“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Thus wrote our Founders 235 years ago in the most revolutionary and radical document ever written by man, a document consisting of a mere 1,337 words. But what does the flowery rhetoric I emphasized above really mean? Were they just words artfully crafted together, or were they words that bore tragic, predictable consequences for those who signed their names to the document they were contained in? What did they cost the writers?
The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence all knew that they were committing treason. They all knew they faced death by hanging. They knew the gravity of those words. And they paid dearly for them.
Each of the 56 had much to lose, much more to lose than to gain by revolution. Benjamin Franklin was the only really old man, the rest being relatively young. Eighteen of them had not yet reached 40 and three were still in their 20s. Almost half, twenty-four, were judges and lawyers. Nine were wealthy landowners and farmers, eleven were merchants; the remaining 12 were ministers, doctors, or politicians.
With only a few exceptions these were men of substantial property and wealth. Only two were without families and the vast majority were educated and pillars of their communities. They had economic security as few men had in the 18th Century, even by the relatively prosperous standards of the colonies. In the heavily aristocratic structure of the British Empire, they were the privileged, the beneficiaries of the royalist heirarchy which subjugated the commoner to the glory of the Crown. Yet they knew that if all were not free, then none were. They committed treason to the paternalistic Empire for the philosophy of liberty for all, for an idea; for a radical, unheard of belief that man alone is the arbiter of his own destiny and that no man is superior to another through parentage or bloodline.
They faced the specter of a traitor’s death with stoicism, bravery, and even gallows humor. Benjamin Harrison, a hardy man of impressive weight, told the slim Elbridge Gerry: “With me it will all be over in a minute, but you, you will be dancing on air an hour after I am gone.” John Hancock, who already had a price of 500 pounds on his head, took to signing his name twice as large so that King George could read it with out his glasses and double the bounty.
Despite their bravado, they were sober and serious men. They were not hot blooded and starry eyed fanatics screaming for blood. They desired their God given rights, and were prepared to sacrifice all for them. Even before the ink was dry on their signatures, the British crown had started a vicious man hunt for the “disloyal traitors”.
William Ellery from Rhode Island, watched as each delegate signed his name, committing a supreme act of personal courage. He noted that even though some signed quickly with a shaking hand, in not one face did he see real fear. Stephan Hopkins, also of Rhode Island and a man well past 60, said as he as he signed with a shaking pen: “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”
Francis Lewis saw his home plundered, his estates in what is now Harlem completely destroyed by British soldiers. Mrs. Lewis was captured and, in the euphemism of the day, “greatly brutalized”. Though exchanged for British soldiers, she later died from the effects of the repeated raping.
William Floyd, also of New York, and his family escaped to Connecticut where they lived as penniless refugees for seven years. They returned to a pillaged and shattered home.
Philip Livingston had all of his considerable holdings in New York confiscated and was forced to leave his family. He died alone alone in 1778 still fighting for the cause of Liberty.
Louis Morris saw all of his livestock and timber taken by the British. He was barred from his family and home for seven years and spent the entire war in exile, his vast estate and fortune destroyed.
“Honest John” Hart of Trenton New Jersey left his dying wife and 13 children behind to attend the 2nd Continental Congress. Returning later to his home to see his wife before her death, he was hounded by Hessian mercenaries and forced to hide in caves and forests. While his wife lay on her deathbed the King’s soldiers destroyed his homestead. Hart, 65 years old, slept in caves and woods while he was chased by the British. Years later he returned, emaciated from near starvation, to find his wife’s grave, and his 13 children gone. He never saw them again and died alone, a broken man in 1779.
Richard Stockton, another New Jerseyian, rushed home to evacuate his family. Seeking refuge with friends, they were betrayed by a Tory. Brutally beaten upon capture, he was mistreated and starved in prison until he was an invalid and no longer a threat to the Crown. Released as a cripple, he died in 1781 a despondent 51 year old. His family was forced to live off of the charity of others.
Robert Morris, a wealthy merchant prince of Philadelphia, met General Washington’s calls for finances year after year, even as he watched his fleet of 150 ships swept from the seas by the Royal Navy. He provided the money which allowed Washington to cross the Delaware and bled his fortune dry paying for the revolution. He died broke in 1806.
