Founding Father Bios
How much do you know about the people that made freedom in the United States possible? Before you visit America's Founding Fathers Exhibit, a premier South Dakota attraction located near Rapid City, SD, learn more about the diverse group of individuals that comprised the founding fathers, including:
George Wythe became the first college law professor in America and was a mentor and teacher to Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Marshall, the first chief judge of the U.S. Supreme Court. In old age, Wythe lived with two of his freed slaves when he was poisoned by his great-nephew, who had been written out of his uncle’s will. The nephew was acquitted of murder because a black witness could not testify against a white man at that time.
William Whipple gave his name to the Declaration of Independence and his leg to the Revolutionary War that followed. In 1778, his leg had to be amputated when a British cannonball smashed into the officers’ quarters and shattered his leg during the Continental army’s attempt to retake Rhode Island.
Devoting his life to the cause of liberty, Benjamin Harrison was named chairman of the first Continental Congress. His home was later pillaged by the traitor Benedict Arnold, who made a bonfire of all of Harrison’s family portraits and forced Harrison to flee inland to avoid capture.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
As the second-youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence at just 26 years old, Thomas Lynch, Jr. was also the youngest to die. Lynch was only 30 when he and his wife were tragically lost at sea in the Bermuda Triangle in 1779 while they were travelling to France for medical treatment.
Richard Henry Lee
The founding father that led the charge for the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee was known for his power speeches and was considered the greatest orator of the independence movement.
As a propagandist against Britain’s taxation policies, Samuel Adams was the “Firebrand of the Revolution” who led the Boston Tea Party. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson credit Adams as the driving force behind America’s vote for independence.
George Clinton still holds the title as the longest-serving governor of New York, having completed 22 years in office. Although Clinton didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, his contribution to maintaining states rights secures his role as a key founding father.
William Paca was a young Annapolis lawyer when he met fellow signer Samuel Chase at a debating society. The two men formed a Sons of Liberty chapter and began a political collaboration that would last all their lives. Paca played an essential role in convincing the conservative colony of Maryland to vote for independence.
Always a workhorse for independence, Samuel Chase rode 150 miles in two days to bring the news to Philadelphia that Maryland delegates were free to vote for independence. Chase was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Washington, where he served on the high court until his death at age 70 in 1811.
Responsible for his nine siblings at the age of 20, William Floyd was a quiet member of congress who fled New York after the British overran Long Island. He later returned to New York and was elected to the first U.S. House of Representatives in 1789.
As the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll joined the patriots’ revolutionary cause in part because of the anti-Catholicism he witnessed in Parliament. Carroll was the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, having lived until 95 years of age.
Despite hardships in his youth, George Walton was a master carpenter and scholar who became a leader in Georgia’s independence movement. After serving in the Georgia militia, where he was captured and held prisoner by the British for nine months, Walton was elected governor of Georgia and was one of its leading public servants until his death in 1804.
Although Robert Morris was initially opposed to independence because he thought anarchy would be the result of American self-rule, he eventually recognized the importance of colonial unity and signed the Declaration of Independence.
Benjamin Rush was one of four physicians to sign the Declaration of Independence, as well as the country’s first unofficial surgeon general. Rush famously proclaimed during the signing that the delegates were all signing their own death warrants and wrote of the “pensive and awful silence that pervaded the house” as they signed.
Robert Treat Paine
Initially a schoolteacher, then a captain of a seafaring whaling expedition, Robert Treat Paine eventually settled into a legal career. As the prosecutor of the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre, Paine faced off against fellow signer John Adams, who was a defense lawyer in the trial.
The son of a New Jersey farmer, Abraham Clark proved too frail for farm work, instead using his aptitude for mathematics to become a land surveyor. He was also self-taught in civil law and became the “poor man’s counselor” because he often provided free legal service to farmers, although he was likely never licensed to practice law.
William Hooper’s nickname was “Prophet of Independence” because he predicted early in 1774 that America would have to fight for its freedom. He was so dedicated to the cause of America’s freedom that he rode 450 miles on a horse to take his seat at the first Continental Congress in 1774.
Considered by some to be the “architect of the constitution”, James Wilson’s major contribution to America’s political heritage came during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where his ideas about democracy were incorporated into the design of the federal government.
Called the “atlas of independence”, John Adams was an opinionated, outspoken politician who is credited with convincing the second Continental Congress to declare independence. Adams served as George Washington’s vice president and was elected America’s second president in 1796.
Roger Sherman, the only American to sign all four of the country’s founding charter documents, was a common man among the wealthy and well-educated signers. After the death of his father, a poor Massachusetts farmer and shoemaker, the 19-year-old Sherman moved his brothers and sisters to Connecticut, walking the entire distance of over 100 miles.
