It was a glorious morning. The
sun was shining and the wind was from the southeast. Up especially early,
a tall bony, redheaded young Virginian found time to buy a new thermometer,
for which he paid three pounds, fifteen shillings. He also bought gloves
for Martha, his wife, who has ill at home.
Thomas Jefferson arrived early
at the statehouse. The temperature was 72.5 degrees and the horseflies
weren't nearly so bad at that hour. It was a lovely room, very large, with
gleaming white walls. The chairs were comfortable. Facing the single door
were two brass fireplaces, but they would not be used today.
The moment the door was shut,
and it was always kept locked, the room became an oven. The tall windows
were shut, so that loud quarreling voices could not be heard by passersby.
Small openings atop the windows allowed a slight stir of air, and also
a large number of horseflies. Jefferson records that "the horseflies were
dexterous in finding necks, and the silk of stocking was nothing to them."
All discussion was punctuated by the slap of hands on necks.
On the wall at the back, facing
the President's desk, was a panoply-consisting of a drum, swords, and banners
seized from Fort Ticonderoga the previous year.
Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold
had captured the place, shouting that they were taking it "in the name
of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"
Now Congress got to work, promptly
taking up an emergency measure about which there was discussion but no
dissention. "Resolved: That an application be made to the Committee of
Safety of Pennsylvania for a supply of flints for the troops at New York."
Then Congress transformed itself
into a committee of the whole. The Declaration of Independence was read
aloud once more, and debate resumed. Though Jefferson was the best writer
of all of them, he had been somewhat verbose. Congress hacked the excess
They did a good job, as a side-by-side
comparison of the rough draft and the final text shows. They cut the phrase
"by a self-assumed power." "Climb" was replaced by "must read," then "must"
was eliminated, then the whole sentence, and soon the whole paragraph was
Jefferson groaned as they continued
what he later called "their depredations." "Inherent and inalienable rights"
came out "certain unalienable rights," and to this day no one knows who
suggested the elegant change.
A total of 86 alterations were
made. Almost 500 words were eliminated, leaving 1,337. At last, after three
days of wrangling, the document was put to a vote.
Here in this hall Patrick Henry
had once thundered: " I am no longer a Virginian, Sir, but an American."
But today the loud, sometimes bitter argument stilled, and without fanfare
the vote was taken from north to south by colonies, as was the custom.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
There were no trumpets blown.
No one stood on his chair and cheered. The afternoon was waning and Congress
had no thought of delaying the full calendar of routine business on its
hands. For several hours they worked on many other problems before adjourning
for the day.
Much To Lose
What kind of men were the 56
signers who adopted the Declaration of Independence and who, by their signing,
committed an act of treason against the crown? To each of you the names
Franklin, Adams, Hancock, and Jefferson are almost as familiar as household
Most of us, however, know nothing
of the other signers.
Who were they? What happened
I imagine that many of you are
somewhat surprised at the names not there: George Washington, Alexander
Hamilton, Patrick Henry. All were elsewhere.
Ben Franklin was the only really
old man. Eighteen were under 40; three were in their 20s. Of the 56 almost
half -24- were judges and lawyers. Eleven were merchants, 9 were landowners
and farmers, and the remaining 12 were doctors, ministers, and politicians.
With only a few exceptions,
such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, these were men of substantial property.
All but two had families. The
vast majority were men of education and standing in their communities.
They had economic security as few men had in the 18th century.
Each had more to lose from revolution
than he had to gain by it. John Hancock, one of the richest men in America,
already had a price of 500 pounds on his head.
He signed in enormous letters
so "that his Majesty could now read his name without glasses and could
now double the reward." Ben Franklin wryly noted: "Indeed we must all hang
together, otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately." Fat Benjamin
Harrison of Virginia told tiny Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: "With me
it will all be over in a minute, but you , you will be dancing on air an
hour after I am gone.
These men knew what they risked.
The penalty for treason was death by hanging. And remember: a great British
fleet was already at anchor in New York Harbor.
