Monday, this week, was Independence Day. What better time to learn about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence? This is a lot of text to read, but it’s information every American should know. I stumbled upon this (much more complete) article in a ‘Special Edition’ of the FEDERALIST BRIEF several years ago and I was astonished. I’d never gotten ANY of this kind of detail in my school years of history classes. I hated to abridge it, but the 1200 words here are less than half of the original. There simply wasn’t enough space here.
That said, the core text is still eye-opening and a powerful reminder that ‘freedom isn’t free’. I salute these founders … who literally ‘risked everything’. For us … and those who follow us.
The Americans Who Risked Everything
[Published in the Federalist Brief — 7-6-99]
Much to lose
What kind of men were the 56 signers who adopted the Declaration of Independence and who, by their signing, committed an act of treason against the Crown? Who were they? What happened to them?
Ben Franklin was the only really old man. Eighteen were under 40; three were in their 20s. Of the 56, almost half – 24 – were judges and lawyers. Eleven were merchants, nine were land-owners and farmers, and the remaining 12 were doctors, ministers, and politicians.
With only a few exceptions …, these were men of substantial property. All but two had families. The vast majority were men of education and standing in their communities. They had economic security as few men had in the 18th century. Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. These men knew what they risked. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. And remember: a great British fleet was already at anchor in New York Harbor.
They were sober men. They were far from hot-eyed fanatics, yammering for an explosion. It was equality with the mother country they desired. It was taxation with representation they sought. It was principle, not property, that had brought these men to Philadelphia. Two of them became presidents of the United States. Seven of them became state governors. One died in office as vice president of the United States. Several would go on to be U.S. Senators. One, the richest man in America, in 1828 founded the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Richard Henry Lee … had introduced the resolution to adopt the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776. Though the resolution was formally adopted July 4, it was not until July 8 that two of the states authorized their delegates to sign, and it was not until August 2 that the signers met at Philadelphia to actually put their names to the Declaration.
Most glorious service
Even before the list was published, the British marked down every member of Congress suspected of having put his name to treason. All of them became the objects of vicious manhunts. Some were taken. Some, like Jefferson, had narrow escapes. All who had property or families near British strongholds suffered.
Francis Lewis … saw his home plundered and his estates … completely destroyed by British soldiers. Mrs. Lewis was captured and treated with great brutality. Though she was later exchanged for two British prisoners through the efforts of Congress, she died from the effects of her abuse.
William Floyd … was able to escape with his wife and children … they lived as refugees without income for seven years. When they came home, they found a devastated ruin. Phillips Livingstone had all his great holdings … confiscated and his family driven out of their home. Louis Morris … saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years he was barred from his home and family.
John Hart … risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. Hessian soldiers rode after him, and he escaped in the woods. While his wife lay on her deathbed, the soldiers ruined his farm and wrecked his Homestead. Hart, 65, slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found his wife had already been buried, and his 13 children taken away. He never saw them again.
Dr. John Witherspoon … was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied the town of Princeton, and billeted troops in the college. They trampled and burned the finest college library in the country.
Judge Richard Stockton … had rushed back to his estate in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The family found refuge with friends, but a sympathizer betrayed them. Judge Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and brutally beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was deliberately starved. Congress finally arranged for Stockton’s parole, but his health was ruined. The judge was [later] released as an invalid …. He returned home to find his estate looted …. His family was forced to live off charity.
Robert Morris, merchant, … met Washington’s appeals and pleas for money year after year. He made and raised arms and provisions which made it possible for Washington to cross the Delaware at Trenton. In the process he lost 150 ships at sea, bleeding his own fortune and credit almost dry. George Clymer … escaped with his family from their home, but their property was completely destroyed by the British …. Dr. Benjamin Rush … was forced to flee. As a heroic surgeon with the army, Rush had several narrow escapes.
John Morton, a Tory in his views previous to the debate, lived in a strongly loyalist area of Pennsylvania. When he came out for independence, most of his neighbors and even some of his relatives ostracized him. William Ellery … saw his property and home burned to the ground. Thomas Lynch, Jr., … had his health broken from privation and exposures while serving as a company commander in the military.
Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr., … were taken by the British in the siege of Charleston. They were carried as prisoners of war to St. Augustine, Florida, where they were singled out for indignities. They were exchanged at the end of the war, the British in the meantime having completely devastated their large land holdings and estates.
Thomas Nelson … was at the front in command of the Virginia military forces. He had raised $2 million for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them, and Nelson’s property was forfeited. He was never reimbursed. He died, impoverished, a few years later at the age of 50.
Lives, fortunes, honor
Of those 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were captured and imprisoned, in each case with brutal treatment. Several lost wives, sons or entire families. Two wives were brutally treated. All were at one time or another the victims of manhunts and driven from their homes. Twelve signers had their homes completely burned. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word. Their honor, and the nation they sacrificed so much to create, is still intact.
Abraham Clark … gave two sons to the officer corps in the Revolutionary Army. They were captured and sent to the infamous British prison [ship] afloat in New York harbor …, where 11,000 American captives were to die. The younger Clarks were treated with a special brutality because of their father. One was put in solitary and given no food.
The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence proved by their every deed that they made no idle boast when they composed the most magnificent curtain line in history. “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.”