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John Adams. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13002 DLC).

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Adams, John (19 October 1735–04 July 1826), second president of the United States, diplomat, and political theorist, was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, the son of John Adams (1691–1760), a shoemaker, selectman, and deacon, and Susanna Boylston. He claimed as a young man to have indulged in “a constant dissipation among amusements,” such as swimming, fishing, and especially shooting, and wished to be a farmer. However, his father insisted that he follow in the footsteps of his uncle Joseph Adams, attend Harvard College, and become a clergyman. John consented, applied himself to his studies, and developed a passion for learning but refused to become a minister. He felt little love for “frigid John Calvin” and the rigid moral standards expected of New England Congregationalist ministers....

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Samuel Chase. Oil on wood, 1811, by John Wesley Jarvis. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Chase, Samuel (17 April 1741–19 June 1811), associate justice of the Supreme Court, was born in Somerset County, Maryland, the son of Thomas Chase, an Episcopal rector at St. Paul’s in Baltimore, and Martha (or Matilda) Walker. He was instructed primarily in the classics by his father. Chase began the study of law in the offices of Hammond & Hall in 1759 in Annapolis, Maryland, and was admitted to the bar in 1761. The next year he married Anne Baldwin; they had seven children (three of whom died in infancy) before her death in the late 1770s....

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Floyd, William (17 December 1734–04 August 1821), signer of the Declaration of Independence and congressman, was born in Brookhaven, on the south shore of Long Island, Suffolk County, New York, the son of Nicoll Floyd and Tabitha Smith. Nicoll Floyd’s grandfather Richard Floyd had emigrated from Brenochshire, Wales, to Massachusetts about 1650 and had subsequently settled in Setauket, Long Island. Nicoll Floyd lived in Brookhaven, where he built the “Mastic” estate about 1724. William was sober and serious, a person of proper, respectable, and somewhat pretentious characteristics, who inspired confidence and respect, if not affection. He married Hannah Jones in 1760; they had three children. Floyd lent money at interest and was one of Connecticut governor ...

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Elbridge Gerry. Engraving by James Barton Longacre, c. 1830, based on a drawing by John Vanderlyn. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-1889).

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George Athan Billias

Gerry, Elbridge (17 July 1744–23 November 1814), statesman, was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Gerry, a merchant, and Elizabeth Greenleaf. His father was a British immigrant who arrived in 1730, settled in Marblehead, and became one of the most successful merchants in Essex County. The brightest of eleven children, Elbridge entered Harvard in 1758, graduated in 1762, and returned in 1765—the year of the Stamp Act—to submit his master’s thesis. Already a firebrand at twenty-one, he argued in it the question: “Can the new Prohibitary Duties which make it useless for the people to engage in Commerce, be evaded by them as faithful subjects?” His answer was “Yes.”...

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Thomas Jefferson. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart, artist. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117117 DLC).

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Jefferson, Thomas (13 April 1743–04 July 1826), philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the United States, was born at Shadwell, in what became Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Peter Jefferson, a pioneer farmer and surveyor, and Jane Randolph. He always valued the enterprising example of his father, who set him in the path of education; he became “a hard student,” indeed remained one throughout his life. Peter Jefferson died in 1757, leaving to his son a fair estate—5,000 acres and the slaves to work them. Less than three years later, Jefferson, already a proficient classical scholar, enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg....

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Richard Henry Lee. Reproduction of a painting by Charles Willson Peale in Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92331).

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Lee, Richard Henry (20 January 1733–19 June 1794), revolutionary, member of the Continental Congress, and U.S. senator, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Thomas Lee and Hannah Ludwell, planters. Lee studied for seven years at an academy in Wakefield, England. In 1757 he married Anne Aylett, with whom he had four children before her death in December 1768. The following summer he married Anne Gaskins Pinckard; they had five children....

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James Wilson. Detail of a painting by John Trumbull. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113377).

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Wilson, James (14 September 1742–21 August 1798), lawyer and jurist, was born in Carskerdo, near St. Andrews, Scotland, the eldest son of William Wilson and Aleson Lansdale, farmers. His parents, members of the Associate Presbytery, intended him for the ministry. In 1757, having won a competitive scholarship, Wilson entered the University of St. Andrews, an important center of the Scottish Renaissance. He enrolled at the St. Mary’s College divinity school four years later but, because of financial problems caused by his father’s death, withdrew and became a tutor in a gentleman’s family. In 1765 Wilson began learning merchant accounting, then quickly changed plans. Financed by family loans and anxious to advance in the secular world, he sailed for America. In 1765–1766 he tutored in the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) and also received an honorary M.A. He then applied to study law with ...