What Happened to the Signers
of the Declaration of Independence?
Five signers were captured by the British and brutally tortured as traitors.
Nine fought in the War for Independence and died from wounds or from hardships
they suffered. Two lost their sons in the Continental Army. Another two had
sons captured. At least a dozen of the fifty-six had their homes pillaged
What kind of men were they? Twenty-five were lawyers or jurists. Eleven were
merchants. Nine were farmers or large plantation owners. One was a teacher,
one a musician, and one a printer. These were
men of means and education, yet they signed the Declaration of Independence,
knowing full well that
the penalty could be death if they were captured.
In the face of the advancing British Army, the Continental Congress fled
from Philadelphia to Baltimore on December 12, 1776. It was an especially
anxious time for John Hancock, the President, as his wife had just given
birth to a baby girl. Due to the complications stemming from the trip to
Baltimore, the child lived only a few months.
William Ellery's signing at the risk of his fortune proved only too realistic.
In December 1776, during three days of British occupation of Newport, Rhode
Island, Ellery's house was burned, and all his property destroyed.
Richard Stockton, a New Jersey State Supreme Court Justice, had rushed back
to his estate near Princeton after signing the Declaration of Independence
to find that his wife and children were living like refugees with friends.
They had been betrayed by a Tory sympathizer who also revealed Stockton's
own whereabouts. British troops pulled him from his bed one night, beat him
and threw him in jail where he almost starved to death. When he was finally
released, he went home to find his estate had been looted,
his possessions burned, and his horses stolen. Judge Stockton had been so
badly treated in prison that his health was ruined and he died before the
war's end. His surviving family had to live the remainder of their lives
Carter Braxton was a wealthy planter and trader. One by one his ships were
captured by the British navy. He loaned a large sum of money to the American
cause; it was never paid back. He was forced to sell his plantations and
mortgage his other properties to pay his debts.
Thomas McKean was so hounded by the British that he had to move his family
almost constantly. He served in the Continental Congress without pay, and
kept his family in hiding.
Vandals or soldiers or both looted the properties of Clymer, Hall, Harrison,
Hopkinson and Livingston. Seventeen lost everything they owned.
Thomas Heyward, Jr., Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, all of South Carolina,
were captured by the British during the Charleston Campaign in 1780. They
were kept in dungeons at the St. Augustine Prison until exchanged a year
At the Battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British General
Cornwallis had taken over the family home for his headquarters. Nelson urged
General George Washington to open fire on his own home. This was done, and
the home was destroyed. Nelson later died bankrupt.
Francis Lewis also had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed
his wife for two months, and that and other hardships from the war so affected
her health that she died only two years later.
"Honest John" Hart, a New Jersey farmer, was driven from his wife's bedside
when she was near death. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. Hart's
fields and his grist mill were laid waste. For over a year he eluded capture
by hiding in nearby forests. He never knew where his bed would be the next
night and often slept in caves.
When he finally returned home, he found that his wife had died, his children
disappeared, and his farm and stock were completely destroyed. Hart himself
died in 1779 without ever seeing any of his family again.
Such were the stories and sacrifices typical of those who risked everything
to sign the Declaration of Independence. These men were not wild-eyed,
rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means and education.
They had security, but they valued liberty more. Standing tall, straight,
and unwavering, they pledged:
"For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection
of the Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our
fortunes, and our sacred honor."
Are there any among us who would do likewise?