Born the 10th son of a poor candle maker, Benjamin Franklin went on to become a wealthy printer and publisher, as well as a famous scientist, philosopher, philanthropist and inventor. He was the oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Francis Lewis, one of eight foreign-born signers, emigrated from Wales as a young man to start a mercantile firm in America. Lewis later became a leading voice in the independence movement, and was one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty.
Charles Thomson *non-signer
Charles Thomson worked as a Latin teacher before he got involved in Philadelphia politics and became well-known throughout the colonies as an organizer of trade boycotts and anti- British protests. Although Thomson’s signature appears on the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence, it is not included on the official engrossed parchment copy that was signed by all the elected delegates on August 2, 1776.
George Read, the only signer who cast his vote against independence on July 2, 1776, willingly signed the Declaration of Independence one month later. Read was also one of just six Americans to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Edward Rutledge, the youngest man to sign the Declaration of Independence, was among the signers imprisoned by the British during the Revolutionary War. After being imprisoned for 11 months in a ship off the coast of St. Augustine, Fl., Rutledge was released and returned to Charleston, SC, where he served as governor from 1798 until this death in 1800 at age 50.
Although Philip Livingston served with his brother, William, and his cousin, Robert, in the second Continental Congress, Philip was the only Livingston to sign the Declaration of Independence. Livingston died in 1778 at age 62, still serving in congress, and did not live to see America win the independence he gave so much to achieve.
Josiah Bartlett was an early and outspoken critic of British oppression, which got him elected to the first Continental Congress in 1774. He had to decline that honor when his house was burned to the ground, possibly by loyalists in the area. Bartlett later became chief justice of New Hampshire in 1788 and was elected the first governor of the state in 1793.
Arthur Middleton resigned from congress shortly after signing the Declaration of Independence to join South Carolina’s militia. He was an advocate of tarring and feathering British loyalists and was later one of three South Carolina signers who were held prisoner by the British for nearly a year during the Revolutionary War.
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Heyward, Jr. studied law in Great Britain and traveled Europe extensively as a young man. He later returned to the United States and joined the fight for America’s independence from Britain, to the dismay of his royalist father. Heyward was one of the three South Carolina signers who were caught and held prisoner by the British during the war.
Thomas Willing *non-signer
Although Thomas Willing did not vote for independence or sign the Declaration of Independence, he was a strong and vocal supporter of colonial rights, and thus was included in Trumbull’s painting.
A controversial politician, Elbridge Gerry was responsible for the coining of the term “gerrymandering” after he supported an unpopular redistricting bill that created a voting district to favor his political party at the polls. He died at age 70 in 1814 while serving as vice president of the United States under President James Madison.
Stephen Hopkins was one of the first people to demand in writing that the British stop taxing the colonies without their consent. Hopkins suffered from a palsy and hand tremors that produced his shaky signature on the Declaration of Independence.
A graduate of Harvard College, William Ellery did not begin his legal career until he was 43 years old. After signing the Declaration of Independence, Ellery served on many war-time committees and stayed in congress until 1785.
George Clymer was such an outspoken critic of Great Britain that when British troops were marching on Philadelphia, they made a detour to his country home in order to vandalize his property. Although his wife and children relocated to New York for their safety, Clymer stayed in Philadelphia during the British occupation so he could perform essential executive duties for the war effort.
Despite the fact that it would mean huge financial losses to his shipping business, Joseph Hewes was an early supporter of a trade boycott of English goods. Hewes was America’s first de facto secretary of the Navy, where he outfitted America’s first warships.
Francis Hopkinson was an artist, poet and author who used his talents to promote independence by publishing political satire about the king and Parliament. Considered America’s first popular music star, Hopkinson penned a song praising George Washington that served as a morale booster when the British occupied Philadelphia in 1778.
Robert Livingston was on the committee appointed to write the Declaration of Independence but, by a twist of fate, was the only one of those five men to never sign the document that he presented to the second Continental Congress.
Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, almost didn’t arrive in Philadelphia in time to write it, due to the fact his mother’s death kept him from congress for a time. Jefferson was elected America’s third president in 1800, with his legacy including the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark expedition.
Richard Stockton was one of the few signers to travel on military fact-finding missions to equip and supply the Continental army during the Revolutionary War. Four months after signing the Declaration of Independence, Stockton was imprisoned and tortured by the British. Although he later was released and regained his health, he did not live to see America win independence.
John Witherspoon, a Scottish clergyman, became a patriot the moment he landed in America, speaking out passionately against British mistreatment of the colonies. As one of the eight signers who were not born in America, Witherspoon was also the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Samuel Huntington, born into a Connecticut farming family, had little or no formal education but became a self-made man who died as the governor of Connecticut. After studying law on his own, Huntington began his political career when he was elected to the Connecticut legislature at age 33.
