H eroes, it has been said, are ordinary men who do extraordinary things. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe some are a little more extraordinary than others.
When our Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by the first Continental Congress, was adopted on July 4, 1776, it was decision time. All the talk that had led up to that point would have been meaningless unless someone were willing to stand up and be counted—and the count came to fifty-six.
Fifty-six men signed the document that now resides in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. Fifty-six men decided independence from Great Britain and freedom from oppression were more important than peace and safety. Fifty-six men pledged their fortunes, and even their lives and the lives of their families, to an abstract cause with no guarantee of any return. Fifty-six men committed treason against their country.
Treason is a strong word, but the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were British subjects, and had to turn their backs on the crown in order to become free American citizens. They had to risk everything they owned for the cause of liberty. The last line of the document, the one above their signatures, says, “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.”
Benjamin Harrison, an at-large delegate from Virginia, turned to slender Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and said, “With me it will all be over in a minute, but you, you will be dancing on air an hour after I am gone.” It was on that day that Ben Franklin said, “Indeed we must all hang together, otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.”
Those men knew what they were doing. John Hancock, for whom a bounty of 500 pounds was already offered, signed his name in large, flowery letters so that “his Majesty could now read his name without glasses and could now double the reward.”
The penalty for treason was death by hanging, and a large British fleet was even then at anchor in New York Harbor. The risks were great and imminent. Fifty-six men signed anyway.
Though the list was not published for several months, the British marked down every member of Congress suspected of having signed. They were the targets of vicious manhunts, and those with family or property near British strongholds were especially vulnerable.
What kind of man takes pen in hand and signs his name to a piece of paper that guarantees that his country will call him a traitor? What does he say to his wife and children when he goes home? How does he sleep when he lies down at night?
The signers were all well-respected in their communities, and most were men of wealth, although there were a few of extremely modest means. They all had something to lose, some more than others, but they all must have felt they had more to gain.
Nine of those men died of wounds or other hardships during the Revolutionary War. Five of them were captured by the British and treated brutally in prison. Several of them lost their wives and children, a dozen lost their homes, and 17 lost everything they owned.
Thomas Nelson, Governor of Virginia, was in command of the Virginia military forces, which were shelling Yorktown where British General Cornwallis and his troops were stationed. Cornwallis moved his headquarters into Nelson’s huge home, so the American cannoneers carefully directed their fire elsewhere. When Nelson noticed this he took over a cannon and attacked his home himself. He was also never repaid $2 million he raised for the revolution.
Abraham Clark’s two sons were officers in the American army. Both were captured and sent to the British prison ship ‘Jersey’ in New York Harbor. None of the prisoners on the ship were treated well, but the Clarks were singled out for special attention.
One was put in solitary confinement, where he was not fed at all, and survived on bits of bread passed to him through a tiny hole by his fellow prisoners. Near the end of the war the British offered to free both of Clark’s sons if he would recant and swear allegiance to the King. He refused.
Most of us sign our names several times a day without conscious thought. We seldom have to worry about the consequences of writing our names on a piece of paper. I wonder how many of us would have signed the Declaration of Independence, knowing that, by doing so, we were risking almost all we hold dear.
Because fifty-six men were willing to sign their names on a government form, the greatest nation in the world was born.
Would I have signed that piece of paper, had I been there in the statehouse on July 4, 1776, knowing what it might cost? I don’t know. Would you?
Email Kendal Hemphill at [email protected]