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Downer, Silas (16 July 1729–15 December 1785), scrivener and lawyer, was born in Norwich, Connecticut, the son of Samuel Downer and Phebe Bishop, farmers. The family soon moved to Sunderland, Massachusetts. Downer entered Harvard in 1747 and was ranked twenty-eighth in a class of thirty. Since Harvard students were then ranked according to their family’s social standing, Downer’s low ranking indicates his relatively humble origins. As an undergraduate, he won Brattle and Hollis scholarships. After receiving an M.A. in 1750, he moved to Rhode Island, settled in Providence, and became a scrivener. He married Sarah Kelton in 1758; within a decade the couple had five children....

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Hale, Nathan (06 June 1755–22 September 1776), martyr of the American Revolution, was born in Coventry, Connecticut, the son of Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong, successful farmers. A sickly infant, he barely survived his first year, but as he grew he became an outdoorsman and a powerful athlete. He enjoyed reading, and his father decided to prepare him for the ministry, first by hiring Rev. Joseph Huntington to tutor him and then by sending him in 1769 to Yale College. At Yale he was widely admired by his teachers and fellow students. Dr. ...

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Lafayette, James (1748–09 August 1830), patriot spy, also known to history as James Armistead, was born in slavery; little is recorded of his parentage or early life except that he belonged to William Armistead of New Kent County, Virginia. In the summer of 1781 James was attending his master while Armistead worked as a commissary in Richmond, supplying patriot forces under the command of the ...

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Marshall, Christopher (06 November 1709–04 May 1797), pharmacist and revolutionary leader, was born in Dublin, Ireland. His parents’ names are unknown. He received a classical education in England and developed an interest in chemistry. Marshall, a Quaker, married Sarah Thompson in 1735; they had three sons. His second marriage to Abigail, a Philadelphia Quaker, ended with her death in 1782. After moving to Philadelphia in 1727, Marshall started a pharmaceutical company. He was a religious man and in 1758 served as one of Philadelphia’s overseers of the poor....

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Thomas Paine. Reproduction of an engraving by W. Sharpe, 1793, after a painting by George Romney. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-2542).

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Paine, Thomas (29 January 1737–08 June 1809), author of political pamphlets of the Age of Revolution, was born Thomas Pain in Thetford, England, the son of Joseph Pain, a Quaker corset maker, and Frances Cocke, an Anglican. Enrolled by his parents in 1743 at the Thetford Grammar School, Paine left school seven years later to begin an apprenticeship in his father’s shop. In 1756 he ran away to enlist on the privateer ...