I'm feeling more independent today than I'd like to be, far from the people I care about most. Since I didn't expect to be here this weekend, I made no plans, and the thought of inviting myself somewhere makes me want to weep in a corner.
Turner Classic Movies to the rescue, with its usual holiday screening of 1776. If you didn't grow up in Virginia, chances are that 1776 is the only way you'd ever know the name Richard Henry Lee. But 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, and only a handful of them are household names. Here are five whose names you might not recognize.
1. Abraham Clark, New Jersey. You've seen signs for Clark Township if you've traveled the Garden State Parkway; it's named after this man. He was born into a farm family in present-day Elizabeth, NJ in 1725, but his father thought him too frail to be a farmer. Instead he trained as a surveyor and lawyer, where he specialized in land disputes. He served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1784, and died in 1794 at the age of 69.
2. William Hooper, North Carolina. A Boston native, he moved to Wilmington, NC in 1767, at the age of 18, to practice law. (I'm always amazed by how willing people were to travel great distances back then, when it must have been grueling.) He was a member of the Continental Congress for only one term, 1774-76, and was among its younger members. He later served briefly as a federal judge, but died of illness in 1790.
3. Thomas Lynch Jr., South Carolina. South Carolina's delegation was the youngest, with an average age of 29; Lynch signed the Declaration only four days before his 27th birthday. He was born in South Carolina but educated in England, where he earned a degree with honors from Cambridge. He returned to South Carolina in 1772 and became involved almost immediately in the quest for independence. Illness forced him to resign from the Continental Congress soon after he signed the Declaration of Independence. Later that year, he and his wife sailed to the West Indies, presumably for his health. The ship was lost at sea.
4. Matthew Thornton, New Hampshire. Born in Ireland in 1714, he came to the colonies with his parents at the age of three, first settling in what is now Wiscasset, Maine. (Maine was part of the colony of Massachusetts then, and didn't become a separate state until 1820.) His family moved to Worcester, MA, where he trained as a physician. In 1745 he was appointed surgeon to the New Hampshire troops. He settled in Londonderry, N.H. and eventually became President of the Provincial Assembly. In 1775, he drafted what became the nation's first state constitution after the rejection of British rule. He arrived at the Continental Congress too late to participate in the debate over independence, but in time to sign the Declaration. He went on to become the first Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and died in 1803 at the age of 89.
5. George Walton, Georgia. He was born in 1741 in Prince Edward County, VA, to parents who died soon afterwards. Reared by an uncle, he made his way to Savannah, where he studied law. He served in the Continental Congress from 1776-77 and from 1780-81, and fought as a Colonel in the Georgia Militia in between. Captured as a prisoner of war and released, he was elected Governor of Georgia in 1779, but served only two months because of a lifelong feud with his fellow Georgia representative Button Gwinnett. Walton was present at the 1777 duel at which Lachlan McIntosh killed Gwinnett. Censured for his role, Walton nevertheless went on to hold a variety of public offices — including one more short stint as Governor — before dying in 1804.