In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot. ~Mark Twain, Notebook, 1935
On Independence Day it seems fitting that we should honor the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
|Delaware||• George Read||• Caesar Rodney|
|• Thomas McKean|
|Pennsylvania||• George Clymer||• Benjamin Franklin|
|• Robert Morris||• John Morton|
|• Benjamin Rush||• George Ross|
|• James Smith||• James Wilson|
|• George Taylor|
|Massachusetts||• John Adams||• Samuel Adams|
|• John Hancock||• Robert Treat Paine|
|• Elbridge Gerry|
|New Hampshire||• Josiah Bartlett||• William Whipple|
|• Matthew Thornton|
|Rhode Island||• Stephen Hopkins||• William Ellery|
|New York||• Lewis Morris||• Philip Livingston|
|• Francis Lewis||• William Floyd|
|Georgia||• Button Gwinnett||• Lyman Hall|
|• George Walton|
|Virginia||• Richard Henry Lee||• Francis Lightfoot Lee|
|• Carter Braxton||• Benjamin Harrison|
|• Thomas Jefferson||• George Wythe|
|• Thomas Nelson, Jr.|
|North Carolina||• William Hooper||• John Penn|
|• Joseph Hewes|
|South Carolina||• Edward Rutledge||• Arthur Middleton|
|• Thomas Lynch, Jr.||• Thomas Heyward, Jr.|
|New Jersey||• Abraham Clark||• John Hart|
|• Francis Hopkinson||• Richard Stockton|
|• John Witherspoon|
|Connecticut||• Samuel Huntington||• Roger Sherman|
|• William Williams||• Oliver Wolcott|
|Maryland||• Charles Carroll||• Samuel Chase|
|• Thomas Stone||• William Paca|
Today, we enjoy the blessings of liberty because of the brave actions of America’s Founding Fathers and of those patriots who were willing to risk everything to fight in the Continental Army. Looking back, from our vantage point in the comfortable present, at the events which culminated in the birth of a new nation called The United States of America, it’s easy to think that the result was a foregone conclusion. It was not.
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.
The concept of pledging their lives, fortunes and sacred honor were not mere words. Yet, despite the risks involved, and odds for failure being very high, the signers were willing to put their names down on parchment for all the world to read. At the time of the American Revolution, Great Britain was arguably the most powerful nation on the planet, with the most powerful navy. What these men were doing, transformed them from British subjects, to rebels, and finally into American Patriots. The last step in this evolution would only take place if the American colonies were successful in overthrowing the British yoke. Had the revolution been unsuccessful, all of these men would have forfeited their lives. In essence, in signing the Declaration, they were potentially signing their own death warrants. They were guilty of High Treason in the eyes of the British Government.1 And what was the penalty for High Treason?2
However, the treasonous party wasn’t the only one to suffer punishment. The same law also stipulates that the guilty party is also subject to “forfeiture” and “corruption of blood.” Forfeiture means that all of the persons property goes to the state. Corruption of blood prevents the person’s heirs and immediate family from owning property or businesses. The family of a person convicted of treason is ruined.
This is what the signatories of the Declarations of Independence were risking.
While winning the war was definitely preferable to losing it, signing the Declaration was only the beginning of a risky endeavor for many of these men.
Five were captured by the British, eighteen had their homes looted or burned by the enemy, and some lost everything they owned. The signers were not unique in this regard, many, less famous patriots suffered these things as well. However, by placing themselves at the forefront as they did, they were the ones most likely to be made an example. For instance, the British sought to send John Hancock and Samuel Adams to Britain for trial for treason, even prior to the Continental Congress.
Signing the Declaration of Independence marked a turning point in the struggle. Doing so indicated that a complete break with Britain was now the only option. The corruption of the British government was no longer to be perceived as confined to Parliament, but included the monarchy itself. The Declaration of Independence ushered in a new form of government that derived its powers from the consent of the governed. This was and remains a radical undertaking. Throughout history it has been the nature of governments to increase their powers at the expense of the governed. Our task is to prevent that from happening. On this day when we commemorate what the Founders did, is a good time to remember that.
1. “If a man do levy war against our lord the king in his realm” Blackstone, Wm., Knight. Chase, George, ed. Chase’s Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books. New York: Baker, Voorhis & Co., 1936, p890.