This year, we celebrate the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, marking the birth of our nation.
It was the product of the Continental Congress, with such dedicated leaders as John Adams of Massachusetts, who served on 90 committees and chaired 25 of them! You can imagine his extraordinary passion for the moment.
In May, 1776, Adams offered the resolution that set the wheels in motion toward the actual writing of the Declaration. Meanwhile, working on a portable desk of his own construction in a room at Market and Seventh Streets in Philadelphia, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson set on paper the grievances and aspirations of the 13 colonies — 1,337 words beginning with “When in the course of human events … ”
Historically, citizens of the world’s nations derived their rights from their ruler — a king, emperor or military dictator. The Declaration declared a revolutionary new doctrine:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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 individual liberty was a birthright was a bold, new concept.
Fifty-six men signed the document, pledging to support it with “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration first, and his signature was the largest. Putting down his pen, he quipped: “There. Now George the Third can read my name without spectacles, and may now double his reward of 500 pounds for my head. That is my defiance.”
The oldest signer was Benjamin Franklin, aged 70. Six were in their 60s. Ten were in their 50s. Nineteen in their 40s. Seventeen in their 30s. And three in their 20s. Lawyers, judges, farmers, merchants, ministers, teachers, a musician and a printer.
Each and every one had pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor. That was certainly a big price to be willing to pay for something called “freedom” in the event that George Washington’s ragged, untrained and heavily outnumbered army was unable to repulse the British forces.
In the Revolutionary War that followed, the British captured and brutally tortured five of the Signers. Nine fought in the War and died from wounds, or from the hardships they suffered. Twelve had their homes pillaged and burned. Several lost wives, children or entire families. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Not one, however, wavered in his pledge to his nation’s freedom. Their stories are those of extraordinary bravery:
In the face of the advancing British Army, the Continental Congress fled from Philadelphia to Baltimore on Dec. 12, 1776. For President Hancock, it was a particularly difficult time because his wife had just given birth to a daughter, Lydia. Under the adverse conditions of the war, Lydia lived only a few months.
During the three years of British occupation of Newport, R.I., William Ellery’s house was burned and virtually all of his property destroyed.
When the enemy came, John Hart, a New Jersey farmer, was driven from his wife’s bedside as she lay dying. After a year of hiding in nearby forests and rock caves as a common exile and fugitive, he finally returned home to find his wife was dead, his 12 of 13 living children had disappeared, and his stock, farm and mills were destroyed. An old man at the time, he never lost his spirit and joined Washington’s army as a private after the battle of Princeton. Hart died in 1779 without ever seeing any of his family again.
Thomas Heyward Jr., Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, all of South Carolina, became British prisoners during the Charleston Campaign in 1780. They were kept in dungeons at the St. Augustine prison until exchanged a year later.
William Braxton of Virginia invested almost everything he had in the revolution. The British destroyed virtually all of it. He lived the rest of his life in poverty.
Philip Livingston of New York never saw his home again. Richard Stockton, a state Supreme Court Justice, had rushed back to his estate near Princeton after he signed the Declaration only to find that his wife and children were living like refugees with friends. A Tory sympathizer betrayed them; he 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 Stockton was finally released, he went home to find that his estate had been looted, his possessions burned and his horses stolen. His health seriously impaired in prison, Judge Stockton died in 1781, and his surviving family had to live the remainder of their lives off charity. His last words to his children begged them to remember “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
The military victory achieved by Washington’s armies after numerous setbacks was nothing short of miraculous. The system of government established in its wake was mocked and ridiculed throughout the world as “folly, doomed to failure” at worst, and “a great experiment” at best.
Who, but God Almighty, could have possibly written such a magnificent script with such moving chapters?
Was it just coincidence that on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson awoke from a bed-confining illness at his home in Monticello, Va., to hear the church bells and cannons celebrating the Declaration’s 50th anniversary. “Is it the Fourth?” he asked. When he heard “yes,” Jefferson smiled and within minutes died.
Incredibly, at the same time, a critically ill John Adams in distant Quincy, Mass., heard the same sounds of the celebration, and, only hours after Jefferson’s death, Adams also died. Both knew that their “great experiment” had survived at least a half-century.
Our fifth president, James Monroe, died five years later on July 4, 1831. He had served with distinction and was seriously wounded in the Revolutionary War.
These past two-and-a-third centuries have been packed full with progress: the exploration of the West; the growth from 13 colonies to 50 states; the Industrial Revolution; the birth of trains, automobiles and airplanes; the Space Age; the Computer Age, to mention just a few.
They have also seen bitter and costly conflicts — the Revolutionary War, Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. All in all, we have suffered more than 1,309,000 combat deaths. The cost of protecting and preserving our freedom has averaged more than 5,000 Americans per year — our finest young men and women killed in combat.
But hundreds of millions of men, women and children throughout the world live in freedom today, thanks to the sacrifices of Americans who came to their rescue during a time of great need.
Yes, we believe that ALL men (not just those born on American soil) have been endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and we have sung that “as Christ died to make men Holy, let us live to make men free.”
We must remember that “the American Revolution” was far more than just a war. It marked the beginning of a new relationship between government and the governed — one that was based on the precept that government would be the servant, not the master.
On this July 4, 2012, we must ask whether our nation is 236 years old, or young. It is for us not just to celebrate the achievements of our forefathers, but to make certain the individual liberty they won for us is never lost or compromised and that what is still “a great experiment” is blessed with success for generations to come.
May God continue to Bless America!
Fulton Lewis was a national radio news commentator for 25 years for the Mutual radio network. He has been a resident of Bradenton since 1981 and lives with his wife, Barbara, in River Club.
THE 56 SIGNERS
Robert Treat Paine
Thomas Heyward Jr.
Thomas Lynch Jr.
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
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