- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

Thomas Jefferson towers over the 10 other Maryland and Virginia signers of the Declaration of Independence in terms of legacy and importance. After all, he wrote the Declaration. Of all the signers, he was the only future president (although fellow Virginia signer Benjamin Harrison's son and great-grandson were presidents). Much is known of Jefferson's life, but not as much is known about many of the other signers.
In fact, many of their names are obscure. Who was Carter Braxton? Thomas Nelson? William Paca? Charles Carroll?
Many of them have interesting stories. Take George Wythe. Wythe might have played as big a role as anyone else in educating Jefferson. Wythe's background and passion were education, not politics, law or farming, like most of the other Maryland and Virginia signers.
Wythe began his public career in law. He was admitted to the Spotsylvania County bar in 1746 at just 20 years old. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, helping to form its rules of conduct, but in 1761 he began a distinguished career in education with his election to the Board of Visitors at the College of William & Mary. In 1769 he became the United States' first law professor. His students included Henry Clay, James Monroe and John Marshall, as well as Jefferson.
He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, and after voting for and signing the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Virginia in 1777 to serve in the state's House of Delegates and later as a chancellor of Virginia.
Wythe's reputation and intellect were such that he drew the nickname "the American Aristides," after the Greek philosopher and Christian apologist. He was also an early abolitionist, and that position cost him his life. In 1806, at age 80, he drew up a will that left part of his estate to his slaves, and a ne'er-do-well grandnephew living with him poisoned him to gain a larger portion of the estate.
The relative, George Sweeney, was acquitted, as the only eyewitness to the act was a slave, whose testimony was prohibited by law.
Another Virginia signer, Thomas Nelson, had a much more celebrated life. His background was farming until public service called in the 1770s, and then he turned his interest to the military. He formed the Virginia militia and served as its first commander in 1775.
Health problems sidelined him temporarily as the Revolution started, but by the end of the war, he was back in action, helping the American forces win the siege of Yorktown in 1781 that ended the Revolution.
According to legend, Nelson asked George Washington to direct his troops to fire on Nelson's house in Yorktown during the battle, believing that British Gen. Lord Cornwallis was quartered there. Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the Colonial National Historic Park in Yorktown, says there is no historical evidence to support that. Nelson's Yorktown home is part of the Colonial National Historic Park tour.
"I don't think anyone knows for sure," he says. "There's no documentation. The story goes that on Oct. 11, 1781, Gen. Nelson came out and offered a 5-pound note to anyone who could hit his house. The house was hit on occasion, and we can debate until the cows come home who did it and why, but it was the largest house in the area and probably would have gotten hit anyway."
Benjamin Harrison was part of one of the great families in Virginia political history, along with two other signers, brothers Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. Harrison's son, William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president of the United States, although he served only about a month before dying of pneumonia. Benjamin Harrison's great-grandson and namesake was the 23rd president.
Harrison began his political career in 1764, when he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was voted speaker of the House of Burgesses in 1778 and served three terms as governor of Virginia. He died in 1791 at age 65.
Malcolm Jamieson, whose family bought Berkeley Plantation around 1900 and runs it, relates an anecdote from Harrison during the hectic days of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. According to tradition, Harrison, a large man at around 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, was walking down the streets of Philadelphia with fellow signer Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, a rather small man, when the two men, good friends, began talking about the boldness of signing the Declaration.
"Gerry was saying that they probably would all be rounded up as traitors and hanged," Mr. Jamison says. "Benjamin Harrison then told him, 'At least with my good size and weight, I'll go quickly. But you'll probably linger there and dangle for a long time.' They were both friends, so they probably laughed at that, but it shows how seriously they all understood what they were doing.'"
Carter Braxton suffered financially during the Revolution and died in poverty, although there is some debate about how much his finances were affected by the war and how much by his own decisions. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1770 to 1785 and was a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774-75. He was known as a radical in the House of Burgesses.
Francis Lightfoot Lee joined Patrick Henry in opposing England's Stamp Act. He served in the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1779 and then in the Virginia Senate.
Lee's brother, Richard Henry Lee, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and was among those pushing for independence. He met regularly with his brother, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg to write and circulate correspondence around the rest of the colony urging unity against the British. He was elected president of Congress in 1783 and was the first U.S. senator from Virginia.

Unlike Virginia's signers, many of whom had backgrounds as farmers or owners of plantations, Maryland's four signers each studied the law. William Paca attended Philadelphia College at age 15, graduating at 18 with a master's degree. He studied law in Annapolis and worked to defeat a poll tax created by the royal government on the eve of the Revolution. Paca later served as chief justice for Maryland (1778), governor of Maryland (1782) and district judge (1789-99).
Charles Carroll of Carrollton was one of the richest signers and the only Roman Catholic. He also survived the longest, dying in 1832 at age 96. He identified with the revolutionary cause and supported war early on, even as the rest of the state wavered. He served on the Board of War for the Continental Congress and helped draw up Maryland's constitution. He was elected to the Maryland Senate in 1781 and the U.S. Senate in 1788. He returned to the Maryland Senate in 1789 and served there for 10 more years.
Samuel Chase started out as a lawyer in Annapolis before being selected to represent Maryland in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778. He went on to serve as chief justice of the Criminal Court in Baltimore then as chief justice for the state of Maryland and as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1796 until his death in 1811. He was a heavy man with a ruddy face that flushed quickly when he was agitated, leading to his nickname "Old Bacon Face."
Little is known about Thomas Stone, the youngest of Maryland's four signers. He apparently didn't say much in the Continental Congress, and little from his papers and correspondence survives. Part of that is because he had only one son, Frederick, who died of scarlet fever at age 19. Stone thus had no one to care for his legacy. He died in Alexandria, waiting for a ship to take him to Europe. Because of that, his death certificate was filed in Richmond, and it was lost during the Civil War.
What is known about Stone is that he was elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1785 but declined to serve because of his wife's health problems. She died in 1787, and Stone apparently never got over his grief. He died later that year at age 44.
Mark Stewart

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide