Founding Fathers Friday: George Clymer
by Derrick G. Jeter
An early biography of Declaration signer George Clymer stated that “Mr. Clymer was not partial to a mercantile business, for he deemed it a pathway beset with many snares for the feet of pure morality, as sudden gains and losses were apt to affect the character of the most stable. For himself he preferred literature and science, and his mind was much occupied with these subjects.”
Well, Clymer did devoted himself to literature and science . . . when he wasn’t devoting himself to the the gains and losses of the mercantile business.
Clymer was orphaned at an early age. Taken in by his mother’s brother, William Coleman, who was a business associate of Benjamin Franklin, and a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, Clymer received a good education in his uncle’s home, which was filled with books. He also received a shrewd business education by tailing along with his uncle on various business deals.
When Clymer was twenty-seven he married a Miss Meredith and went to work with his father-in-law and brother-in-law in the firm Meredith and Sons. Clymer’s uncle died about the same time and left him with the majority of the estate, making Clymer a wealthy man. Unlike many men of means during those days, however, Clymer continued to work in his mercantile business until 1782. But like many of the men of means during those days, Clymer did turn his attention to politics.
An early supporter of the patriot cause, Clymer chaired the board that organized the all but forgotten Philadelphia Tea Party in 1773, which pressured merchants who were licensed to sell English tea to renounce their licenses. During the same year, Clymer served as captain of a volunteer corps under General Cadwallader. Known as the “Silk Stockings,” because so many of the volunteers were from well-heeled, blueblood Pennsylvania families, Clymer’s little militia didn’t see combat, though they were the muscle behind the Philadelphia Tea Party.
Clymer’s real service to the American cause, however, came not through the muzzle of a gun but through the money in his pocket. When war finally came, Clymer raised funds for military supplies, including corn, four, gunpowder, and tenting materials. He even went so far as to gamble his own hard currency—gold and silver—against chancy Continental script. If the Americans had lost the war, Clymer would have been out a fortune in ready cash because American paper money would have been less than the ink printed on it.
When it came to the Declaration of Independence, Clymer, along with Benjamin Rush, George Ross, James Smith, and George Taylor, arrived late to the party. They were elected after the July 2 vote, but seated in Congress in time to sign their names to the engrossed document on August 2.
Though there is little history that the signers in general were targeted for special treatment by British troops, it does appear that Clymer and his family suffered (slightly) for his signature. In September 1777, the Continental Army was defeated in the area of Chadds Ford, about thirty-three miles southwest of Philadelphia, which left the city vulnerable to invasion. Sources say that following the battle, British troops detoured from their march to Philadelphia to pay their respects to Clymer at his home in Chester County—about an hour outside of the city. The troops ransacked the home, destroying furniture and his stock of fine wines and liquors. When the troops reached the capital city, they then learned of a home owned by a relative with the same name but mistaking it for Clymer’s they began tearing it down, brick by brick, until the truth was discovered.
Though he lost a few sticks of furniture and his spirits were taken away, Clymer didn’t suffer greatly for his treason; his fortune remained virtually untouched throughout the war. And in short order he was back to loaning money to needy individuals and purchasing supplies for the army.
Besides signing the Declaration, Clymer also served on the committee that drafted the Constitution, making him one of the few dual signers of the two most important documents in American history (others included, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania; Roger Sherman of Connecitucut; and George Read of Delaware).
In retirement, Clymer turned his full attention to literature and science, his life-long passions. He was one of the founders of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia, and served as its first president. He also founded the Philadelphia Agricultural Society. When Clymer died in 1813, not withstanding his fears of corrupting his character by pursuing a career as a merchant, it could truly be said of this great patriot that “not a single moral stain marked [his] manifested purity.”