Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence
Memorials to historic figures of national significance are commonplace in D.C., but the memorial I visited on this lunchtime bike ride is dedicated to one of the most select group of important people in our nation’s history. It is known as the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence, it is located on the island in the lake located in Constitution Gardens, which occupies 50 prime acres of landscaped grounds approximately halfway between The Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial. Located to the west of 17th Street and south of Constitution Avenue in northwest D.C. (MAP), the gardens are bordered on the west by The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and on the south by The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. But despite its central location on the National Mall, it is a quiet haven in the heart of the bustling capital city.
The memorial was a gift from the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, and consists of 56 granite blocks which are inscribed with the signatures of the 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence. Each stone also contains the corresponding signer’s occupation and his home town. The signatures look just like the original pen and ink signatures which are on the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. The granite blocks are then arranged in 13 groups, representing the 13 original states, and are grouped based on the home of the signer. It was designed by Landscape Architect Joseph E. Brown, approved by Congress in 1978, and construction was completed in 1984. It was then dedicated on July 2, 1984, exactly 208 years after the Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence.
Although Thomas Jefferson is often considered to be the “author” of the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t the only person who contributed to its content. Jefferson was a member of a five-person committee appointed by the Continental Congress to write a Declaration of Independence. In addition to Jefferson, the Declaration Committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. However, one of the members of the committee, never signed it. Livingston believed that it was too soon to declare independence and, therefore, refused to sign it. So although he is one of its authors, Livingston was not included in this memorial.
After Jefferson completed the first draft of the Declaration of Independence the other members of the Declaration committee and the Continental Congress made 86 changes to Jefferson’s draft, including shortening the overall length by more than a quarter. Jefferson was quite unhappy about some of the edits made to the original draft. He had originally included language condemning the British promotion of the slave trade, even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner. This criticism of the slave trade was one of the portions removed from the final version, despite Jefferson’s objections.
Depending on perspective and how it was perceived at the time, the Declaration of Independence was considered to either form the foundation of a new, independent country, or as a document of treason against the King of England. And had events turned out differently, the only stones commemorating these “Founding Fathers” would have been their gravestones. But despite their success in launching the United States of America, many of these men paid a very steep price for signing the document and their involvement in the birth of this new nation.
Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, a number saw their homes and property occupied, ransacked, looted, and vandalized by the British. Some were captured by the British during the course of the Revolutionary War, and subjected to the ill treatment typically afforded to prisoners of war during their captivity. Others saw their sons captured or killed while serving in the Revolutionary Army. Some even saw their wives captured and jailed by the British. But despite what they would go on to sacrifice, each man, by signing the document, pledged: “For the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” It was this commitment that is honored in this memorial.
However, one of the signers, a lawyer from New Jersey named Richard Stockton, became the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to recant his support of the revolution. On November 30, 1776, he was captured by the British and thrown in jail. After months of harsh treatment and meager rations, Stockton repudiated his signature on the Declaration of Independence and swore his allegiance to King George III. A broken man when he regained his freedom, he took a new oath of loyalty to the state of New Jersey in December 1777, and again supported the Revolution until victory was achieved in September of 1783. Despite once repudiating his signature and recanting his support for the Revolution, Stockton is nonetheless included on the memorial.
So this Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence does not include one of the authors of the Declaration, but does include a signer who later repudiated his signature. I guess this just highlights how complex our “Founding Fathers” actually were.
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]
In addition to the famously prominent signature of John Hancock from Massachusetts, the President of the Continental Congress, the remaining signatories of the Declaration of Independence consisted of: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple and Matthew Thornton (who was the last man to sign the document, on November 4, 1776), all from the state of New Hampshire; Samuel Adams, John Adams (who later became the second President), Robert Treat Paine and Elbridge Gerry from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery from the state of Rhode Island; Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams and Oliver Wolcott from the state of Connecticut; William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis and Lewis Morris from the state of New York; Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart and Abraham Clark from the state of New Jersey; Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin (who, at the age of 70, was the oldest to sign the Declaration), John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson and George Ross, all from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; George Read, Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean from the state of Delaware; Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, from the state of Maryland; George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson (who later became the third President), Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee and Carter Braxton from the Commonwealth of Virginia; William Hooper, Joseph Hewes and John Penn from the state of North Carolina; Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr. (who at 26 years old was the youngest person to sign), and Arthur Middleton from the state of South Carolina, and; Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall and George Walton from the state of Georgia.