Meet the Signers of the Constitution
In 1778, delegates from all the original states except Rhode Island gathered in the Pennsylvania State House for the Constitutional Convention. As NATCA’s 17th Biennial Convention #NATCAphilly2018 approaches, we’re learning about those founding father delegates whose names appear on our nation’s governing document. How many of these signers can you name based on their bios?
If you’re attending the convention’s opening reception in Philadelphia, participate in a scavenger hunt at the Constitution Center to get to know the signers – in person! Maybe even take a selfie.
The Signer Who Picked Up the Tab
Always a patriot, he helped storm a British fort two years before the colonies declared independence. He was willing to fight for the revolutionary cause with both his wallet and his fellow troops. When he and Nicholas Gilman received their invitations to the Constitutional Convention, the state of New Hampshire wasn't willing to send them. Some believe the state was broke and couldn’t afford the expenditure. Regardless of the reason, he felt the convention was important enough that he paid for both himself and Gilman to attend. Upon returning from the Convention, he worked hard to secure ratification from his colleagues. His determination paid off when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, officially putting it into effect. An active participant in New Hampshire politics, he served several terms as Governor and as Speaker of House in New Hampshire legislature, but declined all offers to move into any national governmental position.
Born: June 26, 1741
Died: September 18, 1819 (age 78)
Age at Signing: 46
Profession: Merchant, shipbuilder, politician
The Signer Who Considered a Monarchy
After the American Revolutionary War, his views were shaped considerably by Shay’s Rebellion, a violent uprising of poor Massachusetts farmers who were angry with the way the new American government was being run. He and many others believed there would be more revolts if the government wasn’t strengthened. If the country were to survive, it needed more than just The Articles of Confederation. However, he wasn’t convinced the country could be run “by the people.” So, he wrote to Prince Henry of Prussia asking if he would like to be the King of the United States, but the offer was declined. When the Constitutional Convention came around he was an active participant with a perfect attendance. He was elected chairman of the Committee of the Whole, making him the number two man, behind George Washington. He suggested six-year term limits for senators and opposed the idea that only property owners should have voting rights. Finally, he proposed to increase the number of representatives in the House from 1 rep for every 40,000 to 1 rep for every 30,000 citizens. I wonder if he realized this number would one day be as large as 700,000 citizens?
Born: May 27, 1738
Died: June 11, 1796 (age 58)
Age at Signing: 49
The Signer Who Lived the Longest
He had a history of remaining middle-of-the-road and taking a neutral stance when it came to differences of opinion. He spoke out against the Stamp Act that would tax paper products but at the same time applied to be a tax collector. Regardless of his feelings, the tax still had to be collected. Through the American Revolution he never picked sides. He had patriot friends and loyalist friends. He declined invitations to attend the Continental Congress and refused to lead men in the Connecticut militia. Instead he tried to negotiate peace between the two sides which got him arrested twice by the patriots. He was reserved when it came to attending the Constitutional Convention but voiced his opinion and supported the Great Compromise. He was very persuasive when it came to promoting the constitution and thanks to his efforts, Connecticut became the fifth state to ratify. He later went on to serve as one of Connecticut’s first senators and was the oldest signer to die at age 92.
Born: October 7, 1727
Died: November 14 1819 (age 92)
Age at Signing: 59
The Signer Who Died in a Duel
He was one of seven signers who were immigrants. Born in the British West Indies, he was orphaned by the age of 13 and began apprenticing with a local merchant. He was an outspoken supporter of the revolutionary cause. He spoke in favor to the Boston Tea Party, volunteered for the militia and became an aid to George Washington. After the war, his enthusiasm for a strong national government and a constitution was not shared by his New York counterparts. At the Constitutional Convention, his ideas seemed to favor a monarchy with lifetime terms and restrictions on who was eligible to vote. These ideas were not well received so he left the convention in June. He returned in August after receiving a letter from George Washington indicating the need for delegates who support the nationalist cause. Being the only delegate from New York to sign the constitution, he had a huge task in convincing his state to ratify. He wrote 51 of 85 essays detailing the virtues of the constitution. These essays were published in New York newspapers and became known as the Federalist Papers. He was later appointed by Washington as the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury. He continued to be an outspoken member of the Federalists. When Aaron Burr ran for governor of New York, he wrote editorials about Burr’s untrustworthiness and caused him to lose the election. Furious, Burr challenged him to a duel. He was shot and died. Burr was charged with murder but fled the city and never went to trial.