They were sober men. There were
no dreamy-eyed intellectuals or draft card burners here. They were far
from hot-eyed fanatics, yammering for an explosion.
They simply asked for the status
quo. It was change they resisted. It was equality with the mother country
they desired. It was taxation with representation they sought. They were
all conservatives, yet they rebelled.
It was principle, not property,
that had brought these men to Philadelphia. Two of them became presidents
of the United States. Seven of them became state governors. One died in
office as vice president of the United States. Several would go on to be
One, the richest man in America,
in 1828 founded the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. One, a delegate from Philadelphia,
was the only real poet, musician and philosopher of the signers (it was
he, Francis Hopkinson - not Betsy Ross who designed the United States flag).
Richard Henry Lee, A delegate
from Virginia, had introduced the resolution to adopt the Declaration of
Independence in June of 1776. He was prophetic in his concluding remarks:
"Why then sir, why
do we longer delay? Why still deliberate? Let this happy day give birth
to an American Republic. Let her arise not to devastate and to conquer
but to reestablish the reign of peace and law. The eyes of Europe are fixed
upon us. She demands of us a living example of freedom that may exhibit
a contrast in the felicity of the citizen to the ever increasing tyranny
which desolates her polluted shores. She invites us to prepare an asylum
where the unhappy may find solace, and the persecuted repost. If we are
not this day wanting in our duty, the names of the American Legislatures
of 1776 will be placed by posterity at the side of all of those whose memory
has been and ever will be dear to virtuous men and good citizens."
Though the resolution was formally
adopted July 4, it was not until July 8 that two of the states authorized
their delegates to sign, and it was not until August 2, that the signers
met at Philadelphia to actually put their names to the Declaration.
William Ellery, delegate from
Rhode Island, was curious to see the signers' faces as they committed this
supreme act of personal courage. He saw some men sign quickly, "but in
no face was he able to discern real fear."
Stephan Hopkins, Ellery's colleague
from Rhode Island, was a man past 60. As he signed with a shaking pen,
he declared: "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."
"Most glorious service"
Even before the list was published,
the British marked down every member of Congress suspected of having put
his name to treason. All of them became the objects of vicious manhunts.
Some were taken. Some, like Jefferson, had narrow escapes. All who had
property or families near British strongholds suffered.
- Francis Lewis, New York delegate
saw his home plundered and his estates in what is now Harlem, completely
destroyed by British soldiers. Mrs. Lewis was captured and treated with
great brutality. Though she was later exchanged for two British prisoners
though the efforts of Congress she died from the effects of her abuse.
- William Floyd, another New
York delegate, was able to escape with his wife and children across Long
Island Sound to Connecticut, where they lived as refugees without income
for seven years. When they came home they found a devastated ruin.
- Philips Livingstone had all
his great holdings in New York confiscated and his family driven out of
their home. Livingstone died in 1778 still working in Congress for the
- Louis Morris, the fourth New
York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven
years he was barred from his home and family.
- John Hart of Trenton, New
Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. Hessian soldiers
rode after him, and he escaped in the woods. While his wife lay on her
deathbed, the soldiers ruined his farm and wrecked his homestead. Hart,
65, slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When
at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found
his wife had already been buried, and his 13 children taken away. He never
saw them again. He died a broken man in 1779, without ever finding his
- Dr. John Witherspoon, signer,
was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The
British occupied the town of Princeton, and billeted troops in the college.
They trampled and burned the finest college library in the country.
- Judge Richard Stockton, another
New Jersey delegate signer, had rushed back to his estate in an effort
to evacuate his wife and children. The family found refuge with friends,
but a Tory sympathizer betrayed them. Judge Stockton was pulled from bed
in the night and brutally beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into
a common jail, he was deliberately starved. Congress finally arranged for
Stockton's parole, but his health was ruined. The judge was released as
an invalid, when he could no longer harm the British cause. He returned
home to find his estate looted and did not live to see the triumph of the
revolution. His family was forced to live off charity.
