The Five Signatories (& An Englishman)
Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia is a charming, small, historic cemetery in the city’s Old Town and is the final resting place of 5 of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence, of which Benjamin Franklin is the best known. The burial ground, which is still an active cemetery, is a couple of blocks away from Christ Church. The land was purchased in 1719 when the original burial ground next to the church became full and its neighbouring land was considered unsuitable for burials as it was too marshy.
The cemetery, which has over 4,000 people buried in its 2 acre plot is beautifully maintained. There is a small admission charge and friendly and knowledgable staff are available to offer guided tours. I purchased a map and set off to explore the cemetery to find the 5 signers and the notable local people buried there.
Bench with the 7 signatures of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence and who have a connection to Christ Church
Before we commence our tour of the cemetery – a quick history lesson. Philadelphia is considered the birthplace of America and within a few minutes’ walks of the burial ground is Independent Hall, where both the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution was debated, drafted and signed. The American Declaration of Independence was adopted on 4th July 1776. It announced that 13 American colonies* regarded themselves as independent states and no longer subjected to British rule. The Declaration was signed by 56 delegates, 5 of whom have been laid to rest in Christ Church Burial Ground.
Did you know Philadelphia was the capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800, before it was transferred to Washington DC?
Benjamin Franklin in 1767, painted by David White. Currently display in the White House
Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) is one of the founding fathers of America and one of the signers of both the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. Born in Boston Franklin, with little formal education, became a printer’s apprentice. As a successful business man he was able to spend time pursuing his interest in science and among his inventions are the Franklin stove, lightning rod, glass armonica (a musical instrument) and bifocals. From 1757 to 1774, Franklin lived in London as the colonial representative to Britain for Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin House, his former home is now opened as a museum. On his return to Philadelphia Franklin, who was now nearly 70 years old, started actively campaigning for American Independence.
When he died in 1790 he was buried in a family plot alongside Deborah, his wife. Next to them is the grave of their two children is Francis (who died of smallpox aged 4 years old in 1736) and Sarah (who died in 1808). In the 1850s Franklin’s descendants requested a railing was inserted into the cemetery wall to enable the public to view his grave even when the cemetery is closed. Franklin had a saying that “A penny saved is a penny earned” and there is a tradition that visitors throw a penny on his grave for good luck, the proceeds of which go to preserving the graveyard.
Benjamin Franklin’s grave is on the right hand side adjacent to the railings, it’s the one with the coins on it
Walking round the burial ground it was relatively easy to find the signers’ graves as they each had an American flag as a marker. Next grave was Francis Hopkinson (1737 – 1790) who signed the Declaration on behalf of New Jersey. He was born in Philadelphia, became a lawyer but he was also a musical composer and an author poetry and satire. In 1777, the US Congress adopted the first official Stars and Stripes flag of the United States with 13 stars representing the 13 states. The resolution to create the flag had come from the Continental Marine Committee of which Hopkinson was a member at the time and there is some controversy over whether or not he may have designed it. After the American War of Independence Hopkinson was appointed as a federal judge. He died suddenly at the age of 53 from an epileptic seizure.
It was easy to find the next 2 signers as Joseph Hewes and George Ross’ graves are side by side. Hewes (1730 – 1779) signed on behalf of North Carolina. He was established a successful shipping business and statesman. He was appointed Secretary of Naval Affairs and John Adams, 2nd US President, credits Hewes as laying the foundation for the US Navy. Initially America was ill equipped to fight the British Navy, and to rectify this he provide his own fleet of ships. He died aged 49 years old after an illness.
George Ross (1730 – 1779) signed as a representative of Pennsylvania, was a judge and statesman. He was the uncle of John Ross, the first husband of Betsy Ross, who is the woman credited with making the first American flag. He died also aged 49 years while still in office.
Dr Benjamin Rush (1746 – 1813) is the fifth signer in the burial ground. He was a physician and is known as the Father of American Psychiatry as he published the first American textbook on the subject in 1812. He was a social reformer, particularly in education and education. He was a Professor at the University of Philadelphia and also the founder of Dickenson College in Pennsylvania. He was later appointed treasurer of the US Mint. He died aged 67 from typhus and is buried alongside Julia, his wife.
An Englishman is also amongst the people buried here. Charles Mason (1728 – 1786) was an English astronomer and surveyor. Early in his career he worked at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Mason and Jeremiah Dixon using astronomy laid out the Mason – Dixon Line, the boundary border between Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware between 1763 and 1767. The line was famous as before the American War of Independence it was the boundary between North and South and was the divide for the free and the slave states. Mason and Dixon are mentioned in the title song of Mark Knopfler’s second solo album, Sailing to Philadelphia.
Although he returned to Greenwich at some point he came back to Philadelphia where he died. The location of his grave in Christ Church is unknown but one of the Mason – Dixon boundary stones, which were placed at five mile intervals along the route, and quarried in England, has been placed there in memory of him.
Christ Church Burial Ground is well worth a visit and is located on 5th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia, USA. It is open March-November (weather permitting). Hours are: Monday-Saturday 10am – 4pm, Sunday 12pm – 4pm. Admission price is Adults: $2
*13 American colonies were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.