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This is a story of the strange fate of fifty-six gallant men who helped free America. Some of us may not be able to quote one line of the Declaration of Independence, but it is the basis of freedom and liberty in America. The last paragraph says, “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our scared honor.” It sounds very impressive.
What happened to the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence? George III, King of England, had denounced all rebels in America as traitors, and the punishment for treason was hanging. The names now so familiar to us from the signatures on the Declaration of Independence were kept secret for six months. Everyone knew what would happen when those names were released. The men knew when they signed that they were risking everything. They knew that if they won the fight, the best that they could expect was hard years in a struggling little country getting started, and if they lost, they would be hung. They signed. They paid the price.
Here is what happened to them: Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, lost his ships, and to pay his debts he lost his home and all his property. He died in rags. When Thomas Lynch, Jr. signed the pledge, he was a third generation rice grower, and aristocrat, a large plantation owner. Later, his health failed and his wife and he went to France to regain their health. The ship never reached France and was never heard from. Thomas McKean of Delaware was so harassed by the enemy, he was forced to move his family five times in five months. He served in the Congress without pay, his family in poverty and hiding.
Vandals looted the properties of Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Gwinnett, Walton, Heyward, Rutledge, and Middleton. Good fellow-citizen Americans looted their houses. Thomas Nelson, Jr., of Virginia, raised two million dollars on his own signature to provision the allies, the French fleet, to help fight England, and after the war he personally paid back the loans which wiped out his entire estate. His government never reimbursed him. In the final Battle of Yorktown, Nelson urged General Washington to fire on Nelson’s own home, which was occupied by Coenwallis. It was destroyed. Nelson died bankrupt and was buried in an unmarked grave.
The Hessians, German mercenaries hired by England, seized the home of Francis Hopkinson in New Jersey. Francis Lewis had his home and everything destroyed; his wife was imprisoned an died within a few months. Richard Stockton was captured and mistreated, his health broken, and his estate pillaged. Thomas Heyward, Jr. was captured when Charleston fell. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside while she was dying, their thirteen children fled in all directions for their lives. His fields and gristmill were laid waste. For more than a year he lived in forest and caves, his children and properties gone; he died a few weeks later of exhaustion and a broken heart.
Lewis Morris saw his land destroyed and his family scattered. Philip Livingston died of the hardships of the war within a few months. Of the fifty-six men, few survived. Five were captured by British and tortured; twelve had their homes ransacked, looted and occupied by the enemy or burned; two lost their sons in the army and one had two sons captured; nine of the fifty-six died in the war from its hardships or from more merciful bullets.
These weren’t poor men or wild-eyed pirates; they were men of means, rich men. They enjoyed as much ease and luxury as anyone could have in that time. These are the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Those who burn and spit on the flag today are not worthy of these men. It takes courage to be true to what you believe. We talk so much today about security; these men had security! But security did not mean as much to them as a free nation, a nation with liberty. If these men had not laid their all on the line and lost everything, America would not have become one of the foremost nations in the world. It would not have been able to give and to have done what it has done.
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