It is often argued that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were men of strong character and elevated principles who were willing to risk their lives, property, and families for the freedom and ideals the document espouses; conversely, some say they were rich, entitled, elitist white men who merely took precautions to avoid losing wealth to the British, and who wanted to capitalize on the war. In order to understand which description is more accurate—or that the truth is a combination of the two—it is necessary to explore sources that view the Revolutionary Era through different lenses.
Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese, authors of Signing Their Lives Away, state in their introduction that the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration risked their lives to defy the British (Kiernan and D’Agnese 8), which suggests that they must have had great motivation to take a public stand, whatever its genesis. Most sources today consider the signers privileged members of the elite upper classes. But did they begin their lives that way and simply fight to hold on to their privilege, or did they create their own wealth and status through the liberty afforded the colonies that rejected primogeniture and honored hard work? What were the underlying motives and desires that made them willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor?
None of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were killed over their endorsement. None of them lost everything or died in penury as a direct result of the rebellion. So, were the signers willing to stand merely on principle to fight for independence from Britain? Or is it possible that they were confident that they could profit with little risk and, therefore, were operating on greed rather than ideals of freedom and liberty? Was their biggest concern to maintain the economic and social status quo and insulate themselves from rebellion and mingling with the lower classes that included minorities, women, and other non-voters?
Revisionist historian Howard Zinn argues that the continental Congress was dominated by rich men (Zinn 81) and that the American Revolution was an internal class war, as much as a war against the British—not a war for equality. He claims that through the propaganda of rebellion, the Sons of Liberty aroused such passions in the lowest classes that they feared their wealth would become a target (Zinn 65). He suggests that as they reacted to the Stamp Act, the riled-up rioters alarmed the wealthy Loyal Nine when they became too destructive and destroyed the Stamp Master’s property. The rich then set up armed patrols to insulate them from the chaff. Consequently, colonial leaders took charge and insisted on “No Mobs…Tumults…disorders” (Zinn 66) in order to protect their own interests. Therefore, the Revolutionary War was not fought for lofty ideals, but to suppress internal rifts between classes by having the poor fight to keep the rich safe and wealthy (Zinn 79). The rebellion merely swapped the colonial elite for the British, leaving the situation of the poor the same (Zinn 86).
Furthermore, Zinn argues that Patrick Henry’s speech was not merely an impassioned plea for freedom, but a layman’s call to arms meant to relieve tension between the upper and lower classes to form a patriotic bond against the British—it was just vague enough to avoid class conflict (Zinn 68). Ultimately, “The reality behind the words of the Declaration of Independence,” he claims, “ is that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history” (Zinn 74). Zinn offers evidence of their elitist privilege and power that sixty-nine percent of the signers originally held colonial office under England (Zinn 74), that the rich could pay substitutes for conscription (Zinn 75), and that loyalist land was confiscated and doled out heavily to each other with just enough to the middle class that it created a safe buffer between the rich and the dispossessed (Zinn 84).
Zinn suggests that the enlisted farmers only earned $6.66 per month, while a colonel earned $75 per month, which made them angry enough to boycott rent. This led powerful landowners to assuage the protesters by awarding them land, in order to create a committed voting bloc to ensure the adoption of the Constitution, which further added to the social status buffer (Zinn 85). He posits that there can be no equal rights when there exists a stark difference in wealth (Zinn 73).
After the war, Madison apparently argued in Federalist Paper #10 for representative government as a way to control the people (Zinn 97). The Constitution, therefore, “serves the interest of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support…who… are buffers against the blacks, Indians, the very poor whites…made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity (Zinn 99).
Zinn glosses over the fact that after the Revolution the number of independent farmers grew (Zinn 84), that the revolution created space and opportunity for blacks to begin making demands on white society (Zinn 88), and doesn’t mention much about the personal motivations or consequences suffered by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His stance that there is no equality when there are discrepancies in wealth seems strongly favorable towards a Marxist interpretation of history and leaves out any discussion of equality of opportunity. One would expect, if this is true, that the signers started out wealthy members of the ruling gentry, lost nothing substantial in their stance against the monarchy, and that only they profited handsomely as a result.
