When the 56 Signers of The Declaration of Independence signed their names to that document, each knew they were committing treason against the British Crown. If caught and captured, they risked death. But death would not be swift. It would be by hanging to the point of unconsciousness, then being revived, disemboweled, their body parts boiled in oil and their ashes scattered into the wind. Our Founding Fathers valued freedom, for themselves and their posterity, to the extent that they found this fate worth the risk.
Second President John Adams said, “The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity…I will avow that I believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”
The Declaration of Independence identified the source of all authority and rights as “Their Creator,” and then accentuated that individual human rights were God-given, not man-made.
In that core group of delegates, according to public record were 28 Episcopalians, 8 Pres- byterians, 7 Congregationalists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodists, Roman Catholics, 1 unknown, and 3 deists (those who believe in an impersonal God), who gave the world its initial impetus but then left it to run its course).
Pictured above: Thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson wrote most of this document. In approximately two weeks, he penned it in two rented rooms in the home of Graff, a noted bricklayer.
The universal words were carefully chosen, but it was individuals who signed their names. The Declaration of Independence was seditious and a break-up letter never to be forgotten.
What were their professions? Twenty-five were lawyers or jurists. Eleven were merchants. Nine were farmers or large plantation owners. One was a teacher, one a musician, and one a printer. These were men of means and education, yet they signed the Declaration of Independence, knowing full well that the penalty could be death if they were captured.
Their commitments were heart-felt. As Abraham Clark said, “Let us prepare for the worst. We can die here but once.”
Five were captured by the British and brutally tortured as traitors. Nine fought in the War for Independence and died from wounds or hardships they suffered. Two lost their sons in the Continental Army. Another two had sons captured. At least a dozen of the fifty-six had their homes pillaged and burned. Seventeen lost everything they owned. The British jailed Francis Lewis’ wife for two months, and that and other hardships from the war so affected her health that she died only two years later.
Thomas Heyward, Jr., Edward Rutledge, and Arthur Middleton, all of South Carolina, were captured by the British during the Charleston Campaign in 1780. They were kept in dungeons at the St. Augustine Prison until exchanged a year later.
Such were the stories and sacrifices typical of those who risked everything to sign this precious document. They were soft-spoken men of means and education who were passionate about their country. They had security, but they valued liberty more. Standing tall, straight, and unwavering, they pledged:
“For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of the Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
The basement of Independence Hall in Philadelphia once served as the city’s dog pound, and the second floor was once the home to Charles Wilson Peale’s museum of natural history. Windows were kept tightly closed, so that others could not hear their discussions. It is said that the elder statesman, Benjamin Franklin, would intentionally trip other delegates from his aisle seat. Serious, thoughtful, careful were the discussions, and sometimes quite loud.
“If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight!
The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I Am Not A Virginian, But An American!” Patrick Henry
And it happened here in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
This is why we celebrate July 4, 1776.