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Button Gwinnett. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111795).

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Gwinnett, Button (bap. 10 April 1735), merchant and political leader, was born in Gloucester, England, the son of the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett and Anne Emes. Gwinnett left England as a young man and for a number of years after arriving in America was a merchant in the colonial trade. In April 1757 he married Ann Bourne, with whom he had three children. His business activities took him from Newfoundland to Jamaica, and at times brought him into conflict with other merchants and with legal authorities. Never very successful, he moved to Savannah in 1765 and opened a store. When that venture failed, he bought (on credit) St. Catherines Island, off the coast of Georgia to the south of Savannah, and attempted to become a planter. Though his planting activities were also unsuccessful, he did make a name for himself in local politics....

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Hopkinson, Francis (02 October 1737–09 May 1791), author, composer, and judge, was born in Philadelphia, the son of Thomas Hopkinson, a lawyer and Pennsylvania councillor, and Mary Johnson. Hopkinson’s father emigrated from England in 1731. Hopkinson matriculated in the first class of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) in 1751; he graduated in 1757 and, with other members of his class, received an M.A. degree three years later....

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Thomas McKean. Oil on canvas, after 1787, attributed to Charles Willson Peale. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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McKean, Thomas (19 March 1734–24 June 1817), statesman, jurist, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of William McKean, an innkeeper and farmer, and Letitia Finney. He studied at Francis Alison’s New London Academy (1742–1750), then left to study law (1750–1754) with his cousin David Finney of New Castle, Delaware. He joined the Delaware bar in 1754 and expanded his practice into Pennsylvania (1755) and New Jersey (1765). Following his admittance to practice before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1757, he gained admission to the Society of the Middle Temple in London as a specialiter, which permitted him to earn certification in 1758 as a barrister without attending....

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Paca, William (31 October 1740–13 October 1799), lawyer and officeholder, was born on the Bush River near Abingdon in Baltimore (later Harford) County, Maryland, the son of John Paca, a planter, local officeholder, and delegate to the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly, and Elizabeth Smith. The Paca family was English, the Maryland progenitor arriving in the colony about 1660. At age twelve, Paca entered the Academy and Charity School in Philadelphia, which three years later became the College of Philadelphia. Paca took his B.A. in 1759 and studied law in the office of Stephen Bordley, a prominent Annapolis lawyer. Soon after arriving in Annapolis in 1759, Paca became a founding member of the Forensic Club, a group of “young Gentlemen” that met twice each month to debate politics, morality, and natural law....

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Paine, Robert Treat (11 March 1731–11 June 1814), lawyer, Massachusetts attorney general, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Paine, a merchant, and Eunice Treat. Shortly before Paine’s birth, his father had left the ministry for a mercantile career that soon flourished, providing comfortable circumstances for the family. Paine followed the traditional Boston elite educational path from Boston Public Latin School to Harvard College, where he graduated with the class of 1749. At about the same time, his father lost his fortune; following graduation, Paine was forced to seek his own way without the benefit of a family business....

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Ross, George (10 May 1730–14 July 1779), lawyer and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in New Castle, Delaware, the son of the Reverend George Ross, a rector of Immanuel Church (Anglican), and Catherine Van Gezel. He received a classical education and studied law in Philadelphia. He moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he began his law practice in 1751, and in that same year he married Ann Lawler; they had three children....

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Stockton, Richard (01 October 1730–28 February 1781), lawyer and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Princeton, New Jersey, at his family’s mansion “Morven,” which became the state governor’s residence in 1956, the son of John Stockton, a Somerset County Court justice, and Abigail Phillips. The family was prominent among the landowning gentry, but their political reputation did not extend beyond their own neighborhood. Richard’s father, a Presbyterian convert from Quakerism, enrolled him at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1746....

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Walton, George (1749?–02 February 1804), lawyer, statesman, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in either Cumberland County or Goochland County, Virginia, the son of John Walton and Mary Hughes. Walton was orphaned at an early age and subsequently raised by his uncle and aunt, George and Martha Hughes Walton. He began an apprenticeship with a carpenter at the age of fifteen but was released from his term of service, because the carpenter recognized Walton’s natural intelligence and ambition and wanted him to go to school. Nevertheless, Walton underwent little formal education and was largely self-taught. In 1769 he moved to Savannah, Georgia, and began studying law in the office of Henry Young. Walton was admitted to the bar in 1774 and quickly built up one of the largest legal practices in Savannah....