Our Lives, Our Fortune, Our Sacred Honor
In 1956, Paul Harvey broadcast a moving editorial in “The Rest of the Story” about the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The following is my summary.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
Ben Franklin, seventy years old, was the eldest among the fifty-six signers. Eighteen were under forty; three were in their twenties. Almost half were judges and lawyers. Eleven were merchants, nine were landowners and farmers, and twelve were doctors, ministers, or politicians.
With few exceptions, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, these were men of wealth. They were educated and well respected. All but two had families.
Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. John Hancock, one of the richest men in America, already had a price on his head. He signed his name in enormous letters so “that his Majesty could now read his name without glasses and could now double the reward.”
These men knew what they risked. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. It was principle, not property, which brought these men to Philadelphia. Ben Franklin wryly noted: “Indeed we must all hang together; otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.”
All signers became the objects of British manhunts. Some were captured. Some had narrow escapes. All who had property or families near British strongholds suffered.
Francis Lewis, a New York delegate, saw his home plundered, his estate completely destroyed and his wife treated with brutality. She died from that abuse.
William Floyd, another New York delegate, was able to escape with his wife and children across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. They lived as refugees without income for seven years. When they returned to their home, they found a devastated ruin.
Philip Livingston’s great holdings in New York were confiscated. His family was driven out of their home.
Louis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years he was barred from his home and family.
John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. While she lay on her deathbed, Hessian soldiers destroyed his farm. Hart slept in caves and in the woods as he was hunted across the countryside. Emaciated by hardship, he was eventually able to sneak home. He found that his wife had already been buried and that his thirteen children had been taken away. He never saw them again.
Signer Dr. John Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied the town of Princeton, billeting troops in the college and burning the finest library in the country.
Judge Richard Stockton, another New Jersey delegate, 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. He was pulled from bed in the night and cruelly beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was deliberately starved and ultimately released as an invalid. He returned home to find his estate looted. Stockton did not live to see the triumph of the Revolution. His family was forced to live off of charity.
Robert Morris of Philadelphia met Washington’s appeals and pleas for money time and time again. He sacrificed 150 merchant ships, depleting his own fortune.
Dr. Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania was forced to flee to Maryland. As a heroic surgeon with the army, Rush had several narrow escapes.
John Morton lived in a strongly Loyalist area of Pennsylvania. When he became an advocate for independence, most of his neighbors and even some of his relatives ostracized him.
William Ellery, Rhode Island delegate, saw his property and home burned to the ground.
South Carolina delegate Thomas Lynch, Jr., served as a company commander in the patriot army. With his health ruined from deprivation and exposure, doctors ordered him to seek a cure in the West Indies. On the voyage he and his young bride were drowned at sea.
In the siege of Charleston, the British captured the other three South Carolina signers: Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr. The British completely devastated their plantations and held them captive until the end of the war.
Thomas Nelson, signer from Virginia, was in command of the Virginia militia at Yorktown. When British General Cornwallis moved his headquarters into Nelson’s palatial house, Nelson cried, “Give me the cannon!” He, himself, fired on his magnificent home, smashing it to bits. He had raised $2 million for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estate. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them. Nelson’s property was forfeited. He died, impoverished at the age of fifty.
Of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds. Five were captured and imprisoned with brutal treatment. Several lost wives, others entire families. Twelve signers had their homes completely burned. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word.
Thomas Jefferson, who composed the Declaration of Independence, included a magnificent closing line: “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.” These men made no idle boast when they signed their names.
Kirk H. Neely © July 2012