In 2012, Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The Declaration of Independence debuted in the Bas Bleu catalog. Our readers loved it, and since then we’ve added Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The United States Constitution and the trivia-packed Stuff Every American Should Know. All three books were penned by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese, to whom we will be eternally grateful for reminding us just how much fun American history can be.
This week, in honor of Independence Day, Denise and Joe were kind enough to sit down with Bas Bleu’s editors and answer a few questions about the Founding Fathers, their legacy, and what contemporary politicians still have to learn from the men who created our great nation.
Bas Bleu: Why write these books? Are either/both of you trained in history or political science? Or were you just curious citizens?
Denise Kiernan & Joseph D’Agnese: We both started out in journalism. We like to say that we bring a reporter’s curiosity and love of a good story to the books that we research and write. In the case of the signers, their lives have been told and retold many times, beginning in the 1820s. We were determined to see if there was anything new we could add to their stories. In some cases, old documents had resurfaced which shed light on a story. Sometimes it was an artifact. Other times it was, “Hey, did you know you can visit this signer’s home? And here’s where to find his gravestone.”
BB: Why should Americans know more about these men? Aren’t the documents most important here?
DK & JD: The documents are important, of course. But the documents alone don’t give you insight into the lives of the individuals who created them and the times in which they lived, all of which impacted the creation of the documents themselves. Once you start reading about the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution, you get a sense of how they made their livings, the types of families they had, and little weird bits of trivia—like how many of them suffered from gout. It’s a way of immersing yourself in the Revolutionary War era and seeing these men as human beings, not just as signatures.
BB: Hindsight is 20/20. We’re glad these guys did what they did. But in 1776, when they penned the Declaration of Independence against one of the greatest global powers, were they just plain nuts? How great a risk were they taking, with their finances, their reputations, and their lives?
DK & JD: Well, they weren’t nuts. But they were very cautious. One of the myths is that they signed with confidence, but John Adams tells us that there were those who signed with much “lukewarmedness.” It was certainly a dangerous thing to do. Anyone identified as a traitor to the Crown could have lost their property and/or their lives. That’s why the names of the signers were not released until early in 1777. The first Declaration of Independence the public saw showed only the names of John Hancock, then the president of the Continental Congress, and that of the Congressional secretary, Charles Thomson.
BB: We envision the signers of the Declaration gathered in Independence Hall on July 4, 1776, lined up to sign in turn like in the famous John Trumbull painting. Yet you report that several signed well after the fact. Why?
DK & JD: Trumbull’s painting is a charming work of fiction, but did he work hard to get the likenesses of the men. During wartime, that Congress was a dynamic institution. Some of the men who ultimately signed were not members of Congress at the time of the vote for independence on July 2, 1776. Or if they were in Congress, maybe they weren’t present for the vote or the signing because they were fighting in the war, they were traveling, or they couldn’t leave their homes until later in the year. We know that the majority of the signers put quill to parchment on August 2, 1776. Some signed in the fall of that year. One man, Thomas McKean of Delaware, was so busy leading troops that he may not have signed until 1781, five years later.
BB: Signing Their Rights Away is a pretty powerful title, especially since we think of the Constitution as establishing the basic rights of American citizenship. What were the signers sacrificing?
DK & JD: After the war, the new government under the Articles of Confederation was weak and falling apart. The federal government was kept intentionally weak, but that meant it had no funding to take any kind of action. It didn’t have an army or navy, and couldn’t collect taxes. Men like James Madison realized that the nation needed a stronger framework for government. And he and his colleagues fought all summer long in 1787 about the words they would put in this new document. By far the biggest battle was over representation. How were they going to make sure that the big states didn’t dictate to the smaller states? How were they going to be certain that all states weren’t consumed by the power of the federal government? That’s why we chose that title—it highlights their biggest fear: that by bringing the Constitution into existence they were all signing away a bit of their rights.
BB: Some of these men are well known today. Others have long since faded into obscurity. In your opinion, why do we celebrate some but not others?
DK & JD: That’s the very question that drove us to write these books! There were fifty-six signers of the Declaration, but we only remember five of them: Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and the two Adamses. John and Samuel. And if it weren’t for a beer and a mini-series, most people wouldn’t remember the last two. In a sense, the story of the Declaration is too big, too grand, so textbooks pick and choose the biggest personalities to highlight. Some of the men who signed these documents were country lawyers and businessmen who went on to do very little on the national stage. They may have been instrumental on the state level, but we overlook them in favor of the men who did something larger than life. Others were incredibly influential in their own way, even throughout the states, but were still overshadowed by the other, higher profile signers.
DK & JD: Oh, come on, that’s a tough one! One of the reasons we wrote these books is because there are so many interesting facts about U.S. history that get overlooked. Personally, we geek out over the weird trivia. Did you know Robert Morris, a Declaration signer who was indispensable in helping finance the American Revolution, ended up in debtor’s prison because of some foolish land investments he made? Or that Gouverneur Morris, the man who wrote the beautiful “We the People” preamble to the Constitution was an incorrigible ladies’ man whose wooden leg is on display in New York?
BB: What is the most pervasive myth about American history that you think your books debunk for readers? Have any readers challenged you on the facts?
DK & JD: We haven’t necessarily debunked anything in our books that hasn’t been debunked previously. We just put it all in one place, after researching everything from nineteenth-century texts to letters found in the twenty-first century. People like to believe that the signers were hunted to the ends of the earth for signing the Declaration. But in fact only five of the fifty-six were captured and did time as prisoners of the British. They were treated reasonably well by their captors. Yes, some lost homes and property but there’s no evidence it was because of their signing the Declaration. Only two were murdered, but not for anything having to do with the Declaration: one was poisoned by a greedy nephew who wanted to inherit the signer’s estate; the other was shot and killed in a duel.
BB: What does today’s Congress have to learn from the signers of the Constitution?
DK & JD: Compromise. Compromise. Compromise.
BB: Denise, you’ve got a new book out, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. (Readers, you can look for it in a future issue of the Bas Bleu catalog.) Can you tell us a little bit about it?
DK: It’s the true story of young women living and working in a secret government town during World War II. They were part of the Manhattan Project, but didn’t know that at the time. The Project resulted in the creation of the world’s first nuclear weapons, and this book looks at that unique moment in history through the eyes of young women who moved to a town that was not on a map, doing work that was not fully explained to them and that they were not supposed to discuss. I tracked down women (and men) still alive today who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the book takes place, and interviewed them about their experiences. I combined these interviews with documents researched at the National Archives and elsewhere, and take readers behind the fence of this town built specifically for World War II’s Manhattan Project.
BB: Our thanks to Denise and Joe for their time and expertise. And to all of our readers, we wish you a safe, happy Independence Day!