But, according to Alan Taylor, George Washington “projected a dignified and selfless devotion to the republican cause” (Taylor 321). Washington did not sign the Declaration of Independence, but most likely would have had he not been defending Manhattan against the British. Thomas Jefferson “declared that Washington’s virtuous self-restraint had ‘prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish’” (Taylor 322). Washington did not approve of hereditary rights of aristocracy, standing up against its establishment as honorary president of the Society of Cincinnati. By retiring after the war, George Washington gave up power that he might easily have been granted and utilized to his advantage. This does not demonstrate greed. He did attempt to recover runaway slaves from British commanders who refused to release them. This outraged the Patriots, but one wonders if the anger was due to losing slaves or to the continued refusal of Britain to capitulate to colonial Congress under the peace treaty. In the end, the British only granted a “stinted freedom to the black refugees, denying them political rights” (Taylor 323). Many froze and starved on the coast of Novia Scotia.
After the war, loyalists faced beatings, coats of hot tar and cool feathers, and lynching. This violence troubled some elite Patriots, and General Nathanael Greene denounced the “intolerance to persecute men for opinions which, but twenty years before, had been the universal belief of every class of society” (Taylor 326). Loyalists fled to Britain but suffered prejudice and hardship. Others fled to the West Indies, Bahamas, and the Bahamas, but most went to Nova Scotia and other northern colonies. Lord Dorchester and William Smith, Jr., attempted to unite Quebec and the Maritime provinces under one governor-general and an elected parliament under British oversight. In an attempt to induce thousands to migrate north and weaken the United States, they offered virtually free land for loyalist settlers in British Canada, which rendered land more expensive in the U.S. Ironically, Canadians paid lower taxes as a result of British subsidies than did the Patriots, who had fought a war largely over taxes (Taylor 332). The economy determined prices, not just the “rich” landowners; it is not as simple as declaring it a class war.
If the Patriots were interested in maintaining power, one would expect elections to be controlled and infrequent. However, in New York elections were “more frequent, important, and accessible to a larger electorate” (Taylor 335). Polls were permitted in every township, and written ballots replaced oral voting. The postwar voter chose his governor and lieutenant governor every three years, state senators every two years, and assembly representatives annually (Taylor 335).
It is true that the Patriots desired peace and to avoid contentious battles for power among the states; when rivalries over land and borders threatened safety and justice, a union became necessary. But the Patriots worried about centralized power and the usurpation of smaller states by larger states. As John Adams explained, “they were composed of so many different nations, their Customs, Manners, and Habits had So little resemblance, and their Intercourse had been so rare, and their Knowledge of each other So imperfect, that to unite them in the Same Principles in Theory and the Same System of Action, was certainly a very difficult Enterprize” (Taylor 339). The Articles of Confederation and perpetual union built an alliance of states rather than a cohesive nation, with the states alone holding “Power to act coercively against their Citizens” (Taylor 341). The new government was of the people, by the people. This was not a country built to give power only to its founders.
Still, in the 1780s Benjamin Franklin opined that the states were “on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats” (Taylor 352), and John Jay declared that if there were no peace treaty, the United States would split “into three or four independent and probably discordant republics or confederacies, one inclining to Britain, another to France, and a third to Spain, and perhaps played off against each other by the three” empires in perpetual, destructive wars—”North America was riven with competing allegiances and multiple possibilities” (Taylor 352-353).
Patriot leaders did maintain status quo thinking about leadership, believing that the “better sort” should govern (Taylor 355) but in 1786 the French minister to the U.S. reported that a class of gentlemen aspires “to a preeminence which the people refuse to grant them (Taylor 356). The “gentlemen” needed common men to fight, women to manage the home front, and approval from the common folk. “Patriots offered a new republican order in which sovereignty derived from the people, who chose their rulers and enjoyed equal legal and civil rights” (Taylor 356). They could continue to govern only by “winning electoral consent” and appealing to religious dissenters who “longed to escape domination and taxation” (Taylor 356). The Patriot cause did appeal primarily to common white men with some property, but the “republican promise of equal opportunity invited the dissatisfied to seek more sweeping reforms meant to reduce the power and privileges of genteel leaders” (Taylor 357). Common people began to demand greater changes as a result of the revolution. New trade and political influences created opportunities for new wealth and power; “during the early 1780s, three-quarters of New York’s legislators and middle-class origins, unlike the wealthy gentlemen who had dominated the smaller colonial assembly” (Taylor 357).
