Many Americans take for granted our annual July 4th Independence Day. While working in my genealogical databases, I came across the name of John A. Hancock, a familiar name from America’s history. I decided to compare our family’s John Hancock (my second cousin, seven times removed), to the list of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Seeing my ancestor’s name boldly signed on the Declaration excited me.
My next step was to compare all names on the list of 56 signers to those of my relatives. I was again astonished to discover four more of my ancestors–three from Virginia; one from Rhode Island; and one from Connecticut had signed the Declaration. My inner researcher and storyteller was ecstatic. The back stories of the Declaration’s signers and its origin intrigued me.
It had taken almost two centuries for the British empire to colonize and develop our original 13 colonies, making them symbols of British power and influence. Each colony had its own economy and identity. Merchants in Massachusetts were passionate and pious; fishing and trade drove their economy. Pennsylvanian colonists were proud of their diverse society and tolerance. Men of the southern colonies had built large plantations of tobacco and cotton (that were dependent upon slave workers).
England fought multiple wars to secure itself as a global empire. In the Seven Years’ War (1757-1763), Britain and France fought. It ended with Britain’s victory in Quebec. Known in the United States as the French and Indian War, it was the first war where colonists fought alongside their mother country. Despite fighting as allies with the British, our colonies’ break from England’s rule loomed.
The First Continental Congress (September 5, 1774-October 26, 1774), was formed to address the British Parliament’s Coercive Acts, known in America as the Intolerable Acts passed earlier that year. These tax acts were levied by England to reassert its dominance over the American colonies following the Boston Tea Party. The Intolerable Acts, among other changes, closed off the Boston Port and rescinded the Massachusetts Charter, bringing the colony under more direct British control. There, Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech.
Richard Henry Lee and his brother Francis Lightfoot Lee (my second cousins, eight times removed) also signed the Declaration. In Richard Henry Lee’s speech, he thundered, “This United Colony is, and ought to be, a free and independent state, and all political connections with Great Britain should be severed.”
After that speech, Virginia firmly supported independence and the rest of the colonies followed. A committee of five was formed. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (also my second cousin, seven times removed). Franklin and Sherman were considered elder statesmen, while Jefferson, Adams, and Livingston were still in their 30s.
The phrase “all men are created equal,” was problematic to the men of the south who were dependent on the institution of slavery. Southerners viewed slaves as property and not as human beings who had rights. Slaves were bred and traded and sold without regard for keeping their families together. Undoubtedly, if Jefferson had pushed the issue of emancipation at this time the American Revolution would never have happened.
The French and Indian War left Britain heavily in debt. The British Parliament levied the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 directly on our colonists to pay for that war. These taxes further inflamed our colonies. The Second Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from the 13 colonies that united in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). It convened on May 10, 1775, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. This Congress functioned as a de facto national government at the War’s outset by raising armies, directing strategy, appointing diplomats, and writing petitions such as the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and the Olive Branch Petition. All thirteen colonies were represented by the time this Congress adopted Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution (June 7, 1776), and they declared independence from Britain on July 2, 1776. The congress agreed to the Declaration of Independence two days later.
56 Signers of The Declaration of Independence (my ancestors are numbered):
MASSACHUSETTS: John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock1,
Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
CONNECTICUT: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington2, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
RHODE ISLAND: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
PENNSYLVANIA: Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush Robert Morris, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
NEW YORK: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
NEW JERSEY: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark
DELAWARE: Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean, George Read
MARYLAND: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
VIRGINIA: Thomas Jefferson3,George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee4, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee5, Carter Braxton
NORTH CAROLINA: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
SOUTH CAROLINA: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Thomas Lynch, Arthur Middleton
GEORGIA: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton
I will now hold all future Independence Days close to my heart. I am humbled, honored, and proud to have ancestors who fought for our country’s rights and freedoms. And, I will forever share my findings and stories with our family’s children who, no doubt, may have questions about our current political polarization, our public’s political ideology, and the mass media, who like the U.S. government, is a corrupt and troubled institution that thrives on crises.
Oh, how far we have fallen in these last 246 years!