Remember when our elected officials knew how to compromise? Here are short, irreverent, fun, and fact-filled biographies of the 39 men who set aside their differences and signed their names to the U.S. Constitution—the oldest written constitution of any nation in the world. You’ll meet:
• The Signer Who Believed in Aliens
• The Signer Who Was Shot in the Stomach
• The Signer Who Went Bankrupt
• The Peg-Legged Signer
• And many more colorful colonists!
Complete with portraits of every signatory, Signing Their Rights Away provides an entertaining and enlightening narrative for students, history buffs, politicos, and Hamilton fans alike.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ask any person to name the single most important day in United States history, and they’re likely to answer July 4, 1776. Every year, Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence by attending parades and watching fireworks. Most believe that the patriots defeated the British, as though in a football game, and then Americans lived happily ever after in blissful democracy.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
When the war ended in 1783, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. This fairly flimsy compact provided for a one-house Congress, one vote per state, and very little
else. True, this Congress had a president, but he didn’t derive his power from the people, and he was an intentionally weak figurehead. After all, the last thing the founding fathers wanted was another king.
Within two years, the fledgling United States was on the verge of political collapse. The federal government had no power to tax people, goods, properties, or businesses. That may sound wonderful until you stop to consider all the consequences: The federal government had no revenue and issued no currency. There was no money for raising troops, building ships, or engaging in other activities vital to a nation’s self-defense. The country was vulnerable to attack and domination by a host of foreign powers. At sea, American vessels were pirated by foreign ships; their cargo and passengers were frequently held for ransom. On land, British and Spanish factions were arming Native Americans and encouraging them to raid American settlements on the edges of the frontier.
States took matters into their own hands. Nine states had their own naval forces and pursued their own foreign policies. They imposed taxes on goods from other states as though they were dealing with foreign countries. There were no courts to decide disagreements between states. Private banks were issuing their own currency, but their notes were often distrusted and viewed as IOUs that might never be repaid. Doing business with other states was challenging if not impossible. Seesawing cycles of inflation and deflation were destroying lives. Foreclosures skyrocketed, and banks began seizing the homes of poor farmers with unpaid mortgages. Many wealthy landowners feared a bloody class revolution—or an all-out civil war.
Clearly something had to be done or the nation wouldn’t live long enough to celebrate its eleventh birthday. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and a host of other bigwigs proposed a “grand convention” at which delegates would gather to revise, debate, and expand the Articles of Confederation. Seventy-four delegates were chosen by their respective states; only fifty-five answered the call, and many of those with skepticism. Patrick Henry, the famed Virginia rebel, refused to attend, complaining that he “smelt a rat.” Rhode Island sent no representatives at all.
In May of 1787, the willing participants journeyed to the very same Philadelphia building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. True, these men had once banded together to fight as brothers against a common enemy, but now they were deeply distrustful of one another. Small states were suspicious of large states. The nation was divided over slavery. Every delegate arrived wanting something—but few were willing to sacrifice anything. In such a contentious environment, reaching compromise would be tough. More than a dozen delegates quit and went home before the convention’s end.
The thirty-nine who remained and signed the U.S. Constitution are the focus of this book. Signing Their Rights Away introduces you to the remarkable historical figures who jettisoned the limp and lifeless Articles of Confederation for a robust and rigorous document that provided the framework for an enduring system of government (at more than 230 years old, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest functioning constitution in the world).
In the end, these men prioritized the welfare of their country over politics or personal advancement. They fought with great conviction—but they eventually came to understand that no single delegate could walk away with all the marbles. They agreed to compromise for the greater good. Yet, today, despite their heroic labors, most of them have lapsed into obscurity.
They deserve better—if only because their stories are so interesting. At least twenty-two
of the signers served in the military—as soldiers, chaplains, administrative officers—during the Revolutionary War. Five were captured and imprisoned by the British. Many lost homes, property, and loved ones to the war. Two died in duels; one attempted suicide.
Most were educated, cosmopolitan gentlemen accustomed to a life of wealth and privilege. Eighteen of the signers were trained in law; the remainder were merchants, plantation owners, and financiers. They represented the views, expectations, and entitlements of the nation’s elite. Such men had no problem ignoring the rights of women and slaves when designing their compact for government. Nor were they champions of free white men with meager property. (One signer sought to restrict government service to men with a net worth exceeding $100,000!) Having witnessed intimidation and mob violence at the hands of enemies and patriots alike, many of the signers didn’t trust the American public. The idea of granting power to all individuals was a fairly radical idea. During debates, many signers repeatedly derided the notion that Josiah Q. Public could serve wisely in the House and Senate, or, heaven help us, the presidency.
