There were 56 men who put quill to parchment during the Summer of Independence in 1776. Most of the signers would be unrecognized today, even if they turned up on Dancing with the Stars. In their time, they were colorful men, prominent patriots and leaders of their colonies. So this Independence Day weekend, let us reacquaint ourselves with five of these forgotten Founding Fathers.
Carter Braxton—Virginia (1736-1797)
One of the few signers from Virginia whose name wasn’t Jefferson or Lee, Carter Braxton nevertheless belonged to the colony’s plantation-owning aristocracy.
He sired 18 children—surely qualifying him as a founding father by anyone’s standards. His first wife, who brought him a small fortune that augmented his own, died in childbirth two years after their marriage. His second wife went on to give birth to their last 16 offspring, and outlived her virile husband by 17 years.
In 1761, the same year his second marriage began, Braxton, then 25, was elected to the House of Burgesses for King William County, in southeast Virginia. By the spring of 1775, tensions with the British were running high. The day after shots were fired in anger at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the British colonial governor of Virginia seized the gunpowder stored in Williamsburg. Local militias were itching to fight to retrieve the powder. Cooler heads – among them Braxton’s and George Washington’s – convinced most of the militiamen to stand down. Still, one militia, led by Patrick Henry, threatened to retaliate unless the British returned the gunpowder or paid for it.
Braxton intervened. He set up a meeting with the king’s receiver-general, who happened to be Braxton’s father-in-law. Braxton convinced him to pay for the gunpowder. Revolution in Virginia was saved for another day.
In early 1776, Braxton went to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to fill the seat of a Virginia delegate who had died. Historical sources disagree about Braxton’s initial position on independence, but in the end he signed on. His is the final name in the Virginia delegation, the bottom-most name on the entire parchment.
Button Gwinnett—Georgia (1732 or 1735-1777)
Even by the standards of the revolutionary period, Georgia’s Button Gwinnett practiced X-treme politics. He was born in England and arrived in Savannah in 1765, when the colony of Georgia was just 33 years old. He bought land for a plantation, but failed as a gentleman farmer.
Where Carter Braxton was moderate and conciliatory, Gwinnett was incendiary. As the split with Britain widened, he became a leader of Georgia’s radical faction of patriots. In 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress. His signature on the Declaration of Independence is the first of Georgia’s three-man delegation, at the far left of the document.
Back home in 1777, Gwinnett participated in the convention that drew up Georgia’s first state constitution. He also sought the leadership of the Georgia militia, a position that went to Col. Lachlan McIntosh, a prominent member of a rival political faction.
Gwinnett’s “ambition was disappointed,” the Rev. Charles A. Goodrich wrote in Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1856), “and being naturally hasty in his temper, and in his conclusions, he seems, from this time, to have regarded Colonel McIntosh as a personal enemy.”
After the president of Georgia’s Committee of Safety (the state’s executive council) died, Gwinnett was appointed to finish his term. The only vote opposing Gwinnett’s candidacy was cast by George McIntosh—Lachlan’s brother. As council president Gwinnett was Georgia’s commander-in-chief, and he proposed an attack on British East Florida to secure Georgia’s southern border.
The McIntosh brothers and their circle condemned the plan as politically motivated. Gwinnett had George McIntosh arrested for treason. Amid the power struggle between Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh, the Florida expedition failed, and when a new legislature convened, it declined to elect Gwinnett governor. It also cleared Gwinnett of charges of wrongdoing in the Florida debacle. This gwinnett.jpginfuriated Lachlan McIntosh, who denounced his rival publicly. Gwinnett, following the script of the times, sought satisfaction from McIntosh’s attack on the field of honor.
“They fought [with pistols] at the distance of only 12 feet,” the Rev. Goodrich wrote. “Both were severely wounded. The wound of Mr. Gwinnett proved mortal; and on the 27th of May, 1777, in the forty-fifth year of his age, he expired.”
Gwinnett’s name lives on in suburban Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, and in the value placed by collectors on his signature, the rarest of the Founding Fathers.
Robert Treat Paine—Massachusetts (1731-1814)
During two trials in 1770, as John Adams argued for the defense of the British soldiers who carried out the Boston Massacre, the man who faced him as prosecutor was friend and fellow Harvard graduate Robert Treat Paine. Adams proved to have the superior courtroom strategy. Juries acquitted the British commander and six soldiers for the murder of five Americans. Two other soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter, punished and released.
