Friday, June 21, 2013

Saluting The Signers on the 4th of July


Fifty-six people signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Fifty years later to the day, two of the original signers—John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia--both died.

Jefferson died about two hours before Adams although Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson still lives.”

They had been close friends in the early days. They worked to bring about the American revolution. They then became political enemies.

Adams was a staunch conservative—what was called a “Federalist” in the parlance of the time. Jefferson was what was called a “Republican” then. He founded the Democratic-Republican Party which in the 1830’s dropped the word “Republican” from it’s name. Still today it is known as the Democratic Party—the longest lasting, oldest political party in the history of civilization, founded by Thomas Jefferson.

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were politicians, doctors, ministers and merchants. Nine of them were farmers. Ben Franklin is harder to define. He was a printer and a renaissance man.

There was a musician and a teacher. They ranged in ages from Edward Rutledge at 26 to Ben Franklin at 70. Thomas Jefferson at 33 was about the average age.

By today’s standards none of them were truly rich. Land didn’t have that much value back then. You will recall that Jefferson died in bankruptcy. Washington died without enough money to free his slaves—which was one of his most ardent wishes.

The richest of the founders--wealthy by the standards of the day--was John Hancock of Massachusetts who would hardly qualify as rich by today’s standards. He was not Bill Gates wealthy.

They were the most idealistic and determined among the colonists. While the conservatives of their day said America should remain a colony of England forever, these liberal radicals believed in both individual liberty and societal obligations.

They believed a nation must guaranty liberty and ensure its citizens’ happiness – a word in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution – a radical concept and a word that had never before appeared in any nation’s founding documents.

The signers wrote in the Declaration, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” It was a simple statement of fact.

The day they signed that document each became a traitor and was sentenced to death for treason by the legal government that controlled their lands and their homes.

They stood at a point of no return.

“Indeed we must all hang together,” said Ben Franklin, “Otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately."

When Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins signed the document he remarked, “My hand trembles but my heart does not.”

Virginia’s Benjamin Harrison—who weighed nearly 300 pounds—commented to the short, thin Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts, “I’ll be dead in a minute. But you’ll be dancing in the air for an hour after I’m gone!”

John Hancock said that he signed his name large enough for King George to, “read my name without his glasses, and now double the reward!” The king had placed a £500 reward on Hancock’s head for sedition.

Six months later John Hancock's newborn daughter died from complications of childbirth arising from his wife’s fleeing the oncoming British army.

Philadelphia's Robert Morris, who signed it, lost his entire shipping fleet--wiping out his modest fortune.

The home of Virginia’s Thomas Nelson was destroyed after being seized as a headquarters by British General Cornwallis. Nelson, unable to repay loans he’d taken against it to help finance the revolution, died in poverty at the age of 50.

William Ellery of Rhode Island lost everything as a result of signing the Declaration of Independence--as did Virginia’s Carter Braxton and Benjamin Harrison, Pennsylvania’s George Clymer, New York’s Philip Livingston, Georgia’s Lyman Hall, and New Jersey’s Francis Hopkinson.

Each one of these men died in poverty as a direct result of signing the Declaration of Independence.

The British destroyed New York’s Francis Lewis’s property and threw his wife into such a hellhole of a jail that she died two years later.

Three of South Carolina’s four signers, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr. and Arthur Middleton were captured by the British and held in a filthy unheated prison where they were brutally tortured for over a year before George Washington freed them in a prisoner exchange.

But Washington refused to allow the American soldiers to torture the British. He said we would not sink to their level.

New Jersey farmer John Hart’s wife died shortly after he signed the Declaration of Independence. His thirteen children were scattered among sympathetic families to hide them from conservative loyalists. John Hart never saw his children again, dying three years later--alone and wracked with grief.

New Jersey State Supreme Court Justice Richard Stockton took his wife and children into hiding after he signed the Declaration but conservatives loyal to the crown turned him in. He was so badly beaten and starved that he died before the war was over. His home was looted and his wife and children lived the rest of their lives as paupers.

Seventeen of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were entirely wiped out by the war they declared and they died in poverty.

Altogether nine of the men in that room died and four lost all their children as a direct result of putting their names to the Declaration of Independence. 

Every single signer had to flee his home, and after the war twelve returned to find only rubble. When the war was over, the survivors of the new American nation met to put into final form the legal structure of the nation that they had just birthed.

It was not to be a nation where the greatest motivator was greed.

It was not to be a kingdom ruled by a warlord elite.

It was not to be a theocracy where religious leaders made the rules.

And it was not to be a feudal nation ruled by the rich.

This new nation, the United States of America, was founded as a result of the sacrifice of these men and women--and their families.

In 1787-- as he was leaving the constitutional convention--Benjamin Franklin was asked by a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia, “What sort of nation has been conceived?”

“A Republic,” said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”