The Declaration of Independence ends with one of the most passionate appeals ever put to words and memorized by yesterdays grade school child: “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.” Their action would bring on war against the then greatest power on earth, and no European strategist gave them a ghost of a chance, yet they stood.
And, of course, a goodly number did suffer loss of life and property as a result. Most paid a remarkably high price for taking their stand. In a wrathful spirit of revenge, the enemy singled them out for harsh vengeance. Five were captured and imprisoned and two others barely escaped captivity. Richard Stockton, one of those captured after his whereabouts, was betrayed by a loyalist informer, was dragged from bed in the middle of the night, severely beaten and thrown into prison, where he underwent continual abuse and also suffered malnourishment. By the time Congress arranged for his exchange, he was broken physically and never recovered. He had also lost almost all his property.
Unable to capture Abraham Clark, another signatory, the British took their wrath out on his two sons, who were imprisoned on the notorious prison ship Jersey. Word was sent to Clark that his boys would be freed if he would disown the revolutionary cause and praise the British Crown. At his refusal, his sons were singled out for cruel treatment. One was placed in a tiny cell and given no food. Fellow prisoners kept him alive by laboriously pushing tiny bits of food through a keyhole. Both sons somehow survived their ordeal.
The British had a particular zeal for destroying the homes and property of the signers. Those suffering this fate included Benjamin Harrison, George Clymer, Dr. John Witherspoon, Philip Livingston, William Hooper and William Floyd. The sacrifices of John Hart and Francis Lewis are particularly noteworthy. While his wife lay gravely ill, Redcoats destroyed Hart’s growing crops and ripped his many gristmills to pieces. Bent on taking him, they chased him for several days. They almost nabbed him in a wooded area, but he hid in a cave. When he returned home with his health broken, he found his wife dead and their 13 children scattered.
The story of Francis Lewis was equally tragic. When the British plundered and burned his home at Whitestone on Long Island, they took his wife prisoner. She was thrown into a foul barracks and treated cruelly. For several months she had to sleep on the floor and was given no change of clothing. George Washington was able eventually to arrange for her exchange for two wives of British officers the Continental Army was holding prisoner. Her health was so undermined that she died two years later.
Thomas Nelson Jr., another signatory, made one of the most unusual sacrifices of the war. At Yorktown the British had selected his residence as headquarters. Washington, reluctant to destroy his compatriot’s beautiful home, was directed to do so by Nelson himself.
Probably John Quincy Adams, a son of one of the 55 patriots making the above pledge and later a president of the United States, said it best: “Posterity, You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it. Let us never forget that liberty is not free. It was purchased and maintained by the blood of those before us.”
Let this be a warning to those who would take it from us now; we too are standing "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence," mutually pledging "to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" as well.
Dr. Harold Pease is an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 25 years at Taft College. To read more of his weekly articles visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.