Happy 4th of July, lads and lasses! Every year, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence as a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. As a nation of immigrants, that history has been shaped by millions of influential figures from all over the world. The signers of the Declaration hailed from the thirteen colonies, yes… But did you know that a good few of those men were immigrants from the British Isles? At Donegal Square and the Red Stag Pub, we take pride in the impact that men and women of Celtic descent have had on the story of the United States. So with that in mind, let’s dive into who several of these signers were! Enjoy the following league of extraordinary English, Irish, and Scottish gentlemen…
With a name like that? You guessed it. Mr. Gwinnett was born in Glouchester, England in 1735. When he came to the colonies, he chose to settle in Georgia, where he was a merchant and plantation owner. Gwinnett was 41 when he signed the Declaration. He died one year later in a duel at the age of 42 after he tried to invade Florida to expand Georgia’s border…it didn’t really work out for him. I digress! On to the next gent!
A riddle for you: Where does a man come from if both his names are first names? Wales! Lewis was a merchant born in Landaff, Wales in 1712; he lived to the ripe old age of 89. Many years prior, at age 21, he left London, where he had joined a mercantile house, and set sail for New York. He would eventually become a representative of said state. In Queens, NY, Francis Lewis has a school, park, and boulevard named after him!
Mr. Morris came from Lancashire, England to the Chesapeake Bay in 1744 at the age of ten. He attended school in Philadelphia, and was apprenticed to a counting room at the age of 16. Morris went on to become a merchant, and King George III’s Stamp Act made things quite difficult for him. So, he sided with the colonials in their revolt against the British. He was elected to the Continental Congress as a representative of Pennsylvania and would found the Bank of North America. He’s also the guy that was offered the job of Secretary of the Treasury, but turned it down and told George Washington to give Alexander Hamilton a
*shot* … (My Hamilton fans, see what I did there 😉 ?)
Here we have an occupation besides “merchant”… James Smith, born in Northern Ireland in 1719, was a lawyer. He was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar at age 26 and set up his practice near Shippensburg, PA. At the time, this part of the Keystone State was frontier country, so there wasn’t much law to be done. So Mr. Smith eventually moved back to the more populated York, PA, where he would become a leader in the community. Not only did Smith write awesome and sassy articles boycotting British goods- he also was elected Captain of a volunteer militia he organized, which later would grow into an entire battalion. He could do it all!
Born in Northern Ireland, Taylor emigrated to America in the late 1730s. We don’t know much about Mr. Taylor, except that he was an Iron master at the Warwick Furnace and Coventry Forge. He worked as an Iron master for a bit in Bucks County, not too far from Bethlehem, PA! Taylor became a member of the Continental Congress, the Committee of Correspondence, and the Committee of Safety. He was elected to replace a member of the Pennsylvania Delegation who did not support independence. Fun Fact about Taylor- he arrived at Independence Hall too late to vote, but he still got to sign the Declaration of Independence!
This signer of the Declaration was born in Ireland, but no one knows for certain where exactly in Ireland. Thorton’s father lived on a farm just outside Derry, so he was likely born there. However, some records identify Lisburn and Limerick as potential birthplaces. Regardless, Thorton’s parents emigrated to America when Thorton was just three years old. They established their family in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Thorton would receive his education. He grew up to be a physician, and was appointed surgeon to the New Hampshire troops in 1745 during the Siege of Louisbourg. (For those who do not know, this battle was between the British and the French.
To make a long story short, the French still had stock in some land in North America, particularly around Fortress Louisbourg, which protected the main entrance into French Canada. Aided by New England colonial troops, a British fleet invaded Louisbourg, and won.) Thorton’s medical practice was very successful, and he accumulated a lot of land near Londonderry, NH. With money comes power, and Mr. Thorton grew to become a prominent figure in the community. He drafted the first constitution for the state of New Hampshire, and was sent to sign the Declaration on behalf of the state. Under the new constitution, he became the first President of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and justice to the Superior Court. I wonder if he ever went back to Ireland for a vacation…
Last but certainly not least, the Scotsmen! Not only was he Scottish and probably totally rocked a kilt (if they hadn’t been BANNED by the British at the time he was living in Scotland… see my Kilt blog if you are confused…)-John Witherspoon had a Master of Arts from the University of Edinburgh and four years of divinity school under his belt by the age of 20. After that he worked as a Presbyterian Minister at a parish in Beith, was married, and wrote many a book on theology.
He later received his Doctorate of Divinity from the University of St. Andrews. After a lot of begging from his two American friends, because he was just so darn smart, Witherspoon emigrated to American in 1768 to become the first president of the College of New Jersey. Today some know it as a tiny little school called Princeton. Witherspoon supported the revolution, and signed the Declaration of Independence. After the War, during which the British had destroyed nearly all of the College of New Jersey’s campus, Witherspoon dedicated his life to rebuilding his school.
As an Irish American, I am proud to know that Irish immigrants played an integral role in establishing our nation’s independence. Undoubtedly Scottish Americans and English Americans feel the same. As citizens we all have an innate right to pride in our heritage, whatever it may be, and in the great things achieved by those who came before us. I hope you enjoyed learning a thing or two about some of the not-so-famous men who signed off on America. Have a great 4th of July!