July 5th, 1776: The Price of Independence

Signing of the Declaration, 1776Almost everyone knows America’s Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776, and some might even know it was written by Thomas Jefferson (with some help), published by printer John Dunlap, and took over a month to reach England.

But…what happened after those 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence?

They knew what they were planning was risky.

On June 7, 1776, after the start of the Revolutionary War caused by years of what colonists considered increasingly-repressive rule by their absentee landlords, King George II of Britain and his Parliament, delegate Richard Henry Lee of America’s Second Continental Congress proposes the colonies declare independence from Britain. Thomas Jefferson, a shy but eloquent 33 year old delegate, is selected to write the declaration, which is submitted to Congress on June 28th and signed on July 4th, 1776.

Each was aware that by signing the Declaration of Independence they could be charged with High Treason against the King of England, and if found guilty brutally executed. Today such actions would cause them to be charged as Felons.

What personal sacrifices did some of the signers endure?

  • Five of them were captured by the British as traitors – George Walton, Thomas Heyward Jr., Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge and Richard Stockton. Stockton was the only one arrested simply for signing the Declaration.
  • Twelve had their homes ransacked & burned by advancing British armies.
  • One (John Witherspoon) lost his son in the Revolutionary Army.
  • Another (Abraham Clark) had his two sons captured.
  • Nine fought and died from wounds or hardships suffered during the Revolutionary War (although none died in battle).

What kind of men were the Signers?

  • Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists.
  • Eleven were merchants.
  • Nine were farmers and large plantation owners.
  • Almost all were men of means and well educated.

Learn more about them by clicking here.

How old were they?

  • Their average age was 44 years old.
  • Four of them were in their 20′s
  • Sixteen were in their 30′s
  • The oldest, Samuel Whittemore, was 81.
  • BTW: The average life expectancy of a Caucasian Male in 1776 was 38 years.

What ultimately happened to some of them?

  • Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, had most of his ships captured by the British Navy. A series of poor financial decisions after the war forces him to sell his home and properties to pay his debts, and he died penniless.
  • Thomas McKean, who signed the Declaration later, wrote he was ““hunted like a fox by the enemy, compelled to remove my family five times in three months, and at last fixed them in a little log-house on the banks of the Susquehanna, but they were soon obliged to move again on account of the incursions of the Indians.”
  • At the battle of Yorktown, legend has it American Brigadier General Thomas Nelson Jr. offered a reward to the first American artilleryman to hit his house, which had been seized and occupied by British General Cornwallis to use as his headquarters. The house still stands, and Nelson – who was never paid back the $2,000,000 he spent funding Virginia’s war against Britain – died bankrupt, leaving a wife and 11 children. ($2M in 1776 is about $63M in 2024)
  • Button Gwinnett, after jailing the son of his political rival Lachlan McIntosh for allegedly conspiring with the British, was challenged to a duel by Lachlan and killed.
  • Francis Lewis had his home in Queens, NY destroyed. The British jailed his wife, who was released after the war and died shortly thereafter.
  • John Hart was driven from his dying wife’s bedside at their New Jersey home. The British destroyed his fields and mill, and after than a year living in the surrounding hills, he returned home to find his wife dead and his 13 children vanished. He died in 1789.
  • Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.

Historians and pundits might argue History idolized these men by focusing on their creation of a new nation by daring to publicly speak Truth to Power, rather than portraying them as ordinary, flawed men working together to achieve a nobler goal. Regardless, these men truly stood by the pledge they wrote just above their signatures on the Declaration:

“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.”

Thanks for Reading!

Sources (in addition to the links):

• Eric Nepute, Facebook Post, July 4th, 2021
• ”Fact check: Decades-old essay about Declaration of Independence signatories is partly false” – Ella Lee, USA TODAY, 07-12-2021
• ”Signers of the Declaration of Independence” – National Archives, November 3rd, 2023

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