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Our Founding Fathers: Who Were They and What Happened to Them?

July 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
On this Fourth of July, the most American of holidays, Ray Suarez speaks with Denise Kiernan and Josephe D'Agnese, authors of the book, "Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence," about what happened to the men who affixed their names to the historic document.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: The Fourth of July has come to be known as a day for picnics, fireworks, rest and relaxation.

It was a tense and risky day for the 56 men who attached their names to the document that became America’s Declaration of Independence from British rule.

Journalists and authors Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese uncover the social, political and financial gamble signers faced in the aftermath of their decision to start a new nation in their book and a coming film.

Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese join us now.

And the author, Thomas Jefferson, pretty well-known, vice president, minister to France, secretary of state and eventually president, but the other 55, not so much.

DENISE KIERNAN, Co-Author, “Signing Their Lives Away”: Not so much.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, who were they. If you were to look across the room, who was sitting in that hot summer room in Philadelphia?

JOSEPH D’AGNESE, Co-Author, “Signing Their Lives Away”: Of the 55 — I mean, I would say out of the 56 men, the five we know are Franklin, Jefferson and Hancock.

I think these days, other people would say, oh, I know — I recognize John Adams because of the miniseries and Sam Adams because of a beer.

(LAUGHTER)

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: That’s just the way it is.

The other men, I think if you look at them across their professions, they were — some of them were lawyers, some were doctors, career politicians until that period of time. A large number of them made their income from agricultural work, whether that was a large plantation in the South or a small farm.

DENISE KIERNAN: These were men who enjoyed a role of prominence within their communities. That’s how they ended up in the Continental Congress.

Some of them started out from very humble beginnings, though, not the majority of them, but there are those in that group.

RAY SUAREZ: The signing of the document makes official the rupture with Britain, kicks off a war that would last for many years. They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Was it a big step, a momentous step to do what they did by just putting their names on the bottom of that piece of paper?

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: They knew that what they were doing was treasonous, and they took steps to protect themselves and their families.

One of the big things that they did that most people don’t realize or understand is that they, though they signed the Declaration beginning in August 2, the vast majority of them August 2 of 1776, the last guy probably signed about five years later because he was busy with the war.

Their names were not released to the general public until January of 1777. So you have this good chunk of time from August 1776 to January 1777 where the only names people saw on that document were John Hancock, who was president of Congress at the time, and the secretary — his secretary, whose name was affixed to the very bottom, very, very small.

Everybody else was a mystery. And I think they did that specifically because they knew that there may be reprisals. But as of December 1776, with the crossing of the Delaware and Washington’s victories, it was one of the turning of the tide in that war, and they felt confident enough to release the names.

DENISE KIERNAN: When the actual vote took place to separate from Britain, that actually took place on July 2.

So, that is the day in Congress, July 2, not the 4th, when they voted in Congress, that’s it, we’re leaving.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Joe, the…

DENISE KIERNAN: The 4th is the day that they approved the text of the Declaration. And that is why that big four at the top of the Declaration is what we — that’s where we get July 4 from.

The signing began a month later. But once that Declaration was set and they decided, Congress decided, this is the dear George letter we’re sending, this is the letter we’re sending that says we’re breaking from you, here is why, they had to get word out to the colonies. This is something that happened in a room in Philadelphia.

And they had to basically get word out to the colonies, so that everybody knew this was really going forward.

RAY SUAREZ: In the years after July 4, that first monumental July 4, the act is voted on, the war is begun. Were people arrested, torture? Were there properties destroyed. How many of these guys really suffered for being part of that group in Philadelphia?

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: At least five of them were imprisoned for their actions, probably in battle. They were captured on the field of battle and they were in prison for a short time.

The most sort of dramatic ones are ones like that there were three signers from South Carolina who were imprisoned first in a — sort of a jail or prison in Charleston. Then they were shipped to St. Augustine, Florida. But they were placed under arrest.

Remember that these men were treated well because of their station. They’re all gentlemen, according to the British system of class. And so they were accorded — they were placed under house arrest. They had — they were allowed to write letters home. They were visited by medical physicians.

No one was ever tortured. That’s something that I have seen over the years, and it’s — it is wrong. Every time I see it, I shudder.

DENISE KIERNAN: But they were also valuable for exchange.

I mean, there were — prisoner exchange was something that did happen. So these were men of station. And they had a certain rank within the military. So it was in — for exchange purposes, it was also within the British interests to make sure that they were cared for to a certain level.

RAY SUAREZ: High-value prisoners.

DENISE KIERNAN: High-value prisoners, that’s right.

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: What no one has actually found is sort of a letter that says, we have to go after the guys who signed the Declaration of Independence.

There’s no document, there’s no proof that they were ever targeted in that way for the signing of the Declaration. If they suffered reprisals, they did because they were either combatants in the war or they were pointed out…

DENISE KIERNAN: Pointed out by neighbors.

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: … by their neighbors…

DENISE KIERNAN: Yes.

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: … as being on the side of the rebels.

DENISE KIERNAN: That guy was just up in Philadelphia. I know he’s with that Congress. They’re up to something.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: So, in the very little time that we have left, there are stories, there are legends that things went really badly for almost all of them.

Is that not true?

DENISE KIERNAN: I wouldn’t say that that’s not true. I would say things did go badly for some of them. Things went quite well — someone like Benjamin Franklin tripled…

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: He tripled his income during the war.

DENISE KIERNAN: … his income during the war.

Then you have someone like Robert Morris, who was known as the financier of the revolution.

He is considered one of the key elements for the success of the colonies because of his ability to raise money, as well as his willingness to get loans on his name, because his credit was a lot more powerful than Congress’ at the time.

And he suffered a great reversal, but predominantly because he had made bad land investments. And after the war, despite all of his financial success, he ended upside-down on his loans and spent three-and-a-half years in debtors prison, where he was still visited by George Washington, who appreciated all of his earlier efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: Denise Kiernan, Joe D’Agnese, thank you both. Happy Fourth.

JOSEPH D’AGNESE: Happy Fourth. Thank you very much.

DENISE KIERNAN: Happy Fourth. Thank you.