William Williams was always an outspoken patriot, in spite of his father-in-law’s job as the royal governor of Connecticut. Although Williams missed both the debate over independence and the July 2 vote for it, he was elected to congress and arrived in Philadelphia in time to sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2.
Oliver Wolcott, a Yale University graduate, is credited with turning a statue of King George III into 42,088 bullets that were used against the British by American troops during the Revolutionary War.
John Hancock may have the most famous signature in American history – his is the first and largest name on the Declaration of Independence. Hancock was also the richest man in New England, and used his money to help finance revolutionary activity.
John Dickinson *non-signer
Although John Dickinson was not a loyalist to the British crown, he was one of the members of the second Continental Congress who did not vote for independence. John Trumbull included him in the “Declaration of Independence” painting because of his essential role in the debate over independence.
Thomas McKean is believed by most historians to be the last man to sign the Declaration of Independence, probably not until January 1777. One of 24 lawyers to sign the Declaration, McKean also served as president of the Delaware colony, president of the congress and governor of Pennsylvania.
Frail and sickly his entire life, Caesar Rodney suffered from asthma and a deforming facial cancer. After being introduced to Rodney, John Adams called him “the oddest looking man in the whole world” with a face “not bigger than a large apple, yet there is a sense and fire, spirit, wit and humor in his countenance.”
The son of Virginia aristocrats, Carter Braxton initially called the idea of American independence impractical and imprudent, but eventually voted for independence and invested a great deal of his wealth in the Revolutionary War, financing risky shipping operations for the patriots.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Francis Lightfoot Lee was the lesser-known half of the only sibling duo to sign the Declaration of Independence. Both Francis and his brother, the great orator Richard Henry Lee, were born at Stratford Hall, the same house where the large Lee clan’s most famous descendant, Gen. Robert E. Lee of Civil War fame, was born in 1807.
Loyal to King George, George Ross enjoyed a successful legal career as a royal prosecutor for 12 years before his loyalties shifted to the patriot cause. In 1776, he was doing three jobs for the revolution: fighting as a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia, serving in the Pennsylvania state legislature and holding a position as member of the second Continental Congress.
George Taylor was one of three signers who were born in Ireland. Setting sail for America at age 20 with a passage paid for by the ironmaster at a Pennsylvania forge, Taylor shoveled coal until his debt was repaid. He died in 1781, before America gained its independence.
After immigrating to America from Northern Ireland when he was about 10 years old, James Smith was educated at Philadelphia Academy (later the University of Pennsylvania) and was a lawyer, land surveyor and iron forge owner in sparsely populated western Pennsylvania.
John Hart was a self-educated man known as ‘Honest John’ described by fellow Declaration signer Benjamin Rush as a “well meaning Jersey farmer, with little education, but with good sense and virtue enough to pursue the true interests of his country.”
John Morton was a moderate on separation from Britain, whose vote on July 2nd, 1776 for independence was unpopular with his Quaker and loyalist constituents back in Pennsylvania. Morton was the first of the 56 signers of the Declaration to die, succumbing to tuberculosis just nine months after casting Pennsylvania’s deciding vote in favor of independence.
Illiterate until the age of 18, John Penn taught himself to read and write with the help of his uncle. Three years later, Penn was licensed to practice law in Virginia at the age of 21. He later became a leader in North Carolina politics and was appointed to the second Continental Congress.
Descended from Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony, Lyman Hall studied for the ministry at Yale College before choosing a career in medicine instead. Eventually, Hall’s patriot sympathies and revolutionary ideas made him a leader in the local independence movement.
An accomplished surgeon with a penchant for politics, Matthew Thornton was elected president of New Hampshire in January 1776 after the colony’s royal governor abandoned his post and fled back to safety in Britain. The Irish-born Thornton was known for hilarity and humor in his storytelling.
Thomas Nelson Jr.
Born to a wealthy Yorktown family, Thomas Nelson Jr. spent so much of his own money to finance America’s military during the Revolutionary War that his person fortune was ruined by it. Nelson succeeded Thomas Jefferson as the governor of Virginia in 1781.
Born to a family with close ties to Britain, Thomas Stone initially preferred reconciliation to revolution; he eventually voted for independence rather than see colonial rights trampled by Britain. After his beloved wife Margaret died at age 36 from complications from a smallpox vaccination, Stone died suddenly four months later, possibly from a broken heart.
A soldier of the Revolutionary War, along with three of his sons, Lewis Morris served in the Continental Congress and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the New York militia.