But in the end, enough members knew that this attitude did not reflect the principles of the revolution they had just fought. They were gutsy enough to give the “little guy” a shot at power. Anyone could be president, anyone could be senator—even you.
So the next time September 17 rolls around, eat a hot dog, watch some fireworks, and celebrate Constitution Day—that fateful date in 1787 when thirty-nine sweaty men dressed in stockings signed their names to the United States Constitution. Remember how they argued, hoped, feared, persevered, and, most important, compromised to create a lasting document that still governs today. July 4 may be remembered as the day the United States was born, but September 17 marks the country’s passage into adulthood, laying the groundwork for two centuries of remarkable expansion and spectacular achievements.
Table of Contents
A Constitutional Cheat Sheet 15
A Constitutional Timeline 21
I New Hampshire
John Langdon: The Signer Who Picked Up the Tab 26
Nicholas Gilman: The Most Handsome Signer 31
Nathaniel Gorham: The Signer Who Considered a Monarchy 36
Rufus King: The Signer Who Always Ran (and Never Won) 41
William Samuel Johnson: The Signer Who Lived the Longest 48
Roger Sherman: The Signer Who Knew How to Compromise 52
IV New York
Alexander Hamilton: The Signer Who Died in a Duel 58
V New Jersey
William Livingston: The Signer-Poet 66
David Brearley: The Signer Who Proposed Erasing State Boundaries and Starting Over 71
William Psterson: The Son of a Door-to-Door Salesman 76
Jonathan Dayton: The Signer Who Stole $18,000 from Congress 81
Benjamin Franklin: The Signer Known throughout the World 88
Thomas Mifflin: The Signer Who Was Ruined by Drink 94
Robert Morris: The Signer Who Went to Debtors' Prison 99
George Clymer: The Signer Whose Home Was Destroyed by the British 105
Thomas FitzSimons: The Signer Who Loaned Away His fortune (and Never Got It Back) 109
Jared Ingersoll: The Signer Who Couldn't Keep Up with Fashion 114
James Wilson: The Signet-Turned-Fugitive 119
Gouverneur Morris: The Playboy with the Wooden Leg 125
George Read: The Signer Who Signed Twice 134
Gunning Bedford Jr.: The Signer Who Trusted No One 139
John Dickinson: The Signer Who Never Signed 143
Richard Bassett: The Signer Who Overcame Religious Discrimination 148
Jacob Broom: The Invisible Signer 152
James McHenry: The Signer Immortalized by the Star-Spangled Banner 158
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer: The Signer with the Mysterious Middle Name 163
Daniel Carroll: The Signer Who Helped Create Washington. D.C. 168
George Washington: The President of the Constitutional Convention 174
John Blair: The Underachieving Signer 183
James Madison Jr.: The Father of the Constitution 188
X North Carolina
William Blount: The Signer Who … Oh, There's No Way to Dance around the Issue, This Guy Was a Crook 198
Richard Dobbs Spaight: The Other Signer Who Died in a Duel 203
Hugh Williamson: The Signer Who Believed in Aliens 208
XI South Carolina
John Rutledge: The Signer Who Attempted Suicide 214
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney: The Signer Who Wouldn't Bribe the French 220
Charles Pinckney: The Ghost Writer of the Constitution? 226
Pierce Butler: The Signer Who Turned Coat on the King 231
William Few: The Signer Who Lived the American Dream 238
Abraham Baldwin: The Signer Who Pinched Pennies 243
I The U.S. Constitution
Text of the U.S. Constitution 250
Text of the Bill of Rights 267
Additional Amendments 269
II A Constitutional Miscellary
Preserving the Constitution 279
The Penman of the Constitution 280
William Jackson: The Fortieth Signer 281
Will the Real Constitution Printer Please Stand Up? 284
Who Signed the Bill of Rights? 286
By the Numbers 286
They Came, They Saw, They Didn't Sign 287
Immigrant Signers 291
Selected Bibliography 292