The Committee of Five: (from left) John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin
The Declaration of Independence was written by five men – John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
We know a lot about Adams, Jefferson and Franklin. Sherman and Livingston, not so much.
Roger Sherman is especially notable in United States history for being the only person to sign all four great state papers of the United States: the United States Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Association, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson introduced Sherman once saying, “That is Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.”
Sherman was born on a Massachusetts farm. His education did not extend beyond his father’s library and his early profession was shoemaker.
At age 21 when his father died, his family moved by foot to Connecticut, where he became an active and respected citizen. Self-taught, he passed the bar and was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly. He later became a state judge, a Congressman, mayor of New Haven and a Yale religious professor. He had 14 children with two wives. Dozens of ancestors became prominent citizens.
Sherman was pious and against slavery. He saw no need for an executive branch of government, believing that Congress should execute its own laws.
Robert Livingston was the son of a New York judge. Both his mother and father were wealthy. He attended what is now the Columbia University. He married well and entered politics, eventually becoming the top judge in New York for 34 years, for which he earned the nickname “Chancellor.”
As Chancellor of New York, Livingston administered the presidential oath of office to George Washington at Federal Hall in New York City, then the Capital of the United States.
As U.S. minister to France, Livingston met Robert Fulton, with whom he developed the first viable steamboat, the North River Steamboat, whose home port was at the Livingston family home of Clermont Manor in the town of Clermont, N.Y.
We think there’s a lot of anger and division in politics today. It’s nothing compared to the founding of our country.
Take Benjamin Franklin, for example. His son William, who rose to be Royal Governor of New Jersey before the War of Independence, remained loyal to the crown.
Prior to the war, father and son were close. Benjamin Franklin dedicated his autobiography to his son. They traveled to England together. Son William was known as being as smart as his father but more personally agreeable.
The war split father and son. William was imprisoned and eventually fled to England.
They met only one more time in London in 1784 to discuss outstanding family legal matters. Benjamin Franklin left none of his wealth to son William saying that had Britain won the war, he would have had no wealth to leave his son.
Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence. It was not a safe thing to do. King George ordered his soldiers to find and execute them all, putting an end to the ‘foolish’ rebellion.
The book “Making of America” describes the proscribed punishment for signing: “What these men had done was considered as ‘high treason’ by the king. The penalty for high treason was: To be hanged by the head until unconscious. Then cut down and revived. Then disemboweled and beheaded. Then cut into quarters. Each quarter was to be boiled in oil. The remnants were scattered abroad so that the last resting place of the offender would remain forever unnamed, unhonored and unknown.”
As it turns out, none of the signers were hanged and quartered. Several had their homes destroyed and others were injured and captured during the war, in which more than 4,000 died in battle.
Why would so many prominent, wealthy citizens of the establishment rebel? After all, they were the beneficiaries of the existing order. Perhaps rebellion is part of human nature. Rebel they did and in doing so created the greatest nation the world has ever seen.