During my time as a docent for our Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor exhibition, I noticed various names on the coffered ceiling of the South Gallery where the exhibition was housed. I was puzzled as to who these persons were until I saw Josiah Bartlett‘s name. Thanks to my years of watching The West Wing, I realized these names belonged to the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
I thought it would be fun to look at the South Gallery ceiling more closely, so a couple of weeks ago, Andrew, Hanibal, and I took a little field trip over to the Jefferson Building. Thanks to our colleagues in the European Reading Room, we were able to access the walkway around the upper part of the room, which allowed us to get up close and personal with the ceiling.
Doing further research, I found a chart on the National Archives website which provides basic information about the signers, including dates of birth and death, profession, and birthplace. I found that Thomas Lynch, Jr. and Edward Rutledge were the two youngest delegates to Congress, both aged 26 and both from South Carolina. Arthur Middleton was also from South Carolina which made me realize that the names on the squares were organized by colony. So, returning to the Adams, Hancock square above, the five delegates from Massachusetts were listed there: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, John Hancock and Robert Treat Paine. And even though we could not get a clear view of the fourth side of the South Carolina panel, I am sure it lists Thomas Heyward, Jr., the other delegate from South Carolina.
The delegates to the second Continental Congress were an interesting group. The signers ranged in age from 26 to 70 with the oldest being Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. Franklin was an outlier in the group: 43 of the 56 signers were 50 or younger. At least 23 of them were lawyers while 15 were identified as merchants. There were several physicians, ministers, and plantation holders in the group and there were two land speculators, William Floyd of New Jersey and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania. Franklin is the only printer in the group, but he is also identified as a scientist, along with Jefferson and Robert Treat Paine of Massachusetts. The other interesting category which caught my eye on this chart was the delegates’ birthplaces–eight of those who signed the Declaration had been born outside the colonies in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It struck me that I could spend many more hours researching all the signers–for example, I did not know that Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts had been President Madison’s vice president during his second term. I suspect the interconnection between all these men and the early decades of our country would make for a fun trivia game, with cards embossed with the signers’ names as displayed on our ceiling!
For other posts about the art in the Jefferson Building, you can look at Donna’s blog series “Glimpse of Law.”