Born: January 11, 1755
Died: July 12, 1804 (age 49)
Age at Signing: 32
The Signer Who Proposed Erasing State Boundaries and Starting Over
Almost hung for treason, he was rescued by revolutionaries and continued to fight in the New Jersey militia. After the war, he served as chief justice of New Jersey making groundbreaking decisions that lawyers would reference years to come. He was not overly vocal at the constitutional convention until it came to the debate over representation, big states vs small states. He proposed one remedy: “That a map of the United States be spread out, and that all the existing boundaries be erased, and that a new partition of the whole be made into thirteen equal parts.” It’s hard to know for sure whether he was serious or taking his beliefs to the extreme in order to prove a point. In the end, he supported the Great Compromise and wanted the House capped at 65 members, one member per 30,000 citizens. The House has since grown to 435 members (one member per 700,000 citizens). Some argue we should return to the ratio (1:30,000) the founding fathers had agreed upon. If this were the case, New York City alone would require 267 representatives. He continued to have a successful legal practice, served as grand master of the New Jersey masons and served as the state vice president of the Society of the Cincinnati, a veterans organization founded after the Revolutionary War and still exists today.
Born: June 11, 1745
Died: August 16, 1790 (age 45)
Age at Signing: 42
The Playboy with the Wooden Leg
He, never known for biting his tongue, was a notable speaker and a brilliant writer. As the most talkative delegate at the Constitutional Convention, he spoke out against slavery, believed taxes should be paid in proportion to a state’s population and the president should be elected by the citizens, not Congress. His most notable written work is one we all know, the Preamble to the Constitution, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” After ratification he served as the ambassador to France and later a Senator for New York. He lost his leg in a carriage accident but that didn’t dampen his gallivanting reputation. He kept a colorful diary recounting numerous encounters with the fairer sex, but surprised everyone when he settled down and became a father at the age of 61.
Born: January 31, 1752
Died: November 6, 1816 (age 64)
Age at Signing: 35
Profession: Lawyer, merchant
The Signer Who Never Signed
He was a lawyer and skilled writer who preferred to settle disputes peacefully rather than with a pistol. He authored many papers in an effort to enlighten Parliament on the colonist’s complaints and encourage them to see reason. He spoke out against unfair taxation and favored boycotts over violence. He felt the colonies could resolve their differences with Britain without going to war. Thus, he stayed home on the day Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence and he never signed the document. While he didn’t sign the declaration, he was the primary author of the Articles of Confederation. If the country was going to be independent, they needed guidelines. Still a patriot, he supported his country and joined the militia to fight in the Revolutionary War. He wasn’t present for most of the Constitutional Convention and when he was, reports say he appeared sick and emaciated. Regardless, he supported the final outcome. Illness prevented him from attending the signing ceremony but he instructed George Read, fellow Delaware delegate, to sign for him.
Born: November 8, 1732
Died: February 14, 1808 (age 75)
Age at Signing: 54
The Signer Who Helped Create Washington, D.C.
He came from a wealthy family with lots of land, particularly around the Potomac River. He served in the Maryland state legislature and during the war purchased supplies for the army. After the war a firm called Potomac Company wanted in improve navigation on the Potomac River by building a canal that would link the Mid-Atlantic states to land in the west. He had many land holdings along the river and was eager to see the project succeed. He received his invitation to attend the Constitutional Convention after his cousin and signer of the Declaration of Independence declined. He supported the smaller states and had faith in the common person to elect their leaders. He was against Congress choosing the president but couldn’t sway enough delegates to his reasoning and the resulting compromise was the Electoral College system. Carroll served in the House of Representatives until 1791 when he accepted an appointment from President George Washington. He was to oversee the surveying, design and construction of the nation’s new capital along the Potomac River. Once again, he had a vested interest in seeing this project through and many citizens questioned his impartiality to the new location, as he owned most of the land where Washington D.C. now sits.