The revolution served as inspiration for new state constitutions that limited executive power and gave, according to John Adams, three million people “full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive” (Taylor 359). The states’ bill of rights forbade government from impairing freedom of the press, liberty of religion, the right to petition, trial by jury, access to habeas corpus, and due process under the law. Some conservatives worried that the state governments were too sensitive to public sentiment and regarded state constitutions as “pretty on paper but failures in practice” (Taylor 372) as demagogues pandered for popularity. By 1787 some conservatives concluded that the revolution had gone too far and wanted to substitute a constitutional monarchy to control democracy in the states. Taylor claims that by ditching the weak Articles of Confederation and writing a new constitution, conservatives hoped to kill two political birds with one stone: while rescuing the federal government from impotence and irrelevance, they would also subordinate the state governments (373).
James Madison, who was the eldest son of the wealthiest man in Virginia county, grew weary of “regional rivalries and the weak confederacy” and concluded that a “popular majority could act as tyrannically as any king” and that in a republic the “few will be unnecessarily sacrificed to the many.” A just republic needed to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” (Taylor 374). Taylor claims that Madison sought a truly national government superior to the states with power to restrain state legislatures that sometimes favored debtors at the expense of creditors. Madison defied conventional thinking, insisting that the large the territory, the better a republic could protect minorities, especially those with great property (374). In one big republic, the many interest groups would have to compromise to build coalitions, sustaining social stability and managing the many interests of a vast nation of diverse people. A national republic would “extract from the mass of Society the purest and noblest characters which it contains,” establishing a “natural aristocracy of merit” (Taylor 375). Surely the intentions of the signers and early founders were limited in scope, and they really had no model for conception of total economic and social equality, but their ability to provide the framework for freedom was unprecedented. They were interested in protecting their interests, but also provided a means to success for common people.
In A Patriot’s History of the United States Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen explain that when John Adams worried that ancient governments only had to govern small city states, not “20 or 50 states” (Schweikart and Allen 89), he missed demographic facts: first that the United States was young, with half the nation’s population of four million under the age of sixteen in 1790, sharing Whig/Enlightment principles like egalitarianism and democracy. Also, the designers of post-Revolutionary governments were localists and provincials who wanted government close to home. Schweikart and Allen admit that “American Revolutionaries did not envision citizenship for Indians, women, and blacks, even in their most radical egalitarian fantasies” but they “lived in what was undoubtedly the most radically democratic society on the face of the earth” (90). Originally land was abundant and cheap, and since voting was tied to property, more Americans became voters every year; it is estimated that 50-75 percent of the white, male Revolutionary population obtained the right to vote. They quote Thomas Jefferson stating that “if a farmer and a professor were confronted with the same problem, the ‘former will decide it often better than the latter, because he had not been led astray by artificial rules’” (90) and John Adams claimed that the “mob, the herd, and the rabble” were as entitled to political rights as nobles or kings (90).
Whig political thinkers of the day adopted civil libertarianism as a fear of abusive goverment—the separation of power doctrine borrowed from Montesquieu, the need to sustain a people’s militia and the right to keep and bear firearms, due process, habeas corpus, freedom of speech, petition, assembly, religion, and the press. Schweikart and Allen claim that the “founders’ intentions were clear: the right to speak out against government…was the single most important right they addressed, aside from possession of firearms” (91). They did not forget their difficulties with King George III, which led them to require that legislators directly represent their constituents with frequent elections, recall, and impeachment and “an array of strong principles grounded in localism, egalitarianism, and libertarianism” (91) demonstrating constraint, not ambition for power.
The Articles of Confederation period is often explained by revisionists as a bungling brush with anarchy, indicated by Shay’s Rebellion and plummeting economy, saved by Big Government heroes coming to the rescue. Schweikart and Allen argue that “little of this interpretation is accurate” (92). They claim that the “Articles created a remarkably weak central government, precisely because that was what the radical Whigs wanted” (94). Their “definition of federalism differed significantly from the one taught in a modern political science class…a system of parallel governments—state, local and national—each with its specified power, but sovereignty ultimately rested in the states and by implication, the people themselves” (94). “Constitutional law stood as close to natural law (God’s law) as mere mortals could possibly place it. In this the drafters inherently sided with classical thinkers like Aristotle over modernists like Thomas Hobbes…the natural basis of constitutional law made it fundamental law which positioned it much higher than statue law” (95-96). Nearly all the new constitutions “expanded suffrage, republicanism, and the civil liberties of the constituents” (96).
