The Fourth of July is one of the most significant holidays in American
history. It was on that day, in 1776, that the 13 American colonies
declared their independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson
drafted the Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest documents
in the long struggle of mankind for freedom from oppressive
The Declaration contained these words that made it more than just
another political document:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created
equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted
among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the
governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of
these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it,
and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such
principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall
seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
The ideas in the Declaration were not new. Indeed, they had been
expressed by British thinkers such as John Locke, and similar
sentiments had been used in Britain to justify rebellion against King
James II in 1688. But Jefferson's words struck a chord across America,
and across the world; they still reverberate today.
Fifty-six American leaders in the Continental Congress stepped forward
to sign the final document, at enormous personal risk.
Tragically, many Americans today have no idea of the great sacrifices
that were made by the Founders to win their freedom.
The story below tells what happened to the men who signed the
Declaration of Independence. The author's name, as far as I know, is
* * *
What Happened to the Signers?
Five signers were captured by the British and brutally tortured as
traitors. Nine fought in the War for Independence and died from wounds
or from hardships they suffered. Two lost their sons in the
Continental Army. Another two had sons captured. At least a dozen of
the fifty-six had their homes pillaged and burned.
What kind of men were they? Twenty-five were lawyers or jurists.
Eleven were merchants. Nine were farmers or large plantation owners.
One was a teacher, one a musician, and one a printer. These were men
of means and education, yet they signed the Declaration of
Independence, knowing full well that the penalty could be death if
they were captured.
In the face of the advancing British Army, the Continental Congress
fled from Philadelphia to Baltimore on December 12, 1776. It was an
especially anxious time for John Hancock, the President, as his wife
had just given birth to a baby girl. Due to the complications stemming
from the trip to Baltimore, the child lived only a few months.
William Ellery's signing at the risk of his fortune proved only too
realistic. In December 1776, during three days of British occupation
of Newport, Rhode Island, Ellery's house was burned, and all his
Richard Stockton, a New Jersey State Supreme Court Justice, had rushed
back to his estate near Princeton after signing the Declaration of
Independence to find that his wife and children were living like
refugees with friends. They had been betrayed by a Tory sympathizer
who also revealed Stockton's own whereabouts. British troops pulled
him from his bed one night, beat him and threw him in jail where he
almost starved to death. When he was finally released, he went home to
find his estate had been looted, his possessions burned, and his
horses stolen. Judge Stockton had been so badly treated in prison that
his health was ruined and he died before the war's end. His surviving
family had to live the remainder of their lives off charity.
Carter Braxton was a wealthy planter and trader. One by one his ships
were captured by the British navy. He loaned a large sum of money to
the American cause; it was never paid back. He was forced to sell his
plantations and mortgage his other properties to pay his debts.
Thomas McKean was so hounded by the British that he had to move his
family almost constantly. He served in the Continental Congress
without pay, and kept his family in hiding.
Vandals or soldiers or both looted the properties of Clymer, Hall,
Harrison, Hopkinson and Livingston. Seventeen lost everything they
Thomas Heyward, Jr., Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, all of
South Carolina, were captured by the British during the Charleston
Campaign in 1780. They were kept in dungeons at the St. Augustine
Prison until exchanged a year later.
At the Battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British
General Cornwallis had taken over the family home for his
headquarters. Nelson urged General George Washington to open fire on
his own home. This was done, and the home was destroyed. Nelson later
Francis Lewis also had his home and properties destroyed. The British
jailed his wife for two months, and that and other hardships from the
war so affected her health that she died only two years later.
"Honest John" Hart, a New Jersey farmer, was driven from his wife's
bedside when she was near death. Their thirteen children fled for
their lives. Hart's fields and his grist mill were laid waste. For
over a year he eluded capture by hiding in nearby forests. He never
knew where his bed would be the next night and often slept in caves.
When he finally returned home, he found that his wife had died, his
children disappeared, and his farm and stock were completely
destroyed. Hart himself died in 1779 without ever seeing any of his
Such were the stories and sacrifices typical of those who risked
everything to sign the Declaration of Independence. These men were not
wild-eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means
and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more.
Standing tall, straight, and unwavering, they pledged:
"For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the
protection of the Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other,
our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
* * *
What an incredible story! Remember these men and their sacrifices as
you celebrate this Fourth of July. I know I will.
Sharon Harris, President
PS: Today, thanks to the Founders, and thanks to all those who have
fought to maintain and extend our freedom in the two centuries since
the American Revolution, we're not being asked to risk "our lives, our
fortunes, and our sacred honor" to win our liberty.
But the struggle for liberty still goes on today, of course. That's
why you're reading this newsletter, and that's why the Advocates for
Saturday, July 03, 2010
Liberator - The Fourth of July: More than Fireworks and Cook-Outs
Liberator Online Archive