The founding fathers of the United States of America

July 4, 1776

 

"Our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor." 

Our Founding Fathers paid the price for the United States of America.
By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2000 Boston Globe

 

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted 12-0 -- New York abstained -- in favor of Richard Henry Lee's resolution "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States."

On July 4, the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson -- heavily edited by Congress -- was adopted without dissent. On July 8, the Declaration was publicly proclaimed in Philadelphia. On July 15, Congress learned that the New York Legislature had decided to endorse the Declaration. On Aug. 2, a parchment copy was presented to the Congress for signature. Most of the 56 men who put their name to the document did so that day.

And then?

We tend to forget that to sign the Declaration of Independence was to commit an act of treason -- and the punishment for treason was death. To publicly accuse George III of "repeated injuries and usurpations," to announce that Americans were therefore "Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown," was a move fraught with danger -- so much so that the names of the signers were kept secret for six months

They were risking everything, and they knew it. That is the meaning of the Declaration's soaring last sentence:

"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."

Most of the signers survived the war; several went on to illustrious careers.

Two of them became presidents of the United States, and among the others were future vice presidents, senators, and governors. But not all were so fortunate.

Nine of the 56 died during the Revolution, and never tasted American independence.

Five were captured by the British.

Eighteen had their homes -- great estates, some of them - looted or burnt by the enemy.

Some lost everything they owned.

Two were wounded in battle.

Two others were the fathers of sons killed or captured during the war.

"Our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." It was not just a rhetorical flourish.

We all recognize John Hancock's signature, but who ever notices the names beneath his? William Ellery, Thomas Nelson, Richard Stockton, Button Gwinnett, Francis Lewis -- to most of us, these are names without meaning.

But each represents a real human being, some of whom paid dearly "for the support of this Declaration" and American independence.

Lewis Morris of New York, for example, must have known when he signed the Declaration that he was signing away his fortune. Within weeks, the British ravaged his estate, destroyed his vast woodlands, butchered his cattle, and sent his family fleeing for their lives.

Another New Yorker, William Floyd, was also forced to flee when the British plundered his property. He and his family lived as refugees for seven years without income. The strain told on his wife; she died two years before the war ended.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, an aristocratic planter who had invested heavily in shipping, saw most of his vessels captured by the British navy. His estates were largely ruined, and by the end of his life he was a pauper.

The home of William Ellery, a Rhode Island delegate, was burned to the ground during the occupation of Newport.

Thomas Heyward Jr., Edward Rutledge, and Arthur Middleton, three members of the South Carolina delegation, all suffered the destruction or vandalizing of their homes at the hands of enemy troops. All three were captured when Charleston fell in 1780, and spent a year in a British prison.

"Our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

Thomas Nelson Jr. of Virginia raised $2 million for the patriots' cause on his own personal credit. The government never reimbursed him, and repaying the loans wiped out his entire estate. During the battle of Yorktown, his house, which had been seized by the British, was occupied by General Cornwallis. Nelson quietly urged the gunners to fire on his own home. They did so, destroying it. He was never again a man of wealth. He died bankrupt and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Richard Stockton, a judge on New Jersey's supreme court, was betrayed by loyalist neighbors. He was dragged from his bed and thrown in prison, where he was brutally beaten and starved. His lands were devastated, his horses stolen, his library burnt. He was freed in 1777, but his health had so deteriorated that he died within five years. His family lived on charity for the rest of their lives.

In the British assault on New York, Francis Lewis's home and property were pillaged. His wife was captured and imprisoned; so harshly was she treated that she died soon after her release. Lewis spent the remainder of his days in relative poverty.

And then there was John Hart. The speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, he was forced to flee in the winter of 1776, at the age of 65, from his dying wife's bedside. While he hid in forests and caves, his home was demolished, his fields and mill laid waste, and his 13 children put to flight. When it was finally safe for him to return, he found his wife dead, his children missing, and his property decimated. He never saw any of his family again and died, a shattered man, in 1779.

The men who signed that piece of parchment in 1776 were the elite of their colonies. They were men of means and social standing, but for the sake of liberty, they pledged it all -- their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

We are in their debt to this day.

