Independence Day!

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”
John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

I love celebrating America’s Independence Day in the way John Adams intended. It’s a day where I think many of my countrymen contemplate and celebrate our country’s freedom. As I look at social media, I’m inspired and filled by the joy and optimism others have about America’s founding principles. Sure, there are detractors, but, hey, #IndependanceDay (misspelled) was also trending on Twitter, so clearly we have work to do.

There’s a lot to celebrate on Independence Day: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, blowing up small parts of our country with illegally obtained fireworks (I’m looking at you, Aaron!), your freedom to carve out your own destiny, Will Smith punching an alien in the face…so many things. There’s never an Independence Day that passes wherein I don’t think about the Founders of America. I can’t help but think how relatively easy we have it today and how fragile this uniquely American experiment is. You see, for most of human history people were ruled, often brutally, by one or sets of people telling them how to live. Only in 1776, 242 years ago, did a group of men decide to put quill to paper and declare “there’s a better way”.

The last line of the Declaration of Independence reads: “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.” In signing the Declaration of Independence, the signers knew they were signing their death warrant. They knew declaring independence would be considered treasonous across the pond. They felt the reward for future generations was worth the cost. What did it cost them? What did it cost their families?

In early September 1776, the British burned the home of Francis Lewis and seized his wife. Held in prison with no bed and no changes of clothing, she was finally released after two years of suffering and her health gone. She died soon after her release.

Thomas McKean was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his grist-mill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.

Lewis Morris’ New Jersey home was looted and burned and his grist mills destroyed. While he eluded capture by sleeping in caves and forest, his ailing wife died and his 13 children were scattered. His failing health forced him to leave the New Jersey legislature in 1779, and he died less than three years after the Declaration was signed.

Richard Stockton rushed home to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1776 to rescue his family from approaching British troops. He was captured and thrown into prison, where he was repeatedly beaten and kept near starvation. The British also destroyed his home and burned his papers. As a result of mistreatment, he became an invalid and died in 1781.

John Morton was criticized by many of his Pennsylvania neighbors for breaking the tie vote of the Pennsylvania delegation in favor of independence. The criticism depressed him deeply. Early in 1777 he became ill and died.
Philip Livingston’s 150,000 acre estate was seized by the British, but he continued to contribute his dwindling fortune to Congress for the war effort. The strain of the revolutionary struggle also depleted his health, and he died less than two years after signing.

Robert Morris issued over one million dollars of personal credit to finance the war effort, and raised $200,000 to defeat the British at Yorktown. In 1798, his personal finances collapsed. Never reimbursed by the country, he spent three years in debtor’s prison.

Joseph Hewes of North Carolina gave tirelessly of himself to create a navy and help General Washington. Working long hours without adequate food and rest, he lost his health and died in 1779 at age 49.

Philip Livingston’s 150,000 acre estate was seized by the British, but he continued to contribute his dwindling fortune to Congress for the war effort. The strain of the revolutionary struggle also depleted his health, and he died less than two years after signing.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships sunk or captured by the British Navy. Although he lost his wealth and was forced to sell his land, he continued to serve in the Virginia Legislature.  He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in poverty.

Thomas Heyward, Jr. served in the army and was taken prisoner. The British raided his plantation while he was in prison and burned his buildings. His wife became ill and died before he was released.

Williams Hooper of North Carolina was hunted by the British. He fled, and they burned his home and lands.

Thomas Nelson, Jr. served as governor of Virginia and distributed large sums of his money to the families of his soldiers. At the Battle of Yorktown, he led 3,000 Virginia militia against the British. Although the British took refuge in homes belonging to Virginians, Nelson’s troops shelled them away.  At the battle of Yorktown, he noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.
They had security, but they valued liberty more.

In Washington, D.C., on the north side of the pool between the monuments to Lincoln and Washington there’s a memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence ( It’s my favorite memorial in D.C. It’s a little out of the way and overshadowed by its neighboring memorials (Lincoln, Washington, WWII and Vietnam), but it’s worth a visit. It’s worth the visit so you know these men were real. It’s worth the visit so to be reminded that these could be headstones of traitors had things gone another way. As it is, it’s a memorial to men who laid it all on the line. It’s a striking reminder for me to measure my contributions in light of their sacrifice. I’m humbled by what it cost them.

In his last public appearance, John Adams offered a toast in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. His final words were: “Independence forever”.

Amen, John Adams.

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