Then & Now: Founding Fathers Risk Life, Build a Nation

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

Poll any audience today to all what they’d risk life for and easy answers roll off tongues—family, God, country.  But then widen the sacrifice:  what would you also risk your family, your bank account, your home for—not just yourself.  That answer is harder and few, very few, ever answer they would risk all for an idea, a theory.

Yet this is the question members of the Continental Congress answered on July 4, 1776, when they voted to make Jefferson’s final draft—after their revisions and input—the official Declaration of Independence.  They wouldn’t sign until August 2 after all 13 colonies had approved it, but on July 4, they sent the text to printer John Dunlap.  He typeset and ran 200 copies or “broadsides”—about the size of a sheet of newspaper and those broadsides were then carried by messengers on horseback to each colony to be read to the public.  And copies were also sent to military and political leaders.  For example, on July 8, Col. John Nixon of Philadelphia read it to a large crowd outside the State House (now Independence Hall.)  And the next day, Gen. George Washington read it to his troops assembled in NY.

Between July 6-19, many colonial newspapers published the text and on July 28, a broadside was sent to the British.  This final act assured there was no turning back.  It dissolved all allegiance to the crown and affirmed a revolution was underway—against the greatest military force in the world at that time.

I’ve never forgotten how my love of history and of words imploded when I first read the Declaration of Independence in 11th grade.  I was blown away from the start “When in the Course of Human events….” That phrase suddenly connected me to all humanity, to all mankind.  Then came the explanation of why it was written:  “When in the Course of Human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume…the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…a decent respect…requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

And then came, “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 rights to life and liberty had been around—but the idea of seeking happiness was new and also that phrase “They should declare causes”—they have to give reasons for the revolution.  Then came another startling idea:  “To secure the rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We would become the first society based on the “consent of the governed.”  Yet we were also warned against changing government for “light and transient causes.”  But we also held that when life exists under a despot—as they felt King George had proved himself to be—a society not only has the right but also the duty to rebel.  Thus came a long list of specific abuses by the king, then a closing and sworn pledge to each other:    “And for support of the Declaration—and with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence—we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.” Consider that pledge Our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor”—wow!  And they meant it.  That day in August 51 men would sign and 5 more later.

John Hancock signed first boldly commenting he wanted “John Bull to be able to read it without his spectacles,” but he also worried.  He added, “We must be unanimous…we must all hang together.”  And Benjamin Franklin came back with, “Yes, we must indeed all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

This was no small step.  Each knew the consequences, knew that lives, fortunes, and honor would be their cost if the revolution failed.  In fact the list of signatures wasn’t published for six months—in December after Washington’s victory at Trenton the day after Christmas 1776.

What kind of men were these?  Eight had been born in Britain, the other 48 here.  Their average age was 46; with 18 in their 20’s & 30’s, 20 in their 40’s while the 50’s and 60’s claimed 17 and 1, Franklin, was 70.  It was a versatile and diverse group: 25 lawyers, 12 merchants, 9 landowners, 4 physicians, 2 farmers, 1 clergyman, and 2 fulltime politicians who had no other occupation.  Nine would lose their lives, 4 were taken prisoner by the British.  Several lost their estates.

One of the saddest stories was that of Richard Stockton of NJ.  He became the first captured.  He had been sent by Congress to inspect the troops at Saratoga where he found great need—colonials marching without leggings or shoes, leaving bloody tracks.  And while he was away from home, the British had invaded NJ and sacked “Morvan” his beautiful estate.  He returned to the devastation and moved his family to a friend’s home at Monmouth.  A Loyalist informed the Brits  who captured him and jailed him at Perth Amboy—then NY city.  Poorly fed, housed in freezing cells and treated badly, his health was broken and he died at 50 before the war was ended.  He had truly sacrificed his life and fortune.

Francis Lewis of NY also faced such a major loss.  He lost his wife.  The British captured her while he was away from home, first seizing and destroying their house on Long Island.  She was held for weeks without a bed or change of clothes.  When she was finally exchanged for two officers wives we had captured, her health had deteriorated so badly that she died soon after.

Losses abound.  Seventeen signers suffered great property loss.  Nine lost their lives.  Yet not one lost his “Sacred Honor.”  Not one man went back on the pledge made when he signed that landmark document.  So when you celebrate July 4th this year, celebrate also those brave men willing to risk everything for an idea.  They had simply believed in a new government based on consent of the governed, and they risked everything for it.  They left this idea, this great historic landmark which has been a source of inspiration for generations to follow—here and abroad.

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  1. bruce ritchie says

    What if we put away our flags for a day (as Howard Zinn has said) and just be a citizen of the world? Perhaps we might try to look at our conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and multiple other meddlings from the stand point of the ‘other.’ Are we more compassionate overseas than England was to us?
    What if the fourth of July became more than a boast about our biting the hand that fed us, and became our own turning around? What if our pride came from massive renewable energy programs and rethinking/reworking our whole economy? What if we brought our troops home immediately and used them to retool and rework our transit, our power grid, and our whole way of living? Then, if we began to export those skills to the rest of the world, we could truly be PROUD of our country.
    As it is, we seem stuck on the idea of spreading disposable/dirty killing around the world, when we all really need green/clean living. On this fourth of July, let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much, let’s just roll up our sleeves, cause we’ve got a lot of changes to make. Let’s get at it!

  2. says

    Well done, Nancy. A very interesting narrative. Please correct me if you feel I am wrong on this point, but I believe all of the rhetoric describing George III as a tyrant and despot was designed to stir emotions of the rebels, and that at that point the monarchy was very nearly the figurehead it is today and had very little control of Parliament. I’ve often wondered if the issue of slavery would have been resolved decades earlier had we not revolted against our mother country. Had the rebels used Ghandi’s strategy and tactics, could we have achieved our goals (fair representation or self-rule), remained part of the British Commonwealth and avoided the bloodshed and the prolonged evils of slavery?

    The corollary question is: Would those who now rail against the federal government and invoke terms such as “tyranny” be satisfied with any government that did not meet their narrowly defined interpretation of the “General Welfare” clause of the Constitution?

  3. Jay Bender says

    That is a wonderful article, Nancy! And David, the issue of slavery deserves further discussion. It was an evil that caused a national wound that still needs healing.

    • David Rood says

      It is an irony that the colonies separated from Britain in the name of liberty, which allowed them to continue the institution of slavery decades after it was abolished in our mother country.

  4. Jay Bender says

    I believe that the institution of slavery still leaves a deep wound in this country that will require lots of dialogue and healing action.

  5. Jay Bender says

    I am serous and there are many people, David, who feel that it is simply history and there are no wounds. I believe that the race issue needs to be addressed in this country and constructively.

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