned in 1776. In 1777, he was Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives as well as served as Massachusetts Attorney General from 1777 to 1790. Was on the committee to draft Massachusetts state constitution in 1780.
Ultimate Fate: Was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. Prosecuted the treason trials of Shays’ Rebellion. Served as justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1790-1804. Buried in Boston’s Granary Burial Ground. Still, out of all the signers in the Massachusetts delegation, he’s the least known and the least interesting.
Trivia: Had a cousin who raised a regiment during the French and Indian War.
- Elbridge Gerry
Lived: (1744-1814) He was 31 at the signing and 70 at his death.
Family: Son of Thomas Gerry and Elizabeth Greenleaf. Father was a successful merchant who immigrated from England in 1730 and was active in local politics. Was one of 11 children and the third of 5 who survived to adulthood. Married Anne Thompson in 1786 and had 10 children. Had a grandson and great-grandson who were members of the US House of Representatives as well as a grandson who became a noted lawyer and philanthropist.
Occupation: Merchant, philanthropist, and diplomat
Early Life: Born in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Entered Harvard at 13 where he received his bachelor’s in 1762 and his master’s in 1765. After that, he joined his dad’s merchant business in which he became one of the wealthiest Massachusetts merchants with connections in Spain, the West Indies, and the North American coast. Was vocally opposed to British colonial policy in the 1760s and was part of Marblhead’s resistance efforts such as establishing its Committee of Correspondence but had to resign due to an incident with mob violence the next year. In 1774, he played a major role in ensuring the delivery of supplies from Marblehead to Boston, only interrupting activities just to care for his dying dad. He was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774 but refused to go, grieving his father’s loss. That year, he was also elected to the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly where he was responsible for assuring that the colony’s limited supplies and weapons remained out of British Army hands. These actions led to the storage of weapons and ammunition Concord where a British raiding expedition helped spark the American Revolution.
Significant Roles: Had a leading role in supplying the Continental Army such as negotiating business contacts with Spain and France as well as dabbling in privateering. Served in the Second Continental Congress from 1776-1780, where he was very influential in convincing a number of delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence. Believed in limited central government and for the maintenance of civilian control of the military.
Ultimate Fate: Elected as Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1781. Attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 but didn’t sign on account that it didn’t include a Bill of Rights but he later recanted after he was predictably defeated by John Hancock in the subsequent governor’s race. Was elected to the US Congress shortly after where he served two terms where he proposed and successfully lobbied for the Bill of Rights he wanted. Supported Alexander Hamilton’s bank and economic system but opposed the creation of a Treasury Department for fear that it might become more powerful than the president. In 1797 he was sent on a special diplomatic commission to France with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Marshall with him where they unsuccessfully tried to engage Talleyrand in formal negotiations and were bribed by his agents resulting in the XYZ Affair. However, while Pinckney and Marshall left, Talleyrand made him stay and threatened war if he left. Of course, such incidents damaged his reputation that he was burned in effigy at his home. But later published correspondence vindicated him but he was so fed up with the Adams Administration that he joined the Democratic-Republicans. Was governor of Massachusetts from 1810 to 1812 which saw a major resdistricting scandal coined the term, “gerrymander” and made him a household name (but not in a good way). He was hated by Federalists so much that they had to get a guy out of retirement to run against him which resulted in his 1812 defeat. In 1812, he was chosen as James Madison’s running mate in that year’s presidential election (due to being from the North) and was sworn in as vice-president the next year and was a strong proponent for the War of 1812 as well as sought arrest for Federalist printers. Fell ill and died in Washington D. C. two years later. Buried at Congressional Cemetery and is the only signer interred at Washington D.C.
Trivia: Best known for being the namesake of gerrymandering, a process by which electoral districts are drawn with the aim of aiding a party in power. Helped establish a hospital for performing smallpox inoculations on Cat Island, but the facilities were destroyed by a mob. Said to have a couple towns in upstate New York named after him. James Monroe was best man at his wedding. Was a longtime friend of John Adams. Said during the Constitutional Convention: “A standing army is like a standing member. It’s an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”