Born: July 22, 1730
Died: May 7, 1796 (age 65)
Age at Signing: 57
The Father of the Constitution
Serving two terms as the country’s fourth president, he wanted to see the country succeed. He studied political theory, philosophy and governments past and present. At the time, the Articles of Confederation were the law of the land, but he saw the need for a stronger system of government. In an effort to educate others he wrote essays on the limits of the Articles. Alexander Hamilton agreed with him and together they convinced fellow Congressmen that delegates needed to be sent to Philadelphia to form a new system of government. When the Constitutional Convention started, he was prepared. He came to Philadelphia with ideas, concerns and an outline of what he thought the central government should look like. This outline later became known as the Virginia Plan. In the end compromises had to be made and the convention didn’t go exactly as he had hoped, but he returned to Virginia knowing he still had to convince his colleagues to ratify the constitution. After ratification, he was elected to the House of Representatives where he began work on the Bill of Rights. He was appointed secretary of state under Thomas Jefferson and later elected as the country’s fourth president.
Born: March 16, 1751
Died: June 28, 1836 (age 85)
Age at Signing: 36
The Other Signer Who Died in a Duel
He owned 71 slaves and worked against Thomas Jefferson who wanted to end slavery. Jefferson would later refer to him as the man who let slavery spread westward. At the Constitutional Convention, he had the idea that senators should be chosen by state legislatures. The practice was adopted until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment passed, providing for senators to be elected by the American people. Still unknown to this day, he battled poor health conditions. He served one term as N.C. governor and two terms in the House of Representatives but was forced to take leave of absence due to his health. John Stanly, another Congressman from N.C. claimed he was not sick but rather left Congress because he didn’t want to take a stand on controversial issues. He defended himself by distributing leaflets to voters. Unfortunately, the argument escalated and the two men met for a duel. He was fatally shot and Stanly was charged with murder but pardoned by the governor.
Born: March 25, 1758
Died: September 6, 1802 (age 44)
Age at Signing: 29
Profession: Planter, politician
The Signer Who Wouldn't Bribe the French
He joined the patriot troops and fought along the east coast until he was captured and imprisoned by the British in Charleston South Carolina. A brilliant lawyer, he quickly recouped his finances after the war. At the Constitutional Convention, he defended the southern way of life and knew if the south were to support the Constitution, they need to be assured the government wouldn’t abolish slavery. He didn’t believe Senators should receive a salary thus ensuring only wealthy men would serve in government. Obviously, compromises were agreed to and he supported the Constitution, pushing South Carolina to be the eighth state to ratify. Three times he turned down President Washington’s offers for various appointments. It wasn’t until the opportunity to return to France was offered that he accepted. By this time tensions were building between the US and France and France was demanding bribes to maintain peace. He essentially told the French to stick it – they wouldn’t receive one penny from the U.S.
Born: February 25, 1746
Died: August 16, 1825 (age 79)
Age at Signing: 41
Profession: Lawyer, planter
The Signer Who Lived the American Dream
He was born into a humble, farming family and was twelve when he stopped receiving formal education. A self-educated lawyer, he had the drive to continue his own education, reading books and visiting the courthouse to listen to arguments. He attended meetings prior to the Revolutionary War so he could understand the true nature of the conflict. He went on to join the militia and encouraged others to join as well. He was twenty-nine when his political career started and he attended the Georgia convention, assisting in the creation of the state’s constitution. He went on to build a successful law practice in Augusta. After the Constitutional Convention, he served as one of Georgia’s first senators and witnessed George Washington being sworn in as president. He later moved his family to New York City to get away from the scorching Georgia heat and the evils of slavery. Before he retired, he was elected to the New York state legislature, served as a state prison inspector and a state commissioner of loans. Having lived the American Dream, the poor, uneducated farm boy retired to his country home with an estimated worth of $100,000 (approximately $1.9 million today).
Born: June 8, 1748
Died: July 16, 1828 (age 80)
Age at Signing: 39
Profession: Farmer, lawyer