It’s Independence Day in the U.S., and famous names like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams come to mind. It’s difficult to imagine that any of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence might not have been celebrated in their time. Influential and affluent, these men were so well thought of that they were given the power to declare freedom from the greatest empire of its time.
Don’t think for a second that these 56 men didn’t understand the risks involved of leaving the British fold. Hostile soldiers were occupying their towns, even their homes. The new country needed money and many of the signers loaned millions of dollars to the cause of freedom. Their personal wealth, their reputations, and their very lives were put on the line. They had committed high treason and they were in danger.
“We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” is the last sentence Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration. Sadly, for some of the signers, these were forfeited as a result of their brave act. 9 of them paid for their lives; almost 1 in 3 lost their fortunes and their homes. Yet none of the 56 ever recanted their decision to sign the Declaration or apologized for it, even under duress.
The Forgotten Founding Fathers
Here are the fates of some of the (mostly forgotten) Founding Fathers:
William Ellery, Rhode Island: A vocal opponent of slavery, his entire estate was burned to the ground.
William Floyd, New York: Escaping the British invasion of New York, they left behind their home and his entire income; it was burned to the ground. 7 years later, the family was destitute.
Francis Lewis, New York: His home and estates on Long Island were destroyed by the British and he and his wife were captured. She died from complication related to their imprisonment.
Lewis Morris, New York: Morris put his entire fortune at the service of the Continental Army. Loyalists confiscated his property and forced him into exile, not seeing his own family for many years.
Phillip Livingston, New York: One of the richest Americans in 1776, Livingston lost every penny he had as a result of signing the Declaration. His family was driven from their house by the British and his estate plundered. Livingston died penniless just two years later, while still serving in the Continental Congress.
John Hart, New Jersey: Hart’s wife was dying as he signed the Declaration. His efforts to reach her were thwarted by the British. His 13 children never saw their father again: they were all forced to flee for their lives as well. He died in 1779.
Richard Stockton, New Jersey: Judge Stockton was arrested by the British in 1776 and imprisoned in a military stockade. He was released, an invalid, 5 years later and died a pauper in Princeton.
John Witherspoon, New Jersey: He served as President of the College of New Jersey (better known today as Princeton University). The British responded to his signing the Declaration by burning the College library to the ground and pillaged the rest of the campus.
Robert Morris, Pennsylvania: Morris earned a fortune as a banker and commercial magnate – and gave it all away to finance the army/navy. The ships that brought provisions from Europe to the colonies were entirely paid for and provisioned by Morris. He also loaned an enormous sum to the Continental Congress when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1776. He never got his money back and died penniless in 1806.
John Morton, Pennsylvania: Despite living in a Loyalist-dominated part of the colony, and personally preferring reconciliation with Great Britain, Morton signed the Declaration. His neighbors turned on him and he never returned home. Just before his death in 1777, he submitted to Congress what became known as the “Articles of Confederation”.
Thomas Nelson, Virginia: As American guns shelled the British defenses, an anguished Nelson (now a General in the Continental Army) saw that they were sparing his house, which was General Cornwallis’ headquarters. As the story goes, Nelson personally turned a cannon towards his home and blew it up, to show that he was no less willing to sacrifice than his fellow Virginians. He loaned over $2 million to the Continental Congress, none of which was repaid, and died in poverty.
The entire South Carolina delegation: All four Palmetto State signatories paid dearly for joining the cause for Independence. Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton and Thomas Heyward, Jr. were all imprisoned by the British when Charleston was taken in 1780. They were beaten and humiliated in prison, then released to find their plantations had been burned and pillaged. They were more fortunate than co-signatory Thomas Lynch – he disappeared at sea while seeking medical help in the West Indies, together with his young wife, at some point in 1779.
Lyman Hall, Georgia: a physician, Dr. Hall helped to supply food and provisions for the Continental Army throughout the war. Despite living the furthest away from Philadelphia of all the signers, he returned to Georgia just once between 1775 and 1780 (when his friend and co-signer Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel). The British burned his property when they seized Savannah in 1780.
Francis Lewis, New York: His wife was captured by the British in 1776 and later died as a result of her captivity. Lewis himself lived out his years in relative poverty, having sacrificed his entire fortune to the cause.
Phillip Livingston, New York: He and his family fled their home to escape the British army and never returned.
George Clymer, Pennsylvania: His family fled to escape the British soldiers who ransacked their house.
Abraham Clark, New Jersey: Two of Clark’s sons were officers in the army. They were captured by the British and confined to the prison ship Jersey, where thousands of American captives died. One was held in solitary confinement and given no food. Reportedly, Clark still refused to change his position and support the crown when the British offered to spare his sons’ lives if he did so.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the most important founding fathers in U.S. history. An early advocate of independence in Boston, Dr. Warren, a physician, would certainly have signed the Declaration of Independence except for one thing: he was killed by the British the year before when he was with the colonial militia at the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was only the lack of ammunition that prevented Dr. Warren from taking his proper place with men like George Washington.
(Aside: Although Dr. Warren was commissioned as a general and was the highest ranking officer for the colonials, he served in the battle as a volunteer private. General Israel Putnam, Colonel William Prescott, and others were the actual commanders.)
Dr. Warren and the above signers of the Declaration won’t be found on any coins and paper currency. Their faces won’t be on your stamps and it’s unlikely that there will be many colleges or parks named after them. Yet, they and many others freely risked all at a time when their country needed them most. The next time you are asked to risk something for your beliefs, think of the forgotten men and women who bravely assisted at a difficult birth: The birth of the United States.
Happy Independence Day!
Joe Alton, MD
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