Remembering the Spirit of ’76
The 56 men who risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in declaring independence from Great Britain conferred upon their descendants a “new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln eloquently affirmed.
Signing the Declaration of Independence was treason and with it came all the attendant dangers associated to committing such a bold act of defiance.
Upon signing his name to the Declaration, John Hancock exclaimed, “There! His Majesty can now read my name without glasses. And he can double the reward on my head!”
Although Hancock’s statement may have produced nervous smiles from among his colleagues it also underscored a stark reality.
While all of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence suffered from the anxieties that necessarily accompanied the war, many of their respective stories have been largely forgotten.
Here are three of them:
Francis Lewis and his wife Elizabeth – New York
Born in Wales 63 years prior to signing the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lewis faithfully served the interests of the colonies up to, during, and following the break from Great Britain. During the ensuing Revolutionary War, Lewis was chosen to serve in Congress, where he was “employed…in the importation of military stores, and on various secret services.”
Among his most important duties, Lewis was assigned to a committee, along with fellow Signers Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry, to assess the best means for furnishing provisions to the army. Scant funds made their job difficult but execution was essential.
While Lewis received the approbation of his fellow countrymen following his service in Congress — he was appointed a commissioner for the board of admiralty— he and his family nonetheless suffered greatly for having undertaken the cause of independence.
Like other Signers, Lewis was condemned by British authorities. A price placed on his head, the British pursued him and his family following their seizure of Long Island. As British troops marched upon his property, Lewis’s wife watched in despair as soldiers plundered their home, seizing valuables and laying waste to their belongings. One soldier even ripped the buckles from her shoes, believing them to be gold. Francis Lewis, away serving the interests of Congress, was not present.
Before departing, the British took Mrs. Lewis as a prisoner and consigned her, without a bed or change of clothing, and of few provisions, to a jail in New York. There she languished for three months, her freedom not procured until the intercession of General Washington.
Having been apprised of Mrs. Lewis’s situation, General Washington ordered the arrest of the wife of the British Paymaster General along with the wife of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania. Washington let it be known that their new prisoners would suffer the same depraved conditions as Mrs. Lewis had until the British released her. An exchange of prisoners was soon carried out.
Mrs. Lewis would never recover from her ordeal at the hands of the British. She would linger in poor health for only a couple more years before dying in early 1779.
Francis Lewis would continue to serve his country, deprived of his wife, until he himself passed away in 1802.
The sacrifices to life and liberty weren’t constrained to only those 56 men who signed the Declaration. The plight of Mrs. Lewis is a reminder of just how extensive were the sacrifices made for independence.
Richard Stockton – New Jersey
Richard Stockton was born into a wealthy and prominent family in New Jersey. His father, John, would in later life donate a great deal of land and money that allowed for the creation of Princeton University — then known as the College of New Jersey.
Early in his life, Richard would study the law under the distinguished instruction of the Hon. David Ogden of Newark and would himself become one of the preeminent attorneys in the state.
His reputation and competence earned him esteem among his colleagues and in 1774 he was elevated to the bench of the provincial New Jersey Supreme Court.
Stockton’s aptitude would earn him the “personal respect, esteem, and confidence, from the King, and many…distinguished statesmen.”
But the abuses suffered by colonists at the hands of the King and parliament would compel him to actively undertake the cause of independence. He resigned his royal appointments and was selected to represent New Jersey in Congress, arriving shortly thereafter in Philadelphia on July 1, 1776.
Stockton had a great deal to lose in the event of an open conflict with Great Britain. His wealth and status would make him a conspicuous target for the British. His personal safety notwithstanding, Stockton signed the Declaration of Independence after hearing the stirring oratory of fellow delegate John Adams.
Unfortunately, as the British marched through New Jersey, Stockton was compelled to leave Congress and return to his family in an attempt to remove them from the path of the oncoming British.
After successfully moving his family to safety, he and a fellow patriot found themselves captured and imprisoned by the British on Nov. 30, 1776. They were “dragged from their beds at a late hour of the night; stripped and plundered of their property, and conducted to New York.”
Stockton suffered horribly as a prisoner of the British. He was starved, locked in irons, and deprived of the basic necessities of life.
When word of the suffering endured by Stockton reached Congress in January 1777, General Washington besieged British General William Howe to secure parole for Stockton. He would be released but his health was precarious.
Stockton would survive his ordeal in prison but he would never truly recover from the personal sufferings and “depredations committed upon his estate.” His vast fortune in ruins, he would soon become “compelled to resort to friends for a temporary accommodation, to procure the absolute necessaries of life.”
Stockton would slowly regain his health and resume the practice of law but things would soon turn for the worse. He would develop a cancer afflicting his neck and die on Feb. 28, 1781.
John Hart – New Jersey
John Hart was a farmer and the owner of a large mill operation in Hopewell, New Jersey. He lived a principled life that earned him the respect of his peers. While he had little to gain, and much to lose, by openly resisting the British, it has been written that he did so because of his strong belief that “liberty was his inalienable right, which he was under an indispensable obligation to deliver unimpaired to his children.”
Hart’s solid reputation —he would be given the nickname “Honest John Hart”— would lead to his vocal opposition of the Stamp Act in 1765. Hart felt that “the imposition of taxes on a people, without their concurrence by representation; was despotism.”
Hart’s commitment to preserving the rights of the colonies would only strengthen over time. He would be appointed to the Second Continental Congress in June 1776. A “cautious, discreet, but firm” man, he would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence.
After signing the Declaration, Hart returned to his farm to tend to family matters; however, he knew that his life, and that of his family and property, would be in grave danger from the British.
Those dangers would become reality as the British sought out and destroyed his property on their march into New Jersey. This assault would come on the heels of Hart having lost his wife to illness only weeks earlier.
The oncoming British forced Hart to flee into the countryside. He then began a deadly game of cat and mouse with British soldiers. He moved from place to place, often with great haste, rarely spending more than one night under the same roof and on one occasion being forced to sleep in the company of a “large dog.”
John Hart would return to his home in 1777, but his life would be much different. He gathered his children and attempted to restart his life but the stress of losing his property and wife would take its toll. Hart would die only a few years later, in 1779, his desire to see the war’s conclusion unfulfilled.
John Hart, Richard Stockton, and Francis Lewis would each suffer greatly for their commitment to liberty and independence. But the dangers weren’t solely reserved for those who signed the Declaration. Their families and friends would suffer as well.
While the memory of immortal figures such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams endure, the sacrifices of all 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence should never be forgotten.
Every single man who signed his name to the Declaration, and in so doing renounced their ties to Great Britain and the King, did so with the full understanding that it could have cost them their lives.
Read It In It’s Entirety Here:
(Credit to: Scott Erickson & The Blaze)