With their book Signing Their Lives Away, Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese introduced readers to the 56 statesmen (and occasional scoundrels!) who signed the Declaration of Independence. Now they’ve turned their attention to the 39 men who met in the summer of 1787 and put their names to the U.S. Constitution.
Signing Their Rights Away chronicles a moment in American history when our elected officials knew how to compromise—and put aside personal gain for the greater good of the nation. These men were just as quirky and flawed as the elected officials we have today: Hugh Williamson believed in aliens, Robert Morris went to prison, Jonathan Dayton stole $18,000 from Congress, and Thomas Mifflin was ruined by alcohol. Yet somehow these imperfect men managed to craft the world’s most perfect Constitution. With 39 mini-biographies and a reversible dust jacket that unfolds into a poster of the original document, Signing Their Rights Away offers an entertaining and enlightening narrative for history buffs of all ages.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ask any person to name the single most important day in United States history, and they’re likely to answer July 4, 1776. Every year, Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence by attending parades and watching fireworks. Most believe that the patriots defeated the British, as though in a football game, and then Americans lived happily ever after in blissful democracy.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
When the war ended in 1783, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. This fairly flimsy compact provided for a one-house Congress, one vote per state, and very little
else. True, this Congress had a president, but he didn’t derive his power from the people, and he was an intentionally weak figurehead. After all, the last thing the founding fathers wanted was another king.
Within two years, the fledgling United States was on the verge of political collapse. The federal government had no power to tax people, goods, properties, or businesses. That may sound wonderful until you stop to consider all the consequences: The federal government had no revenue and issued no currency. There was no money for raising troops, building ships, or engaging in other activities vital to a nation’s self-defense. The country was vulnerable to attack and domination by a host of foreign powers. At sea, American vessels were pirated by foreign ships; their cargo and passengers were frequently held for ransom. On land, British and Spanish factions were arming Native Americans and encouraging them to raid American settlements on the edges of the frontier.
States took matters into their own hands. Nine states had their own naval forces and pursued their own foreign policies. They imposed taxes on goods from other states as though they were dealing with foreign countries. There were no courts to decide disagreements between states. Private banks were issuing their own currency, but their notes were often distrusted and viewed as IOUs that might never be repaid. Doing business with other states was challenging if not impossible. Seesawing cycles of inflation and deflation were destroying lives. Foreclosures skyrocketed, and banks began seizing the homes of poor farmers with unpaid mortgages. Many wealthy landowners feared a bloody class revolution—or an all-out civil war.
Clearly something had to be done or the nation wouldn’t live long enough to celebrate its eleventh birthday. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and a host of other bigwigs proposed a “grand convention” at which delegates would gather to revise, debate, and expand the Articles of Confederation. Seventy-four delegates were chosen by their respective states; only fifty-five answered the call, and many of those with skepticism. Patrick Henry, the famed Virginia rebel, refused to attend, complaining that he “smelt a rat.” Rhode Island sent no representatives at all.
In May of 1787, the willing participants journeyed to the very same Philadelphia building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. True, these men had once banded together to fight as brothers against a common enemy, but now they were deeply distrustful of one another. Small states were suspicious of large states. The nation was divided over slavery. Every delegate arrived wanting something—but few were willing to sacrifice anything. In such a contentious environment, reaching compromise would be tough. More than a dozen delegates quit and went home before the convention’s end.
The thirty-nine who remained and signed the U.S. Constitution are the focus of this book. Signing Their Rights Away introduces you to the remarkable historical figures who jettisoned the limp and lifeless Articles of Confederation for a robust and rigorous document that provided the framework for an enduring system of government (at more than 230 years old, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest functioning constitution in the world).
In the end, these men prioritized the welfare of their country over politics or personal advancement. They fought with great conviction—but they eventually came to understand that no single delegate could walk away with all the marbles. They agreed to compromise for the greater good. Yet, today, despite their heroic labors, most of them have lapsed into obscurity.
They deserve better—if only because their stories are so interesting. At least twenty-two
of the signers served in the military—as soldiers, chaplains, administrative officers—during the Revolutionary War. Five were captured and imprisoned by the British. Many lost homes, property, and loved ones to the war. Two died in duels; one attempted suicide.
Most were educated, cosmopolitan gentlemen accustomed to a life of wealth and privilege. Eighteen of the signers were trained in law; the remainder were merchants, plantation owners, and financiers. They represented the views, expectations, and entitlements of the nation’s elite. Such men had no problem ignoring the rights of women and slaves when designing their compact for government. Nor were they champions of free white men with meager property. (One signer sought to restrict government service to men with a net worth exceeding $100,000!) Having witnessed intimidation and mob violence at the hands of enemies and patriots alike, many of the signers didn’t trust the American public. The idea of granting power to all individuals was a fairly radical idea. During debates, many signers repeatedly derided the notion that Josiah Q. Public could serve wisely in the House and Senate, or, heaven help us, the presidency.
But in the end, enough members knew that this attitude did not reflect the principles of the revolution they had just fought. They were gutsy enough to give the “little guy” a shot at power. Anyone could be president, anyone could be senator—even you.
