views updated


SIGNERS. In American history, a "signer" is one of the fifty-six members of the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence on or after 2 August 1776.The document was officially adopted on 4 July 1776, but it was signed only after it was engrossed on parchment (written out in a large, clear hand), a process that was completed on 2 August. On that date John Hancock of Massachusetts, the president of Congress, signed first, followed by forty-nine other delegates, beginning below and to the right of the text, in geographic order of the states from north to south. Six more delegates signed after 2 August, one of whom, Thomas McKean of Delaware, claimed to have signed before the end of the year but in fact had not done so by 18 January 1777 and may not have signed until 1781. All of the delegates signed, not as individuals, but in their capacity as members of a state delegation.

The signers were those men who happened to be delegates on 2 August. Of the fifty-six signers, fourteen had not been present on 2 July, when Richard Henry Lee's resolution declaring independence was adopted, or on 4 July, when the Declaration itself was approved. Eight delegates who were present on 2 or 4 July did not sign the engrossed copy of the Declaration, including John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York, who both thought independence premature, although Livingston had been a member of the committee to draft the Declaration. Opponents of the document who nevertheless signed it on 2 August were Carter Braxton of Virginia, Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, George Read of Delaware, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. Among the delegates no longer in Congress, and who therefore could not sign, were George Washington of Virginia, John Sullivan of New Hampshire, and George Clinton of New York, all of whom were in active military service, and Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina and Patrick Henry of Virginia, who were active in the governments of their home states. Men prominent in later years, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and James Monroe, had not yet been elected to Congress.

The fifty-six signers were nearly all well educated and prosperous and represented a cross-section of the elite leadership of the rebellion. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania was the oldest (seventy years old) and the American with the greatest international reputation. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was the youngest (twenty-six years old). Most were in their thirties and forties. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland, lived the longest, dying at the age of ninety-five in 1832. All but eight signers had been born in the colonies; the eight immigrants had been born in the British Isles. Two were bachelors—Caesar Rodney and Joseph Hewes—while Carter Braxton was the father of eighteen children. Francis Hopkinson was a musician and poet, Lyman Hall and John Witherspoon were clergymen. Lawyers predominated (twenty-four of fifty-six). Sixteen signers also signed the Articles of Confederation, and six also signed the federal Constitution. Only Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania signed the Declaration, the Articles, and the Constitution.

Delegates not present on 2 or 4 July, who signed on 2 August:

Delegates not present on 2 or 4 July, who signed after 2 August:

Delegates present on 2 or 4 July, who signed after 2 August:

Delegates present on 2 or 4 July, who did not sign:

  • John Alsop, New York
  • George Clinton, New York
  • Robert R. Livingston, New York
  • Henry Wisner, New York
  • John Dickinson, Pennsylvania
  • Charles Humphreys, Pennsylvania
  • Thomas Willing, Pennsylvania
  • John Rogers, Maryland

Considering the bleak outlook for the American cause in August 1776, the signers are particularly to be admired for signing a document for which they would have been hung as traitors and rebels had Britain won the war and reestablished royal control of the colonies. The danger to the signers was so great that their names were held secret until 18 January 1777, when the victories at Trenton and Princeton prompted Congress to take the bold step of ordering an authenticated copy of the Declaration of Independence and the names of the signers to be sent to each state. Although no signer died directly at the hands of the British, Francis Lewis of New York and Richard Stockton of New Jersey each suffered a particularly hard fate at the their hands. Both had their homes destroyed, and Lewis's wife and Stockton suffered a captivity that ruined their health. John Hart of New Jersey saw his farm destroyed, and he and his wife had to hide in the woods for months, ruining her health. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia escaped capture by minutes, and another six were fortunate enough to avoid being taken by enemy forces sent in their pursuit. Homes of fifteen signers were destroyed.

A list of the fifty-six signers, arranged both alphabetically and by state, is contained in the Appendices. All are sketched individually in this book.

SEE ALSO Continental Congress; Declaration of Independence; Independence.


Ferris, Robert G., ed. Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1973.

Malone, Dumas. The Story of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Smith, Paul H. et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. Vols. 1-4. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976–1979.

United States Congress. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky