The High Cost of Independence

Recently we here in the U.S. celebrated the 233rd Anniversary of our Independence Day.  It is, as I hope you remember from your history lessons, the day upon which Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. The legal separation from England, however, actually occurred on July 2, two days earlier. This is when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution offered by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, which had been tendered to the Congress on June 7.

From it we draw the historic words, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States…” The resolution was tabled for the day and taken up on June 8.  But because some of the colonies, including Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, had not authorized their delegates to vote for independence (imagine that: politicians who are faithful to their constituents) the congress recessed for three weeks for the men to return home to find their colonies’ will.

Before recessing however, the congress appointed the famous Committee of Five, John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Thomas Jefferson (VA), Robert Livingston (NY), and Roger Sherman (CT), to produce a document that laid out the case for independence.  The committee tasked Jefferson with the writing of the document, and the bulk of the work was his.  After his initial draft, he presented it to the committee, who made only minor revisions.  Then it was off to the Congress, where the debate really commenced.

The Congress re-convened on June 28, 1776.

It had been a hot spell in Philadelphia.  Jefferson records that on his way to what is now known as Independence Hall, he stopped to look at a thermometer.  Even in the early morning, it was already 80 degrees and rising.  Inside the hall, which was all closed up to avoid the heated debate being heard in the streets outside, some have estimated the temperatures at 100 degrees.  In the humid, bug infested convention, (there was a livery stable next door), the temperature was not the only thing rising.

Jefferson’s own design was to create a document that by its plainness and simplicity would be instructive and convincing, with arguments so plain and straightforward that none could contest them as they set forth the case for independence.  Hoping to create a document that would convince those who read it, not the least of which were many fence-sitting colonists, he listed a long section of the crimes of the King against the colonies, many of which were eventually omitted.  He also had written a substantial portion on the illegitimacy of the slave trade in MEN (capitalization was Jefferson’s).  That too was eventually stricken from the finished edit.

There were those who refused to vote.  There was even an abstention from New York in the final tally.  The young nation was being stressed at every seam in that hot, humid hall.

But on July 2, 1776, the cornerstone of the new nation had been formed.

A day later, July 3, future president John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail the following words.

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.  It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp, and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illumination, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

His spirit was right, even if his timing was off by a couple days.

What was once memorized by grade school children as a world-shaping piece of literature is now known by very few modern students.

However, it’s final lines bear repeating…

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of the Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration, some names are still common among us:  Franklin, Jefferson and Hancock.  But the remaining 53 have been largely forgotten.  What kind of men were they?  What did they stand to gain from this Revolution?

They ranged in age from 23 (Edward Rutledge of South Carolina) to age 80 (Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania).  24 of them were lawyers or judges, 11 of them were merchants of various kinds, nine were farmers, and the remaining members were ministers, doctors, and statesmen.

With just a handful of exceptions, these were all men of substantial education, property and public standing.  As compared with the rest of the populace of the 1700’s, they had blessings, eases, and pleasures in life enjoyed by very few.  All of them had more to lose, than they had to gain.

John Hancock, who already had a bounty of 500 pounds on his head, was one of the wealthiest of the signers.  From a family of considerable wealth, he inherited his mercantile fortune from his Uncle, Thomas Hancock.  He was educated at Harvard, and had all that life could give him at the time.  Yet he signed his signature with such size and flourish, that “it might be read without spectacles.”

He was not alone.  The fever of liberty was running at a high pitch.  Yet each of them knew the risks.  Treason was punished by hanging.  And the consequences did not end with themselves, but extended to their families as well.  And there was already a massive English fleet docked in the harbor at New York.

And Hancock’s actions did not go unnoticed by the British.  Nor did the those of the other suspected signers.  All of them became ferociously hunted.  Delegates from New York, William Floyd, Philips Livingston, Louis Morris, and Francis Lewis, each had their homes destroyed.  Mrs. Lewis was captured and brutalized.  Though later exchanged for two British prisoners, she never recovered.  The Floyds were able to flee from New York into Connecticut, where they lived as refugees for the next seven years.  Upon their return, they found nothing left of their estate.  Livingston, whose large possessions were confiscated, died two years later still working in Congress.  Morris was deprived of his family for the next seven years.

Delegate John Hart of New Jersey, attempted to come home to see his dying wife, but was turned back by soldiers.  As she lay dying, soldiers destroyed his livestock and burned his farm.  He was hunted from pillar to post.  When the manhunt finally relented, he returned to find his wife dead and buried.  His 13 children had been taken away.  He died three years later absolutely broken, never seeing his family again.

Judge Richard Stockton rushed home from Philadelphia to evacuate his wife and children.  Betrayed by a sympathizer to the Crown, he was torn from his bed where they were hiding in the middle of the night and subjected to a brutal beating.  He was jailed, starved, and finally released after becoming an invalid.  He did not see the end of the war or its victory, and his family was required to live off of the charitable help of friends and strangers.

The list goes on and on.  One heartbreaking, gutwrenching story after another.  Each of sacred honor, fortunes sacrificed and lives lost or forever altered.  Yet not one recanted.  Not one relented.  Not one failed to deliver on his pledge to the others.

And most remarkably, there was one man…a man who had the chance to see his family spared.  A man who could have saved his two sons if only he had rejected the colonial revolution and supported the King.  He was Abraham Clark of New Jersey.  Clark had two sons who fought for the new nation.  They were eventually captured and taken to the notorious British prison ship Jersey, where more than 11,000 American soldiers died.  The two suffered most severely for the “crimes” of their father, brutally beaten and starved.

Clark was offered his two son’s lives if he would just come out in support of the King.  To those of us who live so soft and comfortably 200 hundred years in their wake, it must seem astounding that with a broken heart, he said, “No”.

Life.  Fortune.  Sacred Honor.

Bill Jenkins

July 14, 2009