As the American religious experience grew, it developed characteristics different from European counterparts: it de-emphasized clergy and emphasized salvation and moral living over religious structure. America was a Protestant nation. Jews, nonbelievers, Muslims, etc were treated with indifference. They were believed to remain in the minority, so in the legal context the debates never included non-Christian groups in deliberations. The Christian faith “wherein everyone agreed to disagree, served as a unifying element by breaking down parish boundaries and, in the process, destroying other political and geographic boundaries. The Great Awakening had galvanized American Christianity…served as a springboard to the Revolution itself, fueling the political fire with religious fervor and imbuing in the Founders a sense of rightness of cause” (Schweikart and Allen 97). This fit with republicanism, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville who observed that the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom “were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country” (98). Additionally, religion “facilitated free institutions” (98). Early writings and speeches of the Founders were “timeless and uplifting. Their message of spiritual virtue, cloaked in republican processes of civic duty, reflected a sense of providential mission for the young country” (98). Christian influences on the Constitution and Bill of Rights were so predominant, that “as late as the mid-twentieth century, the chairman of the Sesquicentennial Commission on the Constitution answered negatively when asked if an atheist could become president: “I maintain that the spirit of the Constitution forbids it. The Constitution prescribes an oath of affirmation…[that] in its essence is a covenant with the people which the President pledges himself to keep with the help of Almighty God” (125). Schweikart and Allen contend that “modern interpretations of the Constitution that prohibit displays of crosses in the name of religious freedom would rightly have been shouted down by the Founders, who intended no separation” (125). Therefore, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists worked to synthesize their political viewpoints through American Christianity that emphasized duty, civic morality, skeptical questioning of temporal authority, and economic success, as well as through Enlightenment doctrines of fallible man, competition, political parties, and a marketplace of ideas. They were able to turn the “fountain of hope” into a “river of liberty, nourishing the new nation as it grew and prospered” (Schweikart and Allen 126). This does not sound like the behavior of greedy, power-hungry bigots intent on simply bloating their own bank accounts.
So, what did happen to the signers of the Declaration of Independence? Did they all prosper because they were elite white men? Did they, indeed, think less of patriotic ideals than filling their personal coffers? Of the fifty-six signers, most died wealthy. Is this because they were greedy? Thirty-one of these men were wealthy from birth. The characteristics shared by these men reveal a lot about the kind of people they were.
For example, Caesar Rodney of Delaware struggled with facial cancer that left him peculiar looking and unmarried. One might expect he would use his money as a figurative battering ram or defense mechanism, but he is described as temperate, forbearing, patient, and pragmatic (Jackson).
Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s family descended from Irish kings but was forced to flee catholic persecution. Carroll concluded after watching Parliament that the colonies “must be independent” (“Charles Carroll of Carrollton”), and he ended up in Maryland where he was not allowed to practice law as a Catholic. He fought against British tyranny, for religious freedom, and introduced a bill to abolish slavery (Kiernan & Agnese 153-154), manumitting hundreds of slaves before he died. According to John Adams, Carroll “hazard[ed] all, his immense fortune, the largest in America, and his life” (Kiernan & Agnese 152) by standing against the British.
Maryland’s William Paca had money, but only due to his family’s hard work; his great grandfather was an indentured servant who worked for his freedom and eventually bought land, as did Paca’s grandfather and father. He fathered two children with a mulatto woman and provided for them (White). Paca was described as beloved, respected, honest, and sincere (Kiernan & Agnese 160). He also supplied Maryland’s troops with his own money and assisted veterans (Kiernan & Agnese 161).
Pennsylvania’s John Morton’s family immigrated from Sweden or Finland, and when his father died Morton was raised by his stepfather. He was highly active in church and acted as an advisor and advocate for townspeople (Stromberg). Morton might have maintained his popularity by voting against independence, but as it turned out he cast the deciding vote in favor. Moderate Pennsylvania ostracized him. He was deeply affected by this treatment and wrote on his deathbed nine months later that “they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service I ever rendered to my country” (Kiernan & Agnese 104).
George Wythe (Va) was born to a planter father who died when he was three. He said that “freedom is the birthright of every human being” and Thomas Jefferson said he had “virtue of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, devoted to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man (Lockwood and Warden).
Adjectives used to describe the wealthy signers were intelligent, self-confident, benevolent, amiable, mannered, elegant, political, genius, open, frank, polite, well-rounded, good man, citizen, patriotic, untarnished, undebased, venerable, principled, public-spirited, eloquent, genial, pious, well-disposed, worthy, upright, faithful, and self-deprecating.
Rather than acting on greed, it appears that the wealthy Patriots often loaned Congress their own money to fund the Revolution and never received compensation. Although they had a lot to lose financially and personally by signing the Declaration of Independence, they accepted the risk, knowing full well that they would become direct British targets. William Williams from Connecticut stated “I have signed the Declaration of Independence. I shall be hung” (Kiernan & Agnese 62). Rhode Island’s William Ellery watched the signers to “see how they look as they signed what might be their death warrant” and saw “undaunted resolution” on their faces (Kiernan & Agnese 47). He struggled to pay his bills and care for sixteen children because Congress did not pay a salary. Thomas Stone from Maryland, who got his education by riding his horse tend miles to school every day and had to borrow to pay tuition although his father was rich said, “the dye is cast, the fatal stab is given to any future connection between this country and Britain. May God send victory” (Hagan).
Ultimately, about half the wealthy signers suffered considerable losses such as torched houses and plantations, their families forced to flee. Some suffered loss of social standing and friendships, persecution, mob attacks, imprisonment, war wounds, heavy financial losses, and even Thomas Jefferson ended up broke and hopelessly in debt, forced to sell his ten thousand-volume library to Congress (Glynn). Many also were personally against the institution of slavery, and would either write or support legislation to end it, setting their own slaves free.
This evidence suggests that the wealthy signers were men of good character who gave all they had to support ideals of freedom.
Of the less affluent signers, by way of birth, most did not have formal education and were homeschooled by a relative or clergy. Their determination and hard work earned their place in society and a seat at the Continental Congress.
New Jersey’s John Hart rode thirty miles round trip to court the girl he would marry and became a successful farmer and businessman (Staller). Fellow NJ Congressman Francis Hopkinson was the eldest of eight siblings, fourteen when his father died, leaving him in charge. His mother made sure he got an education and became a musician (Pyne “Francis Hopkinson”). Benjamin Franklin read from the bible at age five and did not do well in school. He was apprenticed to his brother James but ran away from what may have been an abusive indentured servant situation (Kiernan & Agnese 106). Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris’ father was an ironworker and merchant. He died when Morris was sixteen, leaving him orphaned. Morris worked to create the predecessor of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. He said, “It is the duty of every individual to act his part in whatever station his country may call him to in hours of difficulty danger and distress,” (Morris); he acted his part by helping finance the Revolution and ended up in debtor’s prison because of it (Kiernan & Agnese 117). North Carolina’s Joseph Hewes’ parents had to move from New England due to Indian massacres and religious intolerance for Quakers. He worked the farm under a strict upbringing, attending a public school. He was apprenticed as a merchant and made his own fortune in shipping (“Joseph Hughes”). He suffered personal loss and severed ties with the Friends saying, My country is entitled to my services and I shall not shrink from her cause, even though it should cost me my life” (Kiernan and Agnese 198). George Walton from Georgia was a poor, orphaned child apprenticed to a possibly cruel carpenter (Kiernan & Agnese 224) who read at night and educated himself (“George Walton”), as did Samuel Huntington and Roger Sherman from Connecticut. Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush lost his dad at six and his mother opened a grocery store and China store to pay for his education.
These men, more than the wealthier signers, understood how hard it was to survive without money and how hard they worked to earn it, yet they also willingly risked everything to sign the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Rush wrote that there was a “pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up one after another to the table of the president of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants (Kiernan & Agnese 128). Losses suffered include homes ransacked, furniture destroyed, entire fortunes lost, indebtedness, titles stripped, houses torched, death warrants, imprisonment, and family members imprisoned. Many of these self-educated men died with fortunes they made through hard work, fortitude, and diligence—not greed.
Working together as Patriots gave this group compatriots with the same goals—they supported each other’s success and business ventures, so they became members of an elite group. It is short sighted to say that they were all privileged or fought for independence merely for self-interest. As a rule, these were men of endearing, generous, hopeful, giving, liberty-seeking character. Many who owned slaves in the beginning began to question the practice. Some wrote legislation to end the import of slaves, some manumitted slaves either during their lifetimes or when they died. There was no precedent for such a republic as the United States with its focus on individual rights, and these men had no one to look to for advice about these matters other than scripture and their relationship with God. They had to work through the philosophical and economic issues on their own. But for their willingness to do so, Lincoln may not have been able to push through his Proclamation. The signers of the Declaration of Independence selflessly forged precedents that allowed amendments to the United States Constitution that still protect the natural liberties Americans enjoy today.
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