Adams described Paine as conceited, but enjoyed his quick wit, and he was elected to the Massachusetts colonial assembly the same year as the trial. Paine was chosen a delegate to the first and second Continental Congresses, where he acquired the nickname “Objection Maker” as independence from Britain was being argued. “He seldom proposed anything, but opposed nearly every measure that was proposed by other people…” said Benjamin Rush, a semi-forgotten Founding Father from Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, Paine signed the declaration – one of five Massachusetts men to do so. He went on to become the new state’s attorney general, served on the committee that drafted the Massachusetts constitution, and was a founding member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. In 1796, he accepted a seat on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, where he served until increasing deafness and poor health forced his resignation in 1804.
“It would divert you to witness conversation between my ancient friend and colleague Robert T. Paine and me,” an elderly John Adams wrote in 1811. “He is above 80. I cannot speak and he cannot hear. Yet we converse.”
Edward Rutledge—South Carolina (1749-1800)
In 1774, just a year after returning to his native Charleston upon completing his legal studies in England, Edward Rutledge was elected to the Continental Congress. Two years later, at age 26, he was the youngest man to sign the Declaration of Independence. (Benjamin Franklin, at 70, was the oldest.)
rutledge.jpgEdward and his elder brother John were both central figures in South Carolina politics and the fight for independence – John gave up his seat in Congress before independence was declared to help rewrite South Carolina’s constitution – thus missing the chance to have his own section in this article.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Edward was working to delay the moment independence was declared. “Rutledge firmly believed that the Colonies should first confederate and nurture foreign alliances to strengthen themselves for the perilous step they were about to take,” according to a biography published by the National Park Service.
In a vote on independence on July 1, Rutledge led the South Carolina delegation in opposing a break with Britain. Nine of the 13 colonies were in favor, so Rutledge proposed another vote the next day. On July 2, South Carolina sided with the majority for independence.
By the end of August, the British had occupied Long Island and were poised to conquer New York City. Admiral Lord Richard Howe sent out peace feelers, and Rutledge was chosen, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to meet with the British commander. The discussion ended without positive results.
Rutledge spent the war years in political and military activities in South Carolina. As a militia captain, he was captured by the British when they conquered Charleston in 1780. Rutledge spent a year in prison, until he was released in a prisoner swap.
He served in the state legislature in 1782-1798. During this period, the legislature appointed him a presidential elector three times. His flourishing law practice and investments in plantations expanded his wealth.
By the time he was elected governor, in 1798, his health was failing. He died in early 1800, at age 50. Elder brother John died the same year.
William Whipple—New Hampshire (1730-1785)
Born in Kittery, Maine, William Whipple shipped out to sea early as a cabin boy. By the time he retired from the mariner’s life, around the age of 30, he had captained ships and was a wealthy man. He settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and went into business as a merchant with his brother.
By 1775, his fortune secure, Whipple had the wherewithal and local standing to be elected to statewide offices and then to the Continental Congress. He was the second of three New Hampshire men to sign the Declaration of Independence. The first – fans of TV’s West Wing will appreciate – was Josiah Bartlett (although the eponymous fictional president had only one “t” in his last name).
Whipple’s sea-toughened revolutionary activities were just beginning. In 1777, he became brigadier general of the New Hampshire militia. That autumn, he was a commander in the American campaign against the British that led to Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, in New York’s Hudson River Valley. The American victory prevented the British from severing New England from the rest of the country. And it demonstrated that the Americans could defeat the British on their own.
Throughout the campaign, Whipple was attended by a slave named Prince. It is believed Prince is the black oarsman depicted in the famous Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware, although it’s doubtful Prince actually was at the crossing.
In 1780, Whipple was elected to the New Hampshire General Assembly, and in 1782 was made a judge of the state Supreme Court. By then he was suffering from heart failure, and he once fainted on his horse while riding his circuit.
In 1875, the New Hampshire Patriot summed up his legacy this way: “If not a star of the first magnitude…the life of Whipple yet emitted a clear and steady effulgence, which sided in conducting the people in to the goal of independence.”