 

 

 

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1.George Wythe

2.William Whipple

3. Joseph Bartlett

4. Thomas Lynch

5. Benjamin Harrison

6. Richard Henry Lee

7. Samuel Adams

8. George Clinton

9. William Paca

10. Samuel Chase

11. Rich. Stockton

12. L. Morris

13. Wm Floyd

14. A. Middleton

15. T. Heyward, Jr.

16. Charles Carroll of Carrollton

17. Robert Morris

18. T. Willing

19. Benjamin Rush

20. Elbridge Gerry

21. Robert Treat Paine

22. Wm. Hooper

23. Stephen Hopkins

24. Wm. Ellery

25. George Clymer

26. Joseph Hewes.

27. Geo Walton

28. Jas Wilson

29. A. Clark

30. F. Hopkinson

31. John Adams

32. Roger Sherman

33. Robert R. Livingston

34. Thomas Jefferson

35. Ben Franklin

36. Thomas Nelson, Jr.

 37. Francis Lewis

38. Witherspoon

39.S.Huntington

40.William Williams

41. Oliver Wolcott

42. Chas. Thomson

43. John Hancock

44. George Read

45. John Dickinson

46. Edward Rutledge

47. Thomas McKean

48. P. Livingston

 


 
 


“Our Sacred Honor”
The signers of the Declaration of Independence live on.

By Matthew Spalding

It's almost July 4, and you know what that means: It won't be long before you're reading an e-mail telling you all about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Trouble is, much of the information flying around the Internet isn't reliable. Just ask Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, suspended last year by his bosses for a column on the signers, the gist of which had been zipping around on the Internet.

So, for the record, here's a portrait of the men who pledged "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" for liberty 225 years ago:

Fifty-six men from each of the original 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Nine of the signers were immigrants, two were brothers and two were cousins. One was an orphan. The average age of a signer was 45. Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate at 70. The youngest was Thomas Lynch Jr. of South Carolina at 27.

Eighteen of the signers were merchants or businessmen, 14 were farmers, and four were doctors. Twenty-two were lawyers — although William Hooper of North Carolina was "disbarred" when he spoke out against the king — and nine were judges. Stephen Hopkins had been governor of Rhode Island. Forty-two signers had served in their colonial legislatures.

John Witherspoon of New Jersey was the only active clergyman to attend. (Indeed, he wore his pontificals to the sessions.) Almost all were Protestants. Charles Carroll of Maryland was the lone Roman Catholic.

Seven of the signers were educated at Harvard, four at Yale, four at William & Mary, and three at Princeton. Witherspoon was the president of Princeton, and George Wythe was a professor at William & Mary. His students included Declaration scribe Thomas Jefferson.

Seventeen signers fought in the American Revolution. Thomas Nelson was a colonel in the Second Virginia Regiment and then commanded Virginia military forces at the Battle of Yorktown. William Whipple served with the New Hampshire militia and was a commanding officer in the decisive Saratoga campaign. Oliver Wolcott led the Connecticut regiments sent for the defense of New York and commanded a brigade of militia that took part in the defeat of General Burgoyne. Caesar Rodney was a major general in the Delaware militia; John Hancock held the same rank in the Massachusetts militia.

The British captured five signers during the war. Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, and Arthur Middleton were captured at the Battle of Charleston in 1780. George Walton was wounded and captured at the Battle of Savannah. Richard Stockton of New Jersey never recovered from his incarceration at the hands of British Loyalists. He died in 1781.

Thomas McKean of Delaware wrote John Adams that he was "hunted like a fox by the enemy — compelled to remove my family five times in a few months …". Abraham Clark of New Jersey had two of his sons captured by the British during the war.

Eleven signers had their homes and property destroyed. Francis Lewis's New York home was razed and his wife taken prisoner. John Hart's farm and mills were destroyed when the British invaded New Jersey, and he died while fleeing capture. Carter Braxton and Nelson, both of Virginia, lent large sums of their personal fortunes to support the war effort but were never repaid.

Fifteen of the signers participated in their states' constitutional conventions, and six — Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Franklin, George Clymer, James Wilson, and George Reed — signed the U.S. Constitution.

After the Revolution, 13 signers went on to become governors. Eighteen served in their state legislatures. Sixteen became state and federal judges. Seven became members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Six became U.S. senators. James Wilson and Samuel Chase became Supreme Court justices. Jefferson, Adams, and Elbridge Gerry each became vice president. Adams and Jefferson later became president.

Five signers played major roles in the establishment of colleges and universities: Franklin and the University of Pennsylvania; Jefferson and the University of Virginia; Benjamin Rush and Dickinson College; Lewis Morris and New York University; and George Walton and the University of Georgia.

Adams, Jefferson, and Carroll were the longest surviving signers. Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll was the last signer to die — in 1832 at the age of 95.

Thankfully, their ideas live on.

[Sources:

Robert Lincoln, Lives of the Presidents of the United States, with Biographical Notices of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Brattleboro Typographical Company, 1839);

John and Katherine Bakeless, Signers of the Declaration (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969); Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989).]

—Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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