Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor
It will soon be the Fourth of July and people across our nation will be celebrating "Independence Day." Is this just another holiday where you don’t have to go to work? Some view it as the "birthday of our nation." Others see the "day the Declaration of Independence was signed." Shamefully, some do not even know the Declaration of Independence severed our ties with England.
My hope is that from this day forward it will mean more than just hot dogs, cookouts and fireworks displays. You see, I have re-evaluated what I thought about the Fourth of July and I must confess what I learned gave me a whole new reverence for those first citizens of our nation.
Two hundred and thirty-two years ago, America was suffering under a tyrannical government that imposed its will upon the people. Yet, believe it or not, this was a very fortunate time for us because 232 years ago America was blessed with an abundance of men with a unique vision of freedom and government; men with the courage of their convictions who took the necessary steps to throw off tyranny and establish in its place a government unique in history – one that sought the will of the people as opposed to a government that sought to impose its will upon the people.
In January 1776, King George III denounced all American rebels as traitors; the punishment for treason was hanging. So, anyone foolish enough to advocate independence faced the ultimate penalty: death. The very best men from each of the colonies gathered in the Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall, in Philadelphia to debate the future of the American Colonies. These were wealthy men, men of means. Well educated. Twenty-five were lawyers, jurists. Eleven were farmers, owners of large plantations. Nine were successful merchants. Four were physicians. Several were ministers.
Each one saw they could no longer avoid the question of independence and each one agonized over the decision he and Congress must make. Debates were fierce and heated. Some delegates were so tormented by the issue they became physically ill. Slowly, agonizingly, delegates who had earlier opposed independence put regional concerns aside and on June 10, Richard Henry Lee, one of the delegates from Virginia, introduced the resolution for independence before the House. It was adopted by a bare majority of the colonies. Future generations might benefit by this decision, but each man had much to lose and little to gain for himself.
A committee was assigned to draw up a declaration of independence to tell the British "no more rule by redcoats." Thomas Jefferson penned a first draft of the declaration in 17 days and Congress adopted it on July 4, after much debate and change. The Declaration was published but did not bear any names, as it had not yet been signed. On July 19, it was resolved to have it engrossed on parchment and on August 2, 1776, the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united states of America was signed by the delegates. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now we know something of the "when," "where," "how" and "why" of our Declaration, but what we don’t know much about yet is the "who." The last paragraph of the Declaration contains a phrase that has been etched into my mind forever and it speaks volumes about those men who met in Philadelphia that summer to set into motion the firestorm that would eventually mean liberty for us all. Remember, these were not wild-eyed revolutionaries. They were not firebrand radicals. These were men who were secure in their lives and property. They were wealthy. Aristocrats. They risked everything and had only one thing to gain. Their freedom.
That last line says "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Each knew the full meaning of the magnificent last words of that paragraph. The names were kept secret for six months since that signature on the Declaration pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor. Fifty-six men placed their names beneath that pledge and they knew when they signed they were risking everything. At best, it they won the war, they faced years of struggle building a new nation. If they lost, they faced a hangman’s noose. But they did sign the pledge and here is what happened to some of those 56.
Thomas Lynch, Jr. of South Carolina who signed the pledge was a third-generation rice grower, large plantation owner and aristocrat. After he signed the Declaration of Independence, his health failed. He and his wife set out by ship for the south of France in hopes of regaining his lost health. They never made it. The ship was lost at sea and he was never heard from again.
Thomas McKean of Delaware was "hunted like a fox by the enemy," he recalled after the war, "…compelled to move my family five times in five months, and at last fixed them in a little log house on the Susquehanna," only to have them there harassed by Indians. He served in Congress without pay, his family in hiding and in poverty.
Robert Morris of Pennsylvania once raised $10,000 with his note and honor as the only security after a request for assistance from George Washington. That money enabled Washington to secure a victory over the Hessians at Trenton. Later, he purchased ninety tons of lead and five thousand barrels of flour to furnish the army, all on his private credit.
Carter Braxton of Virginia, wealthy planter, trader, saw his ships swept from the sea. To pay his debts, he lost his home and all his properties and died in rags.
Thomas Nelson, Jr. of Virginia raised $2,000,000 on his own signature to provision our allies, the French fleet. After the war he personally paid back the loans, wiped out his estate and was never reimbursed by his government. He urged General Washington to fire on his, Nelson’s, own home in the final battle of Yorktown when Lord Cornwallis occupied the house.
Richard Stockton of New Jersey was taken prisoner by the British and tortured. His health broken, he never recovered and died at 53. His estate was pillaged.
A party of Hessians seized the home of Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. The family barely had time to escape before the invaders plundered the house and its contents.
Francis Lewis of New York had his home and everything destroyed. His wife was captured, held prisoner for several months, tortured. She died shortly thereafter.
Thomas Heyward, Jr. was captured when Charleston fell. During his imprisonment, his plantation was plundered, his property seized and carried away.
The enemy drove John Hart from his wife’s deathbed; their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and gristmill were destroyed and for more than a year he lived in the forest and caves. He returned to find his wife dead, their children gone, his property gone. He died within a short time from exhaustion and a broken heart.
Philip Livingston of New York took his seat in Congress even though his wife begged him not to go because of failing health. He said his final farewell to all his friends, assumed his seat and died a little over a month later from the hardships of the war.
John Hancock was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts. When the American army was besieging Boston, American officers proposed the entire destruction of the city to expel the British. John Hancock readily acceded to the plan. He said, "Burn Boston though it makes John Hancock a beggar if the liberties of his country should require it."
Button Gwinnett of Georgia signed the pledge and he died nine months later.
Lyman Hall also signed. He had all his property confiscated and had to move his family from Georgia when the British took control.
George Walton of Georgia was wounded in the battle for Savannah. The British captured, held for several months, tortured and eventually released him.
And, finally, there is Abraham Clark, signer from New Jersey, whose two sons served in the Revolutionary Army officer corps. Both were captured and sent to the infamous British prison hulk, the hell ship "Jersey," afloat in New York harbor. Eleven thousand American captives died there. The Clarks were brutally treated because of their father. One was put in solitary and given no food. Abraham Clark was offered his sons’ lives by the British if he would recant and come out for the King and parliament. No one would have blamed him; after all, the war was almost over and the end almost in sight. When he answered "No" the despair and anguish he must have felt can hardly be imagined.
Of the 56 men who signed the pledge, few were to survive long. Five were captured by the British and brutally tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes sacked, looted, occupied or burned. Two lost sons in the war; one had two sons captured. Two wives were brutally treated. Nine of the 56 died in the war from the hardships or from wounds. All were at one time or another the victims of manhunts and driven from their homes.
Redcoats looted the country mansions of Middleton, Heyward, Witherspoon, Hopkinson, Ellery, Clymer, Gwinett, Rutledge, Walton, Hall and Lewis Morris. They burned Braxton’s great house to the ground.
I don’t know what perception you previously had of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, but let’s remember this: All of the world’s other revolutions were begun by men who had nothing to lose. These men had everything to lose and only one thing to gain: freedom. So, in order to secure freedom they pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
They paid the price. They fulfilled the pledge. And a new nation and freedom were born.