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July 3, 2021

My mother, Louise Hudson Neely, was born July 4, 1922. When I was a little boy, I was impressed that everybody took the day off on her birthday. The entire Neely family, as many as fifty-six of us, gathered at the farm near Walnut Grove for the afternoon. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, Mammy’s 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.   

On July 4, Americans will again observe Independence Day. We celebrate that 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, now E. P. Todd School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic on July fourth, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. My grandfather led us all in a blessing, not only for the good food and our family but also for our country. Those of us who had memorized the selection from the Declaration of Independence 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.

Independence Day celebrations were observed soon after the nation’s birth. The Moravians of Salem, North Carolina, were among the first to mark the day with a torchlight procession around the village square singing “Now Thank We All Our God.” When Clare and I lived in Winston-Salem, we always took our children to Old Salem to experience the reenactment of that simple celebration.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first to observe Independence Day west of the Mississippi. On July 4, 1804, traveling along the Missouri River through what is now Kansas, the expedition stopped for the night at the mouth of a stream. They fired a cannon at sunset and distributed an extra ration of whiskey to their men to celebrate. Independence Creek was named in honor of the day.

It was not until after the War of 1812 that the holiday became a nationwide celebration. Parades were part of the festivities. Politicians used the occasions to give rousing speeches. Events like groundbreaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads were scheduled to coincide with July Fourth celebrations.

Several years ago, Clare, our children, and I celebrated Independence Day at Pawley’s Island. Residents and summer guests put on one of the most interesting parades I have ever seen. The route included two causeways and a stretch of road along the oceanfront. All were invited to participate. Vintage cars, convertibles, pickup trucks including some towing boats, bicycles pulling red wagons, costumed people on rollerblades, senior citizens walking their grandchildren or their dogs, and one old codger leading a Billy goat all joined in. Music was provided by a sound system on the back of a rollback wrecker. Everything and everybody was decorated in red, white, and blue. The entire procession was accompanied by vigorous flag-waving.

The most unusual feature of the Pawley’s Parade was the water battles all along the route. Onlookers armed with water guns, water balloons, and water hoses doused the marchers. Those in the parade were equally well prepared for a counterattack. In good-natured fun, everyone got soaked. On a hot July day on the coast of South Carolina, a cool drenching was welcomed. Even the goat seemed to enjoy it.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and John Adams was its strongest supporter in the Continental Congress. They were political opponents after the Revolutionary War and ran against each other for president. John Adams’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” In fact, Jefferson had died a few hours before.

Five years later, on July 4, 1831, James Monroe, our fifth president, died.

Independence Day was not only Mama’s birthday. This celebration is much bigger than any one person. This is the birthday of the United States of America.

Many Americans recognize some of the words that are contained in our nation’s founding document; sadly, many others do not. Perhaps the most familiar sentence is found in the first lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration. “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 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 can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document.

Following is a brief biography of each one. More complete information can be found in The South Carolina Encyclopedia, edited by Dr. Walter Edgar.

Edward Rutledge was the youngest child of a physician who had emigrated from Ireland. Rutledge was born in 1749 near Charleston. As a young man, he studied law in England, as did all four of the South Carolina signers. In 1774 Rutledge was named one of five delegates to the First Continental Congress. He was the leader of his congressional delegation when the Declarationwas adopted. At the age of twenty-six, Rutledge was the youngest of the signers.

Following the war, Rutledge served in the state legislature. His wealth increased through his law practice and investments in plantations. The people of South Carolina chose Rutledge as Governor in 1796. When he died in 1800 at the age of fifty, he was buried at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Thomas Heyward, Jr., was born in 1746 in St. Helena’s Parish, near Savannah. In 1771 he returned to South Carolina after studying abroad in London and began practicing law. He was elected to the colonial legislature, which was feuding with the Royal Governor over the issue of taxation.

In the summer of 1774, Heyward attended a provincial convention that chose delegates to the Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation, as well as the Declaration. He then became a circuit court judge and represented Charleston in the state legislature.

In 1779 Heyward was wounded during a British attack near his home, White Hall, on Port Royal Island. The British plundered the house the following year, taking numerous objects of value.

After the war, Heyward resumed his position as a circuit court judge, concurrently serving two terms in the state legislature. The last to survive among the South Carolina signers, he died in 1809 at the age of sixty-two and was interred in the family cemetery at Old House Plantation.

Thomas Lynch, Jr., was an aristocratic planter like two of the three other South Carolina signers, Heyward and Middleton.

Thomash Lynch was born in 1749 at Hopsewee Plantation, located on the North Santee River in present Georgetown County. During the years 1774-76, while his father served in the Continental Congress, he served on the home front, attending the first and second provincial congresses as well as the first state legislature. He became a captain in the 1st South Carolina Regiment of Continentals. On a recruiting trip to North Carolina, young Lynch contracted fever, rendering him a partial invalid.

Early in 1776 at Philadelphia, the elder Lynch suffered a stroke that incapacitated him and prevented further public service. His concerned colleagues in South Carolina elected his son to the Continental Congress. Although ill himself, the younger Lynch traveled to Philadelphia, staying long enough to vote for and sign the Declaration of Independence. His father was unable to take part in the ceremony.

By the end of the year, the failing health of both men compelled them to begin the trip home. In route, a second stroke took the life of the senior Lynch. His son, who was broken in spirit and physically unable to continue in politics, retired to his plantation.

In 1779 he and his wife, heading for southern France in an attempt to regain his health, perished at sea. He was thirty years old.

Arthur Middleton was born in 1742 at the family estate on the Ashley River near Charleston. He graduated from Cambridge University and studied law in London. In 1776, while engaged in helping draft a state constitution, Middleton was elected to follow his father in the Continental Congress. In the same year, he and William Henry Drayton designed the Great Seal of South Carolina.

After the war, Middleton returned to serve briefly in Congress, then retired to Middleton Place. He restored his home, which had been ravaged by the British during the Revolution, and resumed his life as a planter. He died in 1787 at the age of 44. He is buried at Middleton Place.

These four men knew the risks they were taking when they signed the Declaration. Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. Thomas Lynch, Jr.’s heart and health were broken in the cause for freedom. He died at a younger age than any other signer of the Declaration.

In the siege of Charleston in 1780, the British captured the three remaining South Carolina signers:  Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr. As prisoners of war, they were incarcerated in St. Augustine, Florida, but released in a prisoner exchange at the end of the war. During this time of turmoil in America’s history, the British devastated each man’s home.

These signers of the Declaration of Independence certainly made no idle boast when they promised, “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.”

Many Americans view the holiday as an opportunity to pursue happiness. Whatever your holiday plans may be, consider a dip in a farm pond, an ice-cold watermelon, a juicy cantaloupe, or homemade peach ice cream.

The fourth of July is a special day for many reasons. Whatever your celebration includes, please take a moment to recall our patriots and their courageous sacrifice. And please be careful. We don’t want to lose a single one of you.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at

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