In our country today, there are people who dismiss the Founding Fathers through the prism of 2022. If these people had their way, they would remove every plaque, statue or word that celebrates the genius and courageous acts of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.
For example, on July 3, 2019, a journalist from Vox put out this little gem: “The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority.”
I suspect that when the 56 men signed the declaration in Philadelphia in 1776 — a literal death warrant for each — “identity politics” was the furthest thing from their minds. Especially for those who were imprisoned, had their homes burned to the ground, their livestock slaughtered and their wives arrested, simply for daring to add their name to the most inspiring document known to humanity.
Each of the 56 men who put that quill pen to parchment knew they were very possibly signing their own death warrants. John Hancock not only knew that but purposely increased the risk to himself. Why? Legend tells us he upped the ante so King George III “can read my name without spectacles and may double his reward on my head.”
During the Revolutionary War to follow, more than 100,000 men served in America’s Continental Army, out of a population of 2.5 million. Another 200,000 or so served as militiamen. In total, approximately 70,000 died in active military service against the tyranny of the British Crown. That’s a loss that today would equate to almost 10 million.
Like Hancock, each of the men who dared to sign the declaration fully expected to pay a price. Francis Lewis of New York, long rumored to be one of the leaders of the “Sons of Liberty” – a grassroots band of provocateurs who used civil disobedience to antagonize the British – paid a much steeper price than he could have imagined.
Lewis was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775 and signed the Declaration on Aug. 2, 1776. Unfortunately, just days later – precisely because of his independence activities – he was targeted by the British, who sent a military contingent to destroy his home. In the process, they took his wife, Elizabeth, prisoner and locked her in a damp stone cell with no bed, no change of clothing and only rotted food to eat. She was freed only because Gen. George Washington learned of her plight and ordered the arrest of the wife of the British paymaster-general. Washington then initiated an exchange of the women. Sadly, it was too late to save Elizabeth, who later died from the barbaric conditions she suffered.
Then there’s John Hart of New Jersey. Because of his calls for independence while speaker of the Assembly, he was already a marked man. Elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in June of 1776, he signed the Declaration on Aug. 2. By December of that year, as the Continental Army was forced to retreat across New Jersey, British troops advanced on the home of Hart. His ailing wife, Deborah, begged Hart to get their children to safety, so he placed them with relatives before fleeing to the frigid forest where he hid for weeks in caves until the Redcoats disbanded. Upon his return, he found that his wife had passed away and the British had destroyed his home and property.
By 1780, during the Battle of Charleston, three signers — Thomas Heyward, Jr., Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton — were taken prisoner. Each was known to the Crown not only as enemy combatants, but signatories of the Declaration. As such, they were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Florida, and regularly abused by their captors.
These men who signed our Declaration knew that freedom was far from free — and paid the price.
As we pause to commemorate our country’s birthday, we should also remember their sacrifice and reject any misguided claims from those who seek to demonize them. It’s time we recognized our Founding Fathers for who they truly are.
Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the book “The 56 – Liberty Lessons From Those Who Risked All To Sign The Declaration