July the Fourth, 2010

by Derrick G. Jeter

Most of us are familiar with the history made during the summer of 1776. But a reminder is ever in order.
On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress declaring independence from Great Britain:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be totally dissolved. . . . [1]
This caused no little uproar among the more moderate members of Congress. They argued that America was not “ripe” for such a bold move. To which John Witherspoon replied, “In my judgment the country is not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it!” [2]
After three days of intense debate Congress was unable to reach a consensus, so they decided to do what what any political body would do: they postponed the vote for twenty days, until July 1. However, they did form a Committee of Five to draft a declaration of independence. The committee included: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman,  Jefferson was given the task of writing the draft, which he worked on for seventeen days. After edits from Adams and Franklin, the Declaration was ready to present to the Congress.
Tensions ran high when Congress convened on July 1, 1776. Nose counting put the unofficial vote at nine in favor of independence, two opposed (Pennsylvania and South Carolina), one deadlocked (Delaware), and one abstaining (New York). When the official vote came on July 2, twelve of the thirteen colonies voted in favor of independence, with New York abstaining once again; they were waiting for final instruction form their colonial government. So, on July 2, 1776, the British Colonies in America broke with England and the United States of America was born.
On July 3 and 4 the language of the Declaration was amended and polished and finally adopted officially. Only two men signed the Declaration on the Fourth of July—the President of the Congress, John Hancock and the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson. The majority of delegates would signed the parchment copy, what is know as the engrossed or unanimous document, on August 2, 1776. This is the copy on displayed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
We all know the names of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock, but we might be surprised who didn’t sign the Declaration, and by some of those who did. Most notable, George Washington didn’t sign the Declaration. He was in New York fighting the British—losing to the British and retreating from the British. Nor did Patrick Henry, the fiery orator of “Give me liberty or give me death,” sign the Declaration.
But fifty-six men did sign the Declaration. And each one had more to lose from placing their names on the document than they had to gain. As William Ellery of Rhode Island and Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania put it, signing the Declaration was equal to signing their “own death warrant.” [3] After Hancock signed his name to the parchment copy on August 2, and said, “There must be no pulling different ways. We must all hang together,” Franklin supposedly quipped, “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” [4] Fat Benjamin Harrison of Virginia reportedly joked to the slightly-built Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: “With me it will be over in a minute, but you, you’ll be dancing on air an hour after I’m gone.” [5]
The Founders may have joked about their treason—and it was treason—but they knew it was serious business, putting pen to that parchment. Almost everyone of the fifty-six signers suffered hardships.
Among the lesser known signers was Francis Lewis, a delegate from New York. Shortly after he signed the Declaration, the British fleet, which was anchored off Long Island, fired on his home while his wife and their servants were inside. After one shell struck close to where Mrs. Lewis stood, a servant yelled for her to run. But Mrs. Lewis was plucky, she stood her ground and said, “Another shot is not likely to hit the same spot.” Shortly after the bombardment, British troops ransacked the home and took Mrs. Lewis prisoner. Thrown into a New York prison, Mrs. Lewis was denied a bed, a change of clothing, and decent food for weeks. It wasn’t until George Washington heard about Mrs. Lewis treatment and ordered two prominent Tory (loyalist) wives placed under house arrest that the British released Mrs. Lewis. She died shortly after, in 1779, at the age of sixty-four.
John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, a man in his sixties, buried his wife, Deborah Scudder Hart, of thirty-six years in October 1776. In November, the still grieving Hart and his thirteen children had to flee when the British drew near to their home. He sent the youngest children away to neighbors while he lived in caves for a month, escaping from the British Army.
Another New Jersey delegate, Abraham Clark suffered the loss at least some of his children. Two sons, Thomas and Aaron, were captured during the war. Aaron was thrown into a New York dungeon called the Sugar House. Conditions were so bad for the young Clark that other prisoners pushed moldy bread through the keyhole of his cell to provide some nourishment for him. Thomas was shipped off to the notorious prison ship Jersey—a dysentery and small pox filled hell-hole. A floating morgue, where scores of dead bodies were thrown overboard every day to make room for more prisons. Some reports say Thomas survived and was released from the Jersey, while another brother, Andrew, may have died on board.
Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward Jr. of South Carolina were captured at the siege of Charleston. Taken to St. Augustine, Florida, they were singled out for ill treatment and were not released until July 1781—at war’s end.
Finally, Thomas Nelson Jr. of Virginia was a militia general at the siege of Yorktown, his home. Learning that British soldiers were in his house, he order the American gunners to fire. It’s reported that he even offered five guineas for every hit. The gunners refused, however, so he took over the cannons and fired on his own home.
When these fifty-six men put pen to paper and scratched their names to the Declaration of Independence it was no idle boast. They believed in what they were doing. They believed in its 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.”
What about us? What do we value—security or freedom? Freedom is not for the faint of heart; it demands of us courage, wisdom, and self-sacrifice. Security demands none of these virtues; it only demands freedom. “Great nations rise and fall,” it has been said. “The people go from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to fear; from fear to dependence; and from dependence back to bondage.” [6] I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether this cycle is correct or where we, in the United States, currently find ourselves. But if we wish to live as God created us to live, then we must value liberty more than security. If we wish to live full and happy lives, just as God intended, then we must value liberty more than security.
More than 2200 years before our Founders placed their names on the Declaration of Independence, the Greek general and orator, Pericles delivered what has become one of the great eulogies of history. In his funeral oration after the first year of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles said, “Happiness [is] the fruit of freedom [and the fruit of] freedom [is] valor.” [7] The secret of happiness is liberty and the secret of liberty is a brave heart.
Our Founders believed God had made us free. So they fought against the powerful pull of giving up their liberty for the sake of security. This took courage, illustrated not only in signing the Declaration of Independence but also in their words: “Join, or Die,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” “Live free, or die,” and “Don’t tread on me.” It takes the same courage to live in liberty today, to live as God intended us to live, so I offer a new motto—in the spirit of ’76—”Be brave. Live free.”
[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. 5, 425, as quoted in The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Its Participants, ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Castle Books, 2002), 302.
[2] John Witherspoon, as quoted in Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese, Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The Declaration of Independence (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009), 99.
[3] Kiernan and D’Agnese, Signing Their Lives Away, 47, 128.
[4] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2003), 313.
[5] Kiernan and D’Agnese, Signing Their Lives Away, 172.
[6] Attributed to Henning W. Prentis Jr., “Bulwark of Freedom,” delivered to the Newcomen Society of England, October 4, 1946, in Montreal, Canada.
[7] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.43.4, in The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Touchstone, 1998), 115.