Some lost everything for the pursuit of human liberty.
“Thomas Jefferson lives,” John Adams whispered in his final hours. But five hundred miles south, Thomas Jefferson had expired earlier that day. “This is the Fourth of July,” the third president muttered on his last day. The rival he defeated for that high office likewise observed, “It is a great day. It is a good day.” It was the end of his days. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Fourth of July, the man who introduced the motion to declare independence and the man who drafted the document doing so both died.
Not every signer of the Declaration of Independence enjoyed a storybook ending.
Seventy-two years after Independence Day, B.J. Lossing portrayed the fifty-six colonists who affixed their names to the parchment dissolving the political ties with the mother country and boldly outlining principles of human freedom. In pre-paperback publishing, Lossing sought to inform the “humbler ones” who “are equal inheritors of the throne of the people’s sovereignty” about their forebears, so he condensed their stories “into the space of a volume so small, that the price of it would make it accessible to our whole population.” It has since been a tradition of sorts, with efforts sometimes boasting an excess of enthusiasm but a deficit of accuracy, to condense Lossing’s thumbnail sketches even further to celebrate the Fourth of July.
The holiday truly is a holy day to lovers of America.
No signer signed his life away on July 4, 1776. Many effectively signed away where they lived. The British expropriated Lewis Morris’s New York home to use as a military barracks. They torched William Ellery’s Newport, Rhode Island abode. They sacked the property of Pennsylvania’s George Clymer after he absconded to safety with his family. Thomas Nelson, Jr., confronted with the enemy dwelling where he once did, ordered his own mansion shelled.
New Jersey’s beleaguered John Hart didn’t survive to see the Revolution won. “His farm was ravaged, his timber destroyed, his cattle and stock butchered for the use of the British army,” Lossing wrote, “and he himself was hunted like a noxious beast, not daring to remain two nights under the same roof.”
Other signers of the Declaration of Independence lost their independence. The British captured South Carolina’s Thomas Heyward, Edward Rutledge, and Arthur Middleton in battle at Charleston and imprisoned them outside of the United States in St. Augustine. Georgian George Walton, shot in the thigh and off his horse, fell into enemy hands while defending Savannah.
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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