Most of us enjoy birthday parties unless we dwell too much on how the years accumulate to age us. As we think of America’s birthday, July 4, we celebrate 229 years of our country’s independent existence. We will gather as families to have picnics. Some will travel, taking a week or more of vacation. Fireworks and special patriotic events will inspire us. The colors red, white and blue will be much in evidence. July 4 is a birthday to remember what the founding fathers believed in and what they fought to secure.
Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence, with assistance from committee members John Adams of Massachusetts, Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.
John Adams wrote about the document: “There is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.” His reference was concerning the declaration of rights and violations of those rights. James Otis had printed most of the complaints against Great Britain in a pamphlet in Boston in 1774 which Samuel Adams had approved.
It is awe-inspiring to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia and see the table on which the members of the Continental Congress signed the document, making it the official Declaration of War as well as the Declaration of Independence. In July of 1776 independence stretched ahead through years of bitter combat and loss of countless lives.
Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania wrote of the signing: “Do you recall the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants?”
The document ended with these notable words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” They did not fear to offend by reference to the Sovereign God.
The 56 men who signed from the United Colonies (“and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States”) they represented were: New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton; Massachusetts: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry; Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery; Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott; New York: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris; New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark; Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross; Delaware: Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean; Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll (of Carrollton); Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee; Carter Braxton; North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn; South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward Jr., Thomas Lynch Jr., Arthur Middleton; Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton.
The men went to Philadelphia at a busy time of the year, leaving their farms and businesses. Their transportation was on horseback or by carriage. They provided their own upkeep on the journey and while in the city.
To “pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” proved the ultimate test. Five of the signers were captured by the British, declared traitors, and tortured brutally before they died. Two lost sons serving in the Revolutionary War. Twelve had their homes invaded, ransacked and burned and their families were scattered. Nine fought and died from wounds received in the war. Carter Braxton’s ships were swept from the seas by the British Navy and he lost his home and property to pay his debts. Thomas McKean of Delaware had to move his family constantly. He lost his possessions and died in poverty. Property was looted and destroyed owned by Ellery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Rutledge, Middleton, Hart and others. The story continues with all 56 and their sacrifices of “lives, fortunes, sacred honor.”
Those patriots of 229 years ago and following fought British dominion. They also fought to establish a government “of the people, for the people, by the people.” The men were not ruffians or rabble-rousers. They were men of education, professionalism and economic means. When the war began, they had security. But they valued freedom more and risked all they had for it.
On the Fourth of July we remember. We lift our hearts to salute them and the hosts of patriots since. We know that freedom is never free.
[References: Eyewitness to America, edited by David Colbert, Pantheon Books, 1997. Various internet links with Declaration of Independence websites: Universities, National Archives and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress.]
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 30, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.