The Americans Who Risked Everything
(56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence)
By Rush H. Limbaugh, Jr.
(Father of notable radio host, Rush Limbaugh)
"...our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor..."
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 was ill at home.
Thomas Jefferson arrived early at the statehouse. The temperature was
72.5: 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 as 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 if
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 dissension. "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 away. 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 cut. 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
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 words. Most of us,
however, know nothing of the other signers. Who were they? What
happened to them?
I imagine that many of you are somewhat surprised at the names not
there: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry. All were
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 land-owners 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 letter 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 U.S.
Senators. 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
Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, had introduced the
resolution to adopt the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776.
He was prophetic is 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 repose. If we are not this day wanting in
our duty, the names of the American legislators 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." Stephen 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 through 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.
Phillips 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 cause.
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
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 family.
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 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 evolution. 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 dry.
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
John Morton, 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 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 land holdings 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
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 completely burned.
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 the 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 one of us down
through 200 years with his 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."