With July 4th just around the corner, everyone is firing up the grill and stockpiling fireworks. Soon, flags will be flying, and sunscreen-slathered people will line the streets to sweat through yet another Fourth of July parade.
Over 200 years ago, the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were sweating, too . . . but for reasons other than a July heat wave. Today, we view these men as patriots. But in their day, their act branded them as traitors. And treason against the Crown was a capital offense, punishable by hanging.
Yet, realizing they’d signed their death warrants, several signers joked about it. John Hancock reputedly set down his pen, stating, “There, John Bull [his euphemism for the king] can read my name without spectacles.” And Ben Franklin facetiously observed that the signers must “hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.”
So, who were these men that stared boldly into the face of death? Among their ranks, we find one musician, one teacher, one printer, nine farmers, 11 merchants, and 25 legal professionals. All had good incomes and respectable images. And by that time, the war had been in progress for over a year. So, when the signers put pen to paper, they knew what pledging their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” could entail.
Here are some of the sacrifices these men endured to make our celebrations possible.
- John Hancock—After signing the Declaration, Hancock and his family fled to Baltimore to avoid capture. Due to the stress of the flight, his infant daughter died.
- Richard Stockton—A New Jersey Supreme Court Judge, Stockton returned home after signing the Declaration to find a Tory sympathizer had betrayed him. His loved ones fled, but Stockton endured beatings and imprisonment. During his incarceration, the Tories burned his possessions and stole his horses.
- Carter Braxton—A wealthy planter and trader before the war, Braxton lost his shipping fleet to the British Navy. He later sold his plantations due to debts amassed from donating to the American cause.
- Francis Lewis—This patriot lost his home, his property . . . and later his wife (Elizabeth Annesley Lewis), whom the enemy incarcerated to demoralize him. Elizabeth, a patriot in her own right, made the ultimate sacrifice and inspired her community. She showed tremendous bravery as the enemy attacked and pillaged her home and later jailed her under deprived conditions.
- John Hart—Barely escaping capture at his wife’s sick bed, he fled into the wilderness and scraped out an existence in caves. He returned home to find his wife dead, his 13 children missing, and his farm and mill in ruins. Unable to locate his missing children, he died of sorrow and exhaustion.
- Thomas McKean—Possibly the last signer of the Declaration, McKean had to live constantly on the run with his family to avoid capture. He served in Congress with no compensation and lost all his material possessions.
Among the 56 signers, five endured capture and torture, nine died in the war, two had sons captured by the enemy, and two lost sons in battle. Twelve more saw their homes pillaged and burned, and 17 lost all their worldly possessions.
In the midst of celebrations, fireworks, and manning the grill, these reminders seem morbid. Yet, they serve a useful purpose. For over 200 years, heroes of every race and gender have fought to make our freedoms possible. So, as you finalize your July 4th plans, consider the veterans in your circle of family and friends. Invite them to dinner, send them a card, and thank them for their sacrificial service.