Just who were the men who signed the United States Constitution? While a few are very famous, as a group they seem to get less attention than the group who signed the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier. They have not been remembered with a musical like 1776. Because the document that they created is considered nearly sacred over two hundred years later, one would expect the 39 to be more celebrated. Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese address this oversight in their recent collective biography Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The United States Constitution.
Signing their rights away? The whole idea of coming up with delineated powers for a government was not popular at the time. The focus of the Declaration and the Revolution had been liberty. Many Americans were leery of having any authority over them. They wanted weak states and virtually no nation, but that had lead to economic and political chaos. The Constitution was going to be a hard sell. These men were taking great political risks when they proposed compromises on personal liberty.
In their small volume, Kiernan and D'Agnese profile each of the 39 men, working their way south from New Hampshire to Georgia. They give each a title, such as "The Signer Who Was Ruined by Drink" or "The Signer Who Went to Debtors' Prison." This is where the misfortune mentioned in the title comes in. Signing the Constitution was not a career boost for anyone. A large number of the signers lost their fortunes speculating on western lands, and two died in duels. Like current representatives, most did not understand running an economy. Yet they somehow hammered out an enduring foundation for our government.
Signing Their Rights Away will be a helpful title to have for our next wave of history students. It is an attractive and entertaining book that should be in most public and school libraries.
Kiernan, Denise and Joseph D'Agnese. Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The United States Constitution. Quirk Books, 2011.254p. ISBN 9781594745201.