By Randy Conover
“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.” These words, the final sentence of the Declaration of Independence, must have had a sobering effect upon the delegates to the Second Continental Congress.
The document they had created, soon to be made public and copies sent to their king and his British government, was at the least a strong antagonist against those in government over them.
Reality was much more serious. Upon placing their signatures, it was understood that such an act not only could, but likely would, be declared an act of treason, a crime against the nation punishable by death.
Yet, they courageously signed anyway, why? … They believed so intensely “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” that they were willing to risk all to keep what they had always had, but was perceived now to be taken from them and their countrymen.
But, really, did any of the 56 signers of the Declaration pay for their action? Oh, certainly all 56 were to greater or smaller degrees inconvenienced by having to constantly avoid getting caught by British soldiers, but did any really pay? Well…
New Hampshire delegate William Whipple, not only signed, but further became a brigadier general in the militia, fighting battles in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and at Saratoga, the American victory that convinced France to ally with the Americans in the war. Alongside Whipple in battle was his faithful slave Prince, one of about 5000 black Americans believed to have fought on the patriot side during the war. These suffering not only the rigors of battle, but also those hardships associated with slavery.
New York signer Francis Lewis lost his home, shelled by a British warship. His 60- year-old wife survived the blasts only to be captured and imprisoned under deplorable conditions by the British, along with her slave, who soon died. Held captive for two years, finally freed but with her health ruined, she died two years later.
From New Jersey, signer Abraham Clark’s three sons were captured during the war. Son Thomas was held aboard prison ship Jersey, little more than a “floating morgue” with disease and starvation so common that scores of dead prisoners were dumped overboard to clear space for more. Aaron was held in a New York dungeon called the “Sugar House” which was but little better than the Jersey, where yet a third son, Andrew, may have died.
Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris, signer and wealthy businessman, became known as the financier of the Revolution, repeatedly finding money to fund the war effort, either his own or from his many wealthy contacts, ended life in poverty having spent several years in debtors’ prison.
Caesar Rodney of Delaware, sick at home suffering from asthma and pain from a cancerous nose and facial lesion, upon receiving word of the pending vote for independence and his voice being the deciding cast, rose from his sickbed, saddled his horse, and rode all night through a storm the eighty miles to Congress in support of independence. He certainly earned the right to sign!
Fellow asthmatic Thomas Nelson, Jr., of Virginia, likely suffered a stroke in 1777 forcing him to leave Congress. However, he not only was a signer, but despite his ongoing health problems, was appointed a brigadier general in charge of Virginia’s militia when British invasion seemed imminent. He raised funds needed to support military efforts, often using his own moneys. During the siege of Yorktown, upon discovering British officers occupying his home, he ordered his artillery to fire upon it, doing considerable damage. His moneys spent in support of the patriot cause were never reimbursed, causing him loss of his estate, ending his life considerably poorer.
North Carolina’s Joseph Hewes not only signed, but literally worked himself to death leading the establishment and provisioning the new Continental Navy. Without a family to help care for him, he regularly worked 12-hour days, ignoring food, drink, or downtime. “My country is entitled to my services, and I shall not shrink from her cause, even though it should cost me my life.” He died at age 49, too sick to travel home.
George Walton of Georgia, after signing, left Congress in 1778 to fight as a colonel in the militia. Shot in the thigh, falling from his horse, he was promptly captured by the British during the battle of Savannah. After spending nearly a year in prison, he was freed in a prisoner exchange, suffering the rest of his life with a painful limp and gout.
But the Congressional signers were not the only members of our founding generation to sacrifice and suffer during the birth of our nation. Thousands of patriot soldiers and sailors gave grave sacrifices, sickness, injury, and death to the cause. Let us not forget the unnamed wives, lovers, friends, parents, and children supporting the cause as camp followers, or on the home front far from their loved ones in worry and constant anxiety fearing that at any moment terrible news would arrive.
But not all patriot wives have been forgotten. That terrible winter of 1777-78, with the starving, freezing American army suffering in winter camp at Valley Forge, where soldiers were sharing clothes and wrapping rags about their freezing, often shoeless feet before dutifully going out from their drafty tent-cabins for guard duty or drill, bloody footprints in the snow marking their steps, Virginian Martha Washington forsook the comforts of home in Virginia to join husband George and the troops. Her presence was no doubt a major moral-support to get her husband and his army through times when despair and quitting would otherwise have been all too easy, even likely.
Abigail Adams of Massachusetts, not only ran the family farm, raised and cared for their children, and nursed the sick through potentially deadly illness while husband John was away at Congress – but also supported him with a continuous stream of “love letters,” not only sending encouragement, but also gently correcting his “male attitudes” and sharing her abundant female good sense and wisdom.
The new nation was not born overnight. Sacrifices were made even before the serious shooting started. Before the war (December, 1772) while serving as a colonial representative to the government in Britain, Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin was secretly given a packet of letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, royal Governor of Massachusetts, urging the British government to firmer treatment and other measures to control the colonies. Hoping to show the colonial leaders that Parliament was not totally to blame for their treatment of the colonies, Franklin secretly sent the letters to the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, asking that they be kept secret. That did not happen. When found out, the angry British government summoned Franklin before the Privy Council where he was publicly humiliated and abused for what British Lord North later declared Franklin’s actions and the letters — “These brought on the war.”
But sacrifices were not limited to the American east coast colonies. An ongoing war was being fought between pioneers and British-aided Amerindian tribes on the Ohio Valley/Great Lakes frontier. Longhunters Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone ( and others) were constantly “settling- in” pioneer families, rescuing hostages, providing food and supplies to the needy, fighting British and Amerindians, surviving repeated captures and tortures by the same. During their “freetime” both claimed tens of thousands of acres of prime lands throughout the Ohio\Kentucky region. After the war, they were repaid for their heroism by the increasingly “civilized” newcomers using the legal system to take those land claims from them in a series of law suits. Instead of living old age comfortably from the proceeds of their lands, both died in poverty.
George Rogers Clark, serving in the Virginia militia, was ordered to raise an army to fight on the western frontier, its expenses to be paid by Virginia. After capturing British outposts at Cahokia and Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, marching his small command in February/March, 1777, for three weeks through icy flooded lands to capture the British fort at Vincennes, making peace with numerous Amerindian tribes, and effectively winning the Northwest Territory for the Americans, at war’s end Clark could expect to receive the promised reimbursement. Instead, he was never reimbursed, lost most all of his properties to pay the debts, and also died in poverty for his country.
Countless other sacrifices, large and small, were made by the founding generation. These patriotic Americans were willing to give their all that we may have a country of liberty gifted from them. Can we do less for future generations?
Randy Conover is a retired educator. He lives in Clermont County.