Column: Why they signed
Fifty-six gentlemen signed the Declaration of Independence, which we commemorate each July 4. On the date in 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s amended and debated proposal was approved by the Continental Congress and signed by John Hancock. Philadelphia printer John Dunlap published the first copies during the evening. Other copies followed. Four days later, news of the declaration was announced in front of the State House to cheers and spontaneous celebration. John Adams, who helped edit the document, said of the event, “The bells rung all day and almost all night. Even the chimers chimed away.” The same day, July 8, the text arrived in New York City; a town under siege by British troops. Gen. George Washington assembled his men in several places the following evening and the declaration was read to them. After the reading, soldiers and citizens marched on the city’s leaden equestrian statue of King George III and destroyed it,using the lead to make thousands of bullets for the Continental Army.
Between July and August, other delegates signed. By including their names to the document, they immediately became traitors to the British government. Some dealt with their actions with humor. Others took things more seriously. Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island is rumored to have said upon signing, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.” In either case, they were beginning something new and helping to eventually create the greatest democratic country in the world.
Writer Jon Meacham describes the moment as a nervous time. The British Army in America had a huge advantage in men and materials. Yet, Jefferson’s words began to build the creed on which the new country would, and continues, to stand upon. As British writer Sir George Trevelyan would say years later, speaking of the Revolutionary generation, “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”
The year 1776 made for a powerful moment in human history. As writer Tom Widmer suggests, “The Declaration signaled the first time the government enshrined the basic principles of human freedom in a founding charter.” Both secular and religious men saw the dawn of a new age, and a new country where people would both carry and define a unique liberty.
I have been thinking about the men who signed the document recently. By far, they were the most educated men in the American states at the time. Many had families, farms, and libraries. Most are pictured in Jonathan Trumbull’s famous 1817 painting, which is a great piece of art, but not a historically accurate one.
Who were these men? They signed knowing full well they were going to be immediate enemies to the colonies’ mother country. Their passion and commitment still reach out to us today. They suffered the loss of many things both during and after the Revolution.
Lewis Morris had his house ransacked and his livestock stolen. William Floyd’s family became refugees from their own home for almost seven years. Carter Braxton lost his entire fortune in the shipping industry. Abraham Clark’s two sons were captured and tortured. The Rev. John Witherspoon’s library was burned. George Walton became a prisoner. Francis Hopkinson’s home was invaded and destroyed. Richard Stockton was imprisoned. John Hart’s home was destroyed too. Thomas Nelson was kicked out of his home so it could be used as an enemy headquarters.
Thomas Jefferson once told a young man, “Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself.” And that is what they did.
They put country, or at least their particular state at the time, above themselves. They made a commitment and they put their entire lives at the foot of the hangman’s noose to start something new and not entirely defined. They did not force or coerce other men to sign; an important principal we should not forget.
Several of the signers did not live beyond the Revolution. They literally gave “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to their country.
President Ronald Reagan once said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We did not pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
Reagan echoed Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story who said, “Let the American youth never forget, that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils, and sufferings, and blood of their ancestors.” The Revolution was a time of blood and suffering, but people in the political, military, and civilian spheres believed in the “Glorious Cause” of freedom and kept going.
As George Washington said, “Perseverance has worked wonders in all ages.” And so we should keep going — protecting the freedoms we so enjoy.