‘Unfit To Be The Ruler Of A Free People’

In 1776 that referred to King George, and the moment that his Colonial subjects, Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery, signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, they had identified themselves as traitors to the British Crown. They could have paid with their lives. For this Independence Day, the Providence Journal editorial board chose to highlight the life of William Ellery (seen here on the right) in “Early patriots’ steely resolve.”

Ellery, along with the 55 other men who signed the declaration that early July day in 1776, knew they had placed themselves at considerable risk. It was a bold and fearless act to sign their names below text that declared that Britain’s king was a tyrant who was “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

As Benjamin Franklin so famously noted as he was about to sign the Declaration, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” But historian David Maxey makes clear to modern Americans what was well understood by those signers,

In suggesting that hanging might be the fate of those who signed the Declaration, Franklin was choosing an easier end than the one traditionally meted out in England to traitors. Traitors were subject to the ferocious and gruesome punishment of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, reflecting the ancient judgment that a single death was an inadequate response to the crime of plotting the king’s death or seeking to overturn the established order.

Happily, both of our signers — Stephen Hopkins and Ellery — went on to live long lives of public service. William Ellery died of natural causes at the age of 92 by which time he had fathered 17 children. You may well be a descendant.

This painting (artist unknown) can be found next to room 230 on the southwest corridor of the second floor of the state house.

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