The Terrible Privilege of Signing the Declaration of Independence

founding fathers signingWhile driving the infamous NJ Turnpike, many of us have stopped at the Richard Stockton service area. We never think about who the service area is named for when we're purchasing some artery-destroying item to hold us over until we get to our destination.


N.J. resident Richard Stockton was one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was a judge who helped establish Princeton University. For his defiance of the British, he was arrested, starved and held in freezing conditions. He could have received a pardon from the King, but refused to renounce his allegiance to the new nation. Meanwhile, his estate was pillaged. He returned home from the war, but developed cancer and died at age 51.


This illustrates something unique about the American Revolution that has fascinated historians and others who study military revolutions.


Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor


What’s this difference? Unlike most revolutions, the American Revolution was led by the people at the top. It was led by the wealthiest and most privileged people in our society.


Which means that, these most privileged people rebelled against the system that conferred those privileges on them. And paid terrible prices.


To us, the Fourth of July in America means fireworks, hot dog and hamburger grilling, pool parties, beach days, baseball games and nights at the amusement park with ice cream cones. This is as it should be.


The founders of our country took a pledge:


In the last line of the Declaration, the signers mutually pledge to one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Don't ever forget this phrase. Let it percolate downward to a deeper level of yourself. What were these men actually saying? In short, it means that that they were willing to be ruined in the war they knew was coming.


By signing the Declaration, all knew that they were now criminals and traitors in the eyes of the Crown, and would face the hangman's noose if caught. So why did they do it? If they rebelled and lost, they would be executed.


Even if independence came, they knew they faced years of hardship in a young nation. So why would they risk everything to take up arms? Because the ideal of public liberty was more important to them than their own personal security.


Who would be so foolish?


Volunteering for ruination and disgrace


Paul Harvey tells their stories in this wrenching video, and I’ll give a little preview:

  • Carter Braxton of Virginia took the pledge. He was a wealthy aristocrat, plantation owner, and importer-exporter. He gave his ships to the revolution, they were swept from the sea, and Carter Braxton died in rags. His entire estate was wiped out.
  • John Hart of Delaware was driven from his wife's bedside as she was dying. His 12 children scattered during the war in the face of British harassment. When John Hart came home from the war, his fields were destroyed, his properties destroyed, his wife was dead and he never saw any of his 12 children ever again. Think of the agony of never seeing any of your 12 children again on this earth.
  • Thomas Lynch Jr. took the pledge. After signing the Declaration, he got on a ship to travel to France on a diplomatic mission for French support for the Revolution. His ship was swept from the sea and he was never heard from again. His life, his fortune, his sacred honor.
  • Thomas Nelson of Virginia was a wealthy man whose entire estate was wiped out during the war while his family lived in poverty and in hiding. What man with a family would willingly enlist for that?
  • Other signers of the Declaration, the takers of the pledge, had their homes and properties looted. John Witherspoon had to watch as the library at Princeton, his life’s work, was burned by Hessians. Who amongst us is strong enough to watch our life’s work literally go up in smoke?


Our first citizens were pretty amazing people.


All revolutions, before and since, have been led by the people at the bottom of the society. The Bolshevik revolution was led by the peasant masses. The desperate and disenfranchised launched the French revolution. The Cuban revolution. The revolution in China.


Most revolutionaries have not much to lose. I say that not to criticize revolutionaries, but to point out the great sacrifice the signers made.


This year, as you feel the warm sun on your skin and go out with family and friends to exult in life in America, think about our first citizens, the ones who took that pledge and volunteered to be paupers. Rich people volunteering for ruination.


Let’s also think about what sacrifices we as individuals are willing to make to improve the lives of others. I’m not saying that everyone has to go to Afghanistan and charge a Taliban machine gun nest. But I do think that we should consider what causes we believe in and what sacrifices we are willing to make.


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