The 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial: Life, Liberty, and Legacy

August 14, 2020

The history of the United States is preserved in archives, books, and the collective memory of the American people. It is also preserved in monuments, memorials, and statues made from marble, granite, bronze, or plaster.

Our nation’s capital is home to some of the world’s most recognizable and frequently visited monuments. This blog series will explore the events and people they commemorate, devoting particular attention to the spiritual themes depicted. By shedding light on our nation’s deep religious heritage, this series aims to inspire the next generation to emulate virtues and merits from America’s past that are worth memorializing.

FRC’s blog series on monuments is written by FRC summer interns and edited by David Closson, FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. Be sure to read our previous posts on the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Joan of Arc Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial.

The memorial to the 56 signers of our nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, is often overlooked or unfamiliar to most visitors to Washington, D.C. The memorial is located on a small island, in a part of the National Mall called Constitution Gardens, which is north of the reflecting pool between the World War II and Lincoln memorials.

In April 1978, Congress passed an act “To authorize the Secretary of the Interior to memorialize the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence in Constitution Gardens in the District of Columbia.” The completed memorial was dedicated on July 2, 1984, 208 years after the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence.

The first stone of the footbridge to the island reads, “A Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence; A gift from the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration 1976.” The final stone of the bridge reads, “In Congress, July 4th, 1776, The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.” The first step into the memorial is engraved with the final lines of the Declaration, “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.”

Designed and sculpted by landscape artist Joseph Brown, the memorial is comprised of a semi-circle of angled blocks of granite. Brown engraved onto these blocks each signer’s signature, enhancing them with gold leaf. Below the signatures, he printed each man’s name, profession, and hometown. The stones are grouped together by state, with Pennsylvania’s nine signers flanking the memorial’s entrance. The 13 state names are written at the base of the stones.

The 56 signers held a variety of professions. There were 19 lawyers, as well as 23 farmers, planters, or merchants of some kind. Four were doctors, three were judges, and two were politicians. The last five were a writer, a surveyor, an ironmaster, a statesman, and a clergyman.

Interestingly, one of the signers, a lawyer from New Jersey named Richard Stockton, became the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to recant his support. On November 30, 1776, he was captured by the British and thrown in jail. After months of harsh treatment and meager rations, Stockton repudiated his signature on the Declaration of Independence and swore his allegiance to King George III. When he regained his freedom, he took a new oath of loyalty to the state of New Jersey in December 1777, and again supported the Revolution until victory was achieved in September of 1783. Despite once repudiating his signature and recanting his support for the Revolution, Stockton is nonetheless included in the memorial.

While the signers of the Declaration of Independence held several different types of political positions, only John Witherspoon from New Jersey has “clergyman” identified as his occupation. However, Layman Hall from Georgia was also a clergyman who had graduated from Yale Divinity School; he changed careers and became a physician out of Yale Medical School in 1756. Because being a physician was his second and primary occupation, this is what is engraved on the memorial.

Originally from Scotland, Witherspoon attended the University of Edinburgh, where he received a Master of Arts, followed by four years of divinity school. Afterward, he became an ordained minister, all by age 20. Because of his contribution to the church and his educational background, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity from the University of St. Andrews.

At that time in history, the most educated men where the clergy. The College of New Jersey (modern-day Princeton) needed additional scholars to join their assembly. Witherspoon made the treacherous journey to the American Colonies in 1768.

Initially abstaining from political involvement, Witherspoon focused on his success in the college and his church. However, with time he came to support the revolutionary cause, accepting appointments to the committees of correspondence and safety in early 1776. That same year, during his commencement speech at Princeton, Witherspoon demonstrated a change of heart, saying, “I beseech you to make wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs, and to remember that your duty to God, to your country, and to your families, and to yourselves, is the same.”

Later that same year, Witherspoon was elected to the Continental Congress just in time to vote in favor of Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution for independence and sign the Declaration of Independence. In Witherspoon’s later years, he suffered an injury that caused him to lose one of his eyes, and with time he lost the sight of the other, rendering him completely blind. He later died on his farm near Princeton at the age of 71.

Like Witherspoon, Christians should not be afraid to be engaged politically. Witherspoon was often characterized as one devoted to advancing the “cause of Christian liberty by forming the minds of youth.” Family Research Council chartered a program in 1997 called the Witherspoon Fellowship. Though not under the same name, the internship program continues today, challenging, mentoring, and developing students academically, practically, and spiritually.

Molly Carman is a Policy and Government Affairs intern whose research focuses on developing a biblical worldview on issues related to family and current events.

urrent events.