George Clymer from Pennsylvania escaped with his family, but their property was completely destroyed by the British.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, also of Pennsylvania served heroically as a surgeon in the Continental Army and escaped many brushes with death.
John Martin, a former Tory, was ostracized by his family and friends in a Loyalist area of Pennsylvania. A sensitive and troubled man, he could not bear the derision of his former friends and family. The torment he suffered from them due to his signing the Declaration eventually killed him. As he lie on his deathbed in 1777 he said: “Tell them that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it [the signing] to have been the most glorious service that I have ever rendered to my country.”
William Ellery, who had watched Stephan Hopkins sign the Declaration with a trembling hand but steadfast heart, watched his home be burned to the ground.
Thomas Lynch Jr. of South Carolina, his health shattered from service as a company commander, was ordered by his doctors to seek a cure in the West Indies. He and his young bride drowned at sea after a shipwreck while in route.
Thomas Heyward, Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, also from South Carolina, were captured at the Siege of Charleston. They all lost their vast fortunes while in prison in St. Augustine Florida. Mrs. Heyward died while her husband was imprisoned.
Thomas Nelson Jr., despite failing health, served as a commander in the militia, and spent his personal fortune of over $2 million on the cause. At the battle of Yorktown as 70 heavy American guns destroyed the town bit by bit, Lord Cornwallis and his staff moved their headquarters into Nelson’s estate. Seeing his home untouched he yelled in rage at the gunners: “Why do you spare my home?” They replied, “Sir, out of respect to you.” Nelson cried, “Give me the cannon!” and fired on his magnificent home himself. It was completely destroyed and Nelson died an impoverished man a few years later at the age of 50.
Of those 56 signers, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were captured by the British and imprisoned, suffering brutal treatment. Many lost their wives, sons or entire families. One signer lost his 13 children, never to see them again. Two wives of signers were “brutally treated”. All were victims of savage manhunts and driven from their homes. Twelve signers had their homes completely burned and seventeen lost everything they owned.
And then there was Abraham Clark of New Jersey. His two sons, officers in the Colonial Army, were captured and held in the infamous prison ship Jersey floating in New York harbor. Over 11,000 prisoners would die aboard the hell ship, but Clark’s sons were singled out for special treatment because of their father and were brutally tortured while on board. The British offered Clark his two sons’ freedom if he would renounce his signature on the Declaration of Independence and side with King and Parliament . The war was won and almost over and no one would have blamed him if he had forsaken his honor for the sake of his sons and agreed. Imagine if you can the utter and total despair in this man’s heart, the anguish in his very soul, knowing that to remain true to his honor would cost his children severe physical torment. Allow it to reach out to you across 200 years and hear his answer: “No.”
Not one of the Founders, despite the deprivations and hardships their pledges caused, ever recanted their signatures.
Those 1,337 words were more than just poetic prose. The ideals expressed in every sentence, every word, were formed in the hellish crucible of supreme and willing sacrifice and have driven and sustained this republic for 235 years. They are the embodiment of liberty that screams forth from the human spirit, from every soul. They are what have made us “The last, best hope of man on Earth.”
As Margaret Thatcher said: “Europe was formed by history, America was formed by philosophy”. It was, and remains, an expensive and fragile philosophy, this notion of liberty and freedom, one which even today is denied to the majority of the world’s population. And it is a philosophy which is under continued assault by the new aristocracy, those who deem themselves superior to the commoners, and who by birthright and supposed intellect, should rule over us in benevolent tyranny; a paternalistic provider of what we need to survive. All we need to do in order to receive their patronage and protection, is submit to their rule and abandon the foolheaded notion that we have the God given right to decide for ourselves, to succeed or fail as our own merits dictate. Even as many of our so called countrymen abandon their freedom and willingly return to a state of dependence and servitude, it remains our responsibility, our duty, to honor the sacrifices of our Fathers and to vigilantly safeguard the liberty they gave so much for us to have. Not for our sake, but for that of our posterity.
So today, on the celebration of our nations birth, blow the dust of that copy of the Declaration of Independence you have laying around, and read the words which cost so much. And instill in our young the breath of liberty which they provide.
To be born free is an accident.
To live free is a privilege.
To die free is a responsibility.