- Robert Morris, merchant prince
of Philadelphia, delegate and signer, met Washington's appeals and pleas
for money year after year. He made and raised arms and provisions which
made it possible for Washington to cross the Delaware at Trenton. In the
process he lost 150 ships at sea, bleeding his own fortune and credit almost
- George Clymer, Pennsylvania
signer, escaped with his family from their home, but their property was
completely destroyed by the British in the Germantown and Brandywine campaigns.
- Dr. Benjamin Rush, also from
Pennsylvania, was forced to flee to Maryland. As a heroic surgeon with
the army, Rush had several narrow escapes.
- John Martin, a Tory in his
views previous to the debate, lived in a strongly loyalist area of Pennsylvania.
When he came out for independence, most of his neighbors and even some
of his relatives ostracized him. He was a sensitive and troubled
man, and many believed this action killed him. When he died in 1777, his
last words to his tormentors were: "Tell them that they will live to see
the hour when they shall acknowledge it [the signing] to have been the
most glorious service that I have ever rendered to my country."
- William Ellery, Rhode Island
delegate, saw his property and home burned to the ground.
- Thomas Lynch, Jr., South Carolina
delegate, had his health broken from privation and exposures while serving
as a company commander in the military. His doctors ordered him to seek
a cure in the West Indies and on the voyage he and his young bride were
drowned at sea.
- Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton,
and Thomas Heyward, Jr., the other three South Carolina signers, were taken
by the British in the siege of Charleston. They were carried as prisoners
of war to St. Augustine, Florida, where they were singled out for indignities.
They were exchanged at the end of the war, the British in the meantime
having completely devastated their large landholdings and estates.
- Thomas Nelson, signer of Virginia,
was at the front in command of the Virginia military forces. With British
General Charles Cornwallis in Yorktown, fire from 70 heavy American guns
began to destroy Yorktown piece by piece. Lord Cornwallis and his staff
moved their headquarters into Nelson's palatial home. While American cannonballs
were making a shambles of the town, the house of Governor Nelson remained
untouched. Nelson turned in rage to the American gunners and asked, "Why
do you spare my home?" They replied, "Sir, out of respect to you." Nelson
cried, "Give me the cannon!" and fired on his magnificent home himself,
smashing it to bits. But Nelson's sacrifice was not quite over. He had
raised $2 million for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates.
When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them,
and Nelson's property was forfeited. He was never reimbursed. He died,
impoverished, a few years later at the age of 50.
Lives, fortunes, honor
Of those 56 who signed the Declaration
of Independence, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five
were captured and imprisoned, in each case with brutal treatment. Several
lost wives, sons or entire families. One lost his 13 children. Two wives
were brutally treated. All were at one time or another the victims of manhunts
and driven from their homes.
Twelve signers had their homes
Seventeen lost everything they
owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word. Their honor,
and the nation they sacrificed so much to create is still intact.
And, finally, there is the New
Jersey Signer, Abraham Clark.
He gave two sons to the officer
corps in the Revolutionary Army. They were captured and sent to that infamous
British prison hulk afloat in New York Harbor known as the hell ship "Jersey,"
where 11,000 American captives were to die. The younger Clarks were treated
with a special brutality because of their father.
One was put in solitary and
given no food. With the end almost in sight with the war almost won, no
one could have blamed Abraham Clark for acceding to the British request
when they offered him his sons' lives if he would recant and come out for
the King and Parliament. The utter despair in this man's heart, the anguish
in his very soul, must reach out to each and one of us down through 200
years with the answer: "No."
The 56 signers of the Declaration
of Independence proved by their every deed that they made no idle boast
when they composed the most magnificent curtain line in history. "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."
- Rush H. Limbaugh, Jr.
Rush Limbaugh, radio commentator,
is the son of Rush H. Limbaugh Jr.
Rush's web address is www.rushlimbaugh.com