This week we celebrate the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an event that set a new course for human history. There were 56 men who signed that document, which declared that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States…”
The signers understood what was at stake. The Declaration ends with this line: “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.”
Those words were not added as a mere rhetorical flourish. By signing the Declaration, those 56 had committed an act of treason that was punishable by death. And some who signed paid a dear price for their bold rebellion.
Consider the story of Abraham Clark, a delegate from New Jersey. Born in 1726, Clark was the only child in a farming family of modest means. Clark had a limited formal education, but, possessed of a natural gift for mathematics, he learned surveying, a skill much in demand.
In 1748, Clark married Sarah Hatfield and together they had 10 children. He also taught himself law. Because of his willingness to help people who often couldn’t pay, Clark became known as the “Poor Man’s Counselor.”
A popular figure, Clark was soon elected to a variety of public offices. Through the years, as the patriot movement built steam in America, Clark found himself drawn to the cause of liberty. By 1774, he was a vocal supporter of independence.
In 1776, when New Jersey replaced their delegates to the Continental Congress with men who favored independence, Clark was named as one of the new delegates. He arrived in Philadelphia in June 1776, in time for his date with destiny.
As Clark added his name to the document that changed the world, he was well aware that the signers might face dire consequences. Shortly after signing he wrote to a friend, “As to my title, I know not yet whether it will be honorable or dishonorable; the issue of the war must settle it. Perhaps our Congress will be exalted on a high gallows…I assure you, Sir, I see, I feel, the danger we are in.”
The danger, though, wasn’t just for the signers of the Declaration – Clark and the others knew it also extended to their families. Two of Clark’s sons – Aaron and Thomas – were officers in the Continental Army. During the war, both of them were captured, tortured, and beaten.
Thomas was put aboard a particularly brutal prison ship named Jersey. The ship was rife with small pox, dysentery and other diseases, and scores of dead were regularly tossed overboard to make room for new prisoners.
Aaron was thrown into a dungeon in New York. He was so malnourished and in such bad shape that other prisoners – themselves underfed – shoved bits of food through a keyhole to help him survive.
Eventually, the British offered Abraham Clark the lives of his sons if he would recant his signing and support of the Declaration of Independence. He refused.
It’s not entirely clear what ultimately happened to his sons. It appears that Thomas finally gained his freedom; Aaron’s fate is less certain.
But Clark never wavered in his commitment to the revolution. He continued serving in Congress on and off through the remainder of the war. After the United States Constitution was ratified, Clark served from 1791 to 1794 as a New Jersey representative to the new federal government. He was 68 when he died of sunstroke in 1794.
Then there’s the story of Francis Lewis, a delegate from New York. Lewis was born in Wales in 1713. Orphaned as a child, the enterprising young man made his way to America and turned a small inheritance into a fortune in the mercantile business.
He married his business partner’s sister, Elizabeth Annesley. They had seven children, but only three survived past infancy.
Lewis led a rather eventful life, and by 1765 he was ready to retire to his home in Long Island. But he became active in the patriot movement and, in 1775, he was elected to Congress. When the time came, Lewis was a willing signer of the Declaration. At 63, he was the oldest delegate from New York to put his signature on the document; he also risked a fortune that he’d spent a lifetime building.
As Lewis and the other New Yorkers signed the Declaration, they knew that the British were preparing to strike the shores of their colony. Indeed, a short time after the signing, the British attacked Long Island.
A battleship fired on Lewis’s home while his wife and their servants were still inside. Their home was destroyed in the attack, and Elizabeth – about 60 years old at the time – was captured and taken to a New York prison. Her captors denied her a bed, a change of clothing and decent food for weeks.
In retaliation, George Washington arranged for the wives of two prominent Philadelphia Tories – colonists who remained loyal to England – to be placed under house arrest so they could be swapped for Elizabeth. She was eventually released, but not allowed to leave New York.
In 1779, about two years after her harrowing captivity, Elizabeth died at the age of 64. Lewis never rebuilt his home. After the war, he lived out his days with his sons. He was almost 90 when he died.
Both Clark and Lewis – and most of the other 56 – were established men of means with much to lose when they signed the Declaration. It would have been easy for them to stay out of the fray, to live out their lives in tranquility and comfort.
But instead, they took up the fight for freedom and pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the “Glorious Cause of America.” Through their sacrifice our nation was born. We owe a debt of gratitude to them all.
Happy Fourth of July everyone.
Paul E. Pfeifer is an American jurist. He served in both houses of the Ohio General Assembly as a member of the Ohio Republican party and is currently an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio