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Art Callaham: A bit about Md. signers of historic document

July 14, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

The week before last, we celebrated the 237th birthday of the United States of America. My good friend, Tim Henry, challenged me to recall the total number of signers of the document that declared our independence from England — the Declaration of Independence. I struck out, answering 27 when the actual number is 56.

Later, my conversation with Tim evolved into a discussion of what happened to those 56 men during and after the Revolutionary War — the period after we declared our independence. Tim and I both recalled that the post-independence outcome for many of the signers was not altogether positive. So, here’s a little history review.

The first, largest and most famous signature is that of John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The youngest signer was Edward Rutledge (26). Benjamin Franklin (70) was the oldest. Two future presidents signed: John Adams (second president) and Thomas Jefferson (third president).

As for John Hancock, the story, entirely unfounded, is that upon signing the Declaration, he commented, “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.” Another story, also unfounded, has him saying, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”

Hancock governed Massachusetts through the end of the Revolutionary War and into an economically troubled postwar period, repeatedly winning re-election by wide margins. He took a hands-off approach to governing, avoiding controversial issues as much as possible. He resigned as governor, yet ran for re-election later and remained governor of Massachusetts until his death in 1793.

Rutledge served during the revolution as a captain in the defense of Charleston. He was captured and held prisoner by the British until July 1781. His signature on the Declaration of Independence portended a death sentence; however, for reasons lost to history, Rutledge was released and not tried for treason.

Most will readily recall many stories about Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, but how about Maryland signers Charles Carroll, Thomas Stone, Samuel Chase and William Paca?

Carroll was an early advocate for armed resistance with the objective of separation from England. However, his native colony was less certain in this matter and did not even send a representative to the first Continental Congress. Finally, Carroll was appointed to Congress on July 4, 1776. He arrived too late to vote for independence; however, he did affix his signature to the final document. Carroll was the last surviving member of those who signed the Declaration. He died in 1832 at the age of 95. 

Stone voted for independence in 1776, and his name is affixed to the Declaration. He was elected to Congress again in 1783 and served as chairman, but retired at the end of his term. He was elected to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but declined the office because of his wife’s failing health. She died in 1787, and Stone never got over the grief. He decided to travel to England, but died in Alexandria while awaiting passage. He was 44 years old. Little else is know about Thomas Stone, as no papers accounting his life have been found.

Chase was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1796. Eight separate Articles of Impeachment were filed by the U.S. House of Representatives against him in 1805. The failure of the Senate to convict on any of the charges allowed Chase to return to the Supreme Court and serve six more years as a justice. More importantly, the acquittal deterred the House of Representatives from using impeachment as a partisan political tool. Chase’s impeachment trial might well have been just a “witch hunt.”

Paca was elected to the State Legislature of Maryland in 1771 and appointed to the Continental Congress in 1774. He was re-elected and served in Congress until 1779, when he was appointed as Maryland’s Chief Justice. In 1782, he was elected governor of Maryland. He was appointed federal district judge for Maryland from 1789 until his death in 1799.

What I have related in this column about the Maryland signers and a few others might not appear to support a trend of negative outcomes. Modern research debunks many a myth concerning devastation in the lives of those 56 signers.

However, no amount of research can negate the fact that each signer pledged his life, fortune and sacred honor when announcing what was clearly a treasonous act, punishable by death, when declaring independence from England. That’s clearly stated in the document that each signed.


Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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