So the next time September 17 rolls around, eat a hot dog, watch some fireworks, and celebrate Constitution Day—that fateful date in 1787 when thirty-nine sweaty men dressed in stockings signed their names to the United States Constitution. Remember how they argued, hoped, feared, persevered, and, most important, compromised to create a lasting document that still governs today. July 4 may be remembered as the day the United States was born, but September 17 marks the country’s passage into adulthood, laying the groundwork for two centuries of remarkable expansion and spectacular achievements.
Table of Contents
A Constitutional Cheat Sheet 15
A Constitutional Timeline 21
I New Hampshire
John Langdon: The Signer Who Picked Up the Tab 26
Nicholas Gilman: The Most Handsome Signer 31
Nathaniel Gorham: The Signer Who Considered a Monarchy 36
Rufus King: The Signer Who Always Ran (and Never Won) 41
William Samuel Johnson: The Signer Who Lived the Longest 48
Roger Sherman: The Signer Who Knew How to Compromise 52
IV New York
Alexander Hamilton: The Signer Who Died in a Duel 58
V New Jersey
William Livingston: The Signer-Poet 66
David Brearley: The Signer Who Proposed Erasing State Boundaries and Starting Over 71
William Psterson: The Son of a Door-to-Door Salesman 76
Jonathan Dayton: The Signer Who Stole $18,000 from Congress 81
Benjamin Franklin: The Signer Known throughout the World 88
Thomas Mifflin: The Signer Who Was Ruined by Drink 94
Robert Morris: The Signer Who Went to Debtors' Prison 99
George Clymer: The Signer Whose Home Was Destroyed by the British 105
Thomas FitzSimons: The Signer Who Loaned Away His fortune (and Never Got It Back) 109
Jared Ingersoll: The Signer Who Couldn't Keep Up with Fashion 114
James Wilson: The Signet-Turned-Fugitive 119
Gouverneur Morris: The Playboy with the Wooden Leg 125
George Read: The Signer Who Signed Twice 134
Gunning Bedford Jr.: The Signer Who Trusted No One 139
John Dickinson: The Signer Who Never Signed 143
Richard Bassett: The Signer Who Overcame Religious Discrimination 148
Jacob Broom: The Invisible Signer 152
James McHenry: The Signer Immortalized by the Star-Spangled Banner 158
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer: The Signer with the Mysterious Middle Name 163
Daniel Carroll: The Signer Who Helped Create Washington. D.C. 168
George Washington: The President of the Constitutional Convention 174
John Blair: The Underachieving Signer 183
James Madison Jr.: The Father of the Constitution 188
X North Carolina
William Blount: The Signer Who … Oh, There's No Way to Dance around the Issue, This Guy Was a Crook 198
Richard Dobbs Spaight: The Other Signer Who Died in a Duel 203
Hugh Williamson: The Signer Who Believed in Aliens 208
XI South Carolina
John Rutledge: The Signer Who Attempted Suicide 214
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney: The Signer Who Wouldn't Bribe the French 220
Charles Pinckney: The Ghost Writer of the Constitution? 226
Pierce Butler: The Signer Who Turned Coat on the King 231
William Few: The Signer Who Lived the American Dream 238
Abraham Baldwin: The Signer Who Pinched Pennies 243
I The U.S. Constitution
Text of the U.S. Constitution 250
Text of the Bill of Rights 267
Additional Amendments 269
II A Constitutional Miscellary
Preserving the Constitution 279
The Penman of the Constitution 280
William Jackson: The Fortieth Signer 281
Will the Real Constitution Printer Please Stand Up? 284
Who Signed the Bill of Rights? 286
By the Numbers 286
They Came, They Saw, They Didn't Sign 287
Immigrant Signers 291
Selected Bibliography 292
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"signing their rights away" is very hard to put down. the writers have done alot of amazing research on our founders who signed the constitution and put it together and each chapter in this little book gives a small bio of each signer and what happened to them at the end of their life and what they gave for their country and what they gave for signing the constitution few people know that most of the founding fathers it cost them every thing. this is an amazing book it is a great gift idea.
This book is very much like its' companion book, Signing Their Lives Away. The book is full of short biographies of each of the signers of the Constitution. It does not deal with how the Constitution came to be, it is concerned only with the Signers. This is an easy read and an enjoyable book.
Signing Their Rights Away gives brief biographies of the lives of the 39 men who debated, created and eventually signed the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. Some of the men, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin, will be well familiar to readers. But the book really shines in relating the histories of the other, forgotten signers. Wealthy and poor, noble and ignoble, these men came together during a sweltering summer and crafted a document that in their opinion, was not very great, but good enough, all things being equal. And there lies the most fascinating part of one of America's most revered documents. In an age of hyper-political partisanship, the framers of the Constitution were forced to compromise cherished beliefs or risk seeing their newfound country break apart. Many of the frames did not trust 'the little guy' and did not think the average voter informed or intelligent enough to elect their own Senators or even the President. The big states, like Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania wanted representation by percentage of population. Small states, like Delaware and New Jersey insisted on a more fair approach, threatening to torpedo the whole convention if they didn't get their way. Rhode Island didn't even bother to show up. But somehow all of these disparate beliefs and people came together and founded a system of government totally unique and eventually the envy of the world.
The book consists of 39 thumbnail portraits of the men who signed the Constitution. Despite their briefness they included information on their upbringing, education, contribution to the Constitutional Convention, and life afterwards with a bit of color thrown in as well. The book also includes a copy of the constitution and its amendments . By reading the whole book one gets a sense of the gathering, that they weren't more perfect than a gathering of leaders would be now, making their accomplishment all the more amazing.
This little book, a quick read that you can dip in and out of, is a great introduction to the men who created the United States Constitution. It's written in a modern, breezy style that gives 2 to 4 page biographies of men who altered the course of history. It points out, right away, that this is NOT the Declaration of Independence. That was created by another group of men who changed the course of history. This document defines our system of government and this book contains the entire document for your edification. I love the style of the biographies. Listed by state (from top to bottom, with a kinda jog for Pennsylvania), each founding father's signature on the Constitution is provided at the top of his page. Where he was from, occupation, DOB, DOD and final resting place are found next to a portrait of the man, along with a little tag like the One Who Footed the Tab (I'm paraphrasing, since I don't have the book in front of me) or The Invisible One (oops, no known portrait). And then, in a few pages, the authors tell you the FF's beginning, middle and end, his position on the Constitution and any fun facts they can toss at you. It made for an easy evening's read and will make a quick reference for armchair historians who turn to a book before they think to go to the internet.One of my favorite things about this book is the jacket. On one side are those portraits and quick tags and on the other side is The Constitution, with those 39 signatures. I found myself referring to that other side again and again as I read about these men --- 39 and I'm ashamed to say I only remembered two from my own state. All in all, an easy, breezy read that tantalized me into wanting to know more about these men. I'm off to the library!
I LOVED THIS BOOK! Kiernan and D'Agnese's brief but very informative book was right up this history buff's alley. After a brief introduction on the the Convention that produced the United States Constitution, the rest of the book devotes a chapter to each signer of the Constitution, giving a solid biography of each, as well as highlighting their contributions to the Constitution. There are appendices that list the full original text of the Constitution and its Amendments, as well as quick blurbs about other individuals associated with this historic document, including convention members who did not sign the final document.In general I love how Quirk books tend to highlight the truly weird and fascinating, while still maintaining some sort of value. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was my first introduction to this publisher and I can't say that I've been disappointed in much I've seen from them, and this entertaining, yet really useful non-fiction title is no exception.The dust jacket carries portraits of the signers with colorful one word descriptions such as "Bankrupt" "Pretty Boy" and "Fugitive", and even unfolds to reveal a replica of the original Constitution. The colorful descriptors on the cover match up with the equally memorable chapter headings such as "The Signer Who Stole $18,000 From Congress" and "The Signer Who Believed in Aliens". But, while making sure to highlight these colorful incidents, the book still sticks to the facts and provides a solid biographical sketch of each signer from birth to death without being too long, dry, or boring.While I enjoyed reading it from cover to cover, the book offers key biographical information on some of the lesser known Founding Fathers that would be useful to many students of American history. Maybe not a top priority for serious academic libraries, but certainly worth including in public libraries and middle and high school collections.
I thought this book was spectacular! It makes the men of the Constitutional Convention more than just old white guys who lived 250 years ago. The separation of the men into sections by states helps to categorize them into their respective groups, as does the portrait, the signature, and title heading at the beginning of each individual chapter. Overall, those items along with many others (like the dust jacket unfolding into a copy of the Constitution) helps to make this book a concise and fun history of not only the men who created the Constitution, but also of Continental America as a whole. Additionally, the authors address many non-Constitutional issues which pulls many of the unknown gentlemen into the realm of interesting (with their connections to presidents, paper money, etc). The tidbits about personal lives are also nice.Signing Their Rights Away is a book to pick up and put down at leisure, and would be absolutely fantastic for anyone studying the Constitution.
This book is basically a compilation of mini-biographies of the men who signed the US Constitution. It is an intriguing book. It is amazing to know the history of these men who made such an impact on our country. The book not only has an interesting subject matter but it is easy to read. The writing is completely accessible and injects humor into subject matter that could get quite bogged down.If you love obscure bits of history, you will love this book. If you just want something a little different, I would still recommend this interesting little piece.
Great book on these men who served their country in a very challenging time. Many have been lost to history and the heroic deeds they did and sacrifices they made, financially, emotionally and personally to create the greatest government constitution ever written. I believe every political leader should read about these men and aspire to be like them. They would then understand the constitution was not written to be exploited or changed but to be a document that this country can follow as long as man lives.
"Signing their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the United States Constitution" is a great witty, historically accurate, succinct follow-up to the same authors' "Signing Their Lives Away, the Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence". Buy it even if you don't have a grandchild or child in elemntary, middle or high-school. I have sent a link to the You-tube promotional video "They[re patriots not Zombies" to my granddaughter's 8th grade history teacher in hopes the class will be able to do a Skype interview with the authors. If you missed D'Agnese's book "Blockhead, the Life of Fibonacci" be advised it was a great hit with 3rd graders.