“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.