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REFLECTIONS ON INDEPENDENCE DAY

July 4, 2015

My mother was born July 4, 1922. When I was a little boy, I was impressed that on her birthday, everybody took the day off. The entire Neely family, as many as fifty-six of us, gathered at the farm for the afternoon. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, coleslaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, and blackberry cobbler. We went swimming in the pond. Some tried fishing, but the mosquitoes bit more than the fish. After a supper of leftovers, we watched as our uncles put on a fireworks display.

Because it was Mama’s birthday, it took me a while to realize that all of the festivities were not in her honor. Instead, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England.

When I was a student at Cooperative School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic, those who knew the selection repeated it by heart. “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.”

The importance of the Declaration can be underestimated even by the most loyal Americans. Students in a sociology class designed a research project. They printed out the words of the Declaration of Independence and placed copies of the document on clipboards. Without identifying the document as the Declaration, the students invited people at a shopping mall, to read and sign the petition. Most people refused to sign their name. They thought the document was too radical and would incite too much conflict.

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were committing an act of treason against King George III. Though the names Franklin, Adams, Hancock, and Jefferson are familiar, few residents of the Palmetto State can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document. They were Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., and Arthur Middleton.

In 1956, Paul Harvey, in “The Rest of the Story” broadcast a moving editorial 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, and politicians.

With few exceptions, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, these were men of wealth. All but two had families. They were educated and well respected.

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 in enormous letter 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 that had brought these men to Philadelphia. Ben Franklin wryly noted: “Indeed we must all hang together; otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

All of them 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, New York delegate, saw his home plundered and his estate completely destroyed. His wife was treated with brutality and died from 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 came home, they found a devastated ruin.

Phillips Livingstone had all his great holdings in New York confiscated and his family 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 his wife lay on her deathbed, Hessian soldiers ruined his farm. Hart 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 thirteen 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, billeted troops in the college, and burned 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. Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and cruelly beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was nearly starved. The judge was released as an invalid. He returned home to find his estate looted and 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 again. He sacrificed one hundred and fifty 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 came out 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. His was health broken from deprivation and exposures. His 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 Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr., the other three South Carolina signers. They were exchanged at the end of the war. The British completely devastated their plantations.

Thomas Nelson of 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!” and fired on his own magnificent home himself, smashing it to bits. He had raised two million dollars 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 died, impoverished at the age of 50.

Of the fifty-six who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds. Five were captured, imprisoned, and treated with brutality. Several lost their wives; others lost their entire families. Twelve signers saw their homes burned to the ground. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word.

Independence Day, July 4, 1776, was not a day off and certainly not a vacation. It was not about fireworks and picnics. It was the beginning of a war for independence marked with musket and canon fire, death and destruction. The freedoms we enjoy were hard won.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Declaration of Independence, composed a magnificent closing line. These patriots took a great risk when they signed, “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.”

For the signers of the Declaration that was no idle boast. It was a solemn vow, one that cost them dearly and secured our liberty.

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