'Signing Their Lives Away' an interesting and irreverent look at the men who signed the Declaration of Independence

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comJuly 26, 2013 

Though far from the Declaration of Independence's most famous or enduring sentence, it is the document's final salvo that I have always found to be the most profound.

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

But aside from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and his crazy second cousin (and brewer) Samuel, little is known about the 56 men who affixed their signatures to Jefferson's masterpiece at great personal risk to themselves and their families.

Two Asheville, N.C., writers set out to change that with their book, "Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence," which chronicles the life and times of all the Declaration's signers from the most prominent to the most obscure.

As Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese write in their introduction, "We think they are worth knowing." And I agree.

With quippy two- to four-page biographies on the signers from each state, Kiernan and D'Agnese paint colorful, three-dimensional portraits of each man who signed that famed piece of parchment, many of whom did so on Aug. 2, 1776, and not on July 4 as many believe. In fact, historians believe Thomas McKean of Delaware was the last to sign the Declaration in 1781.

And mercifully, "Signing Their Lives Away" isn't written like a textbook but is instead cleverly conceived -- each chapter begins with a superlative such as Roger Sherman of Connecticut whom the writers dub "The Signer Who Signed Everything" -- and quippy.

Of the troublemaking patriot and brewer Samuel Adams, Kiernan and D'Agnese write, "Remember that kid in school who could always be found in the middle of every fight and behind every prank? During the Revolutionary War, that kid was Samuel Adams..."

The book also shines light on the colorful but relatively unknown life of the owner of the Declaration's largest and most prominent signature -- Massachusetts delegate John Hancock.

Hancock, it turns out, was a wealthy provocateur who was the first to sign the Declaration, on July 4, and reportedly signed his name large so King George could read it without spectacles.

Naturally, as a nerd with a soft spot for the romanticism of our Revolution, and the Declaration in particular, there were passages that gave me goosebumps such as the chapter on William Ellery of Rhode Island, who recalled watching as his fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress signed.

"I was determined to see how they all looked as they signed what might be their death warrant," Ellery later wrote. "I placed myself beside the secretary, Charles Thomson, and eyed each closely as he affixed his name to the document. Undaunted resolution was displayed in every countenance."

True to the book's fun and irreverent tone, this chapter also points out that Ellery is an ancestor of actress, socialite and Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, cousin of actress Kyra Sedgwick, who is married to actor Kevin Bacon.

That's right, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is within Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

A perfectly blend of history and humor, "Signing Their Lives Away" is a must-read for anyone curious about the lives of those who so believed in the "self-evident" truths upon which our nation was founded that they were willing to risk their lives to simply declare them.

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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