What Happened to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence?

BY Cassie M. Chew  July 4, 2012 at 2:18 PM EDT



In this age of texting and tweeting, finding out what happens in American politics is as simple as checking your cellphone.

Not so 236 years ago when leaders in America’s 13 original colonies in a hot room in Philadelphia decided to break their ties with Britain. On July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress approved the text of the Declaration of Independence–the “Dear George” letter, if you will, by which the colonists told the British “We are breaking from you and here’s why.”

But who were these men and what happened to them after they affixed their names to a document that led to a revolution and the start of a new nation?

Some of the most well known men include Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock. John Adams had a 2008 HBO mini-series made about him and beer drinkers know the name Sam Adams.

“If you look at them across their professions they were lawyers, some were doctors, career politicians up until that period of time–a large number of them made their income from agricultural work,” Joseph D’Agnese, co-author of the book “Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence,” explained in a conversation with NewsHour correspondent Ray Suarez.

In the years since that momentous occasion, many stories have emerged about the aftermath of their decision. Legend has it that they they were punished for rebelling against the crown.

However, the methods of communication in the 18th century American life may have helped keep their identities secret.

“It would have been very difficult for a member of the British troops to actually find out in any given place who in that community had something to do with the Declaration of Independence because of the complete lack of communication,” co-author Denise Kiernan said.

Their actions deemed treasonous, some were imprisoned and treated as “high value prisoners,” while others, who enjoyed great wealth in their prime, died penniless. A few emerged from the revolution to live long and happy lives, Kiernan and D’Agnese say in the above clip from the interview.

Watch the complete interview from Wednesday’s NewsHour here.