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The Garden State’s Richard Stockton, memorialized with a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike and a statue in the U.S. Capitol, endured perhaps the worst treatment at the enemy’s hands. The British burned his library, destroyed his livestock, looted his property, and placed him in a prison for common criminals. Captured while on the run, Stockton, Lossing notes, “remained a prisoner for some time, and, on account of his position as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, he was treated with great severity. The hardships he endured shattered his constitution, and when he found himself almost a beggar, through the vandalism of the British in destroying his estate, and by the depreciation of the continental paper currency, he was seized with a despondency from which he never recovered.” He suffered from cancer and died before the Treaty of Paris.
Robert Morris, “financier of the Revolution,” paid Washington’s soldiers out of his pocket and launched a private navy that lost scores of ships. The fledgling republic’s richest man, for reasons mostly unrelated to the Revolution, landed in a debtor’s prison during his old age. There are 311 million freemen in debt to Morris today.
Two-hundred-thirty-six July Fourths later, politicians occasionally lose their offices for actions they take. But they don’t lose their homes. Public service often leads to private wealth. It doesn’t demand the private wealth of public servants. The old men who vote young men into battle generally don’t take up arms alongside them. Today, politicians who break the laws they are entrusted to make generally don’t go to jail. Then, politicians who demonstrated their patriotism on the battlefield found themselves imprisoned. There is something special about this day because there was something special about the fifty-six men who made this day famous.
Their lives gave power to their words. When the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” they made no empty boast.
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