"Signing their Lives Away" is a good road trip read based on a pivot point of American history.
In the hot summer of 1776, fifty-six men in Philadelphia voted to break with Great Britain and declare the American Colonies free. We know these men who left their mark on a moment of time. But what happened next?
That's what "Signing Their Lives Away" tells _ what happened to the men after the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence.
Beyond the famous names of John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were these guys?
William Paca was a lawyer remembered mainly for supporting the troops and becoming a chief justice in Maryland. He also had a "child out of wedlock with a free black woman" and acknowledged the daughter, Hester, sending her to the finest schools.
Sam Adams, of Boston was a lousy businessman. Even before his fame at rabble rousing, he inherited a brewery that "went bust shortly after he took over and Sammy was back in debt, where he remained for the rest of his life."
Another Massachusetts delegate, Elbridge Gerry, gave us the political term "gerrymandering." After being elected governor in 1812, Gerry began to "creatively redraw the state senate voting districts to favor his party. A political cartoonist thought one of the districts resembled a salamander, and the process was quickly dubbed 'gerrymandering.'" (This still happens in today's politics, with districts being redrawn to give undue advantage to one political party or the other.)
Richard Stockton of New Jersey recanted signing the Declaration but, since at the time he was imprisoned by the British, George Washington forgave him.
George Wythe, a mentor of Thomas Jefferson, lawyer and all-around legal eagle, helped build the Virginia constitution. In his 80s, he was poisoned by his sister's grandson, who hoped to inherit the estate. He didn't; Wythe lived long enough to disinherit him.
"Signing" is told in a brisk entertaining fashion, with various accompanying essays including a timeline, "The Madness of King George" and "Immigrant Signers." Its greatest liability is the layout. Instead of listing each man alphabetically or even by state, the entries are laid out in the order they signed in 1776; geographically from the North to South along the Eastern Seaboard. Thus the index of names becomes vital.
Some of the signers died in their 80s and 90s, long enough to see the consequences of their actions. They were men of courage who, to quote the Declaration, put their "Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor," on the line. And this is a good way to meet them. ___
"Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence" by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese; Quirk Books, Philadelphia (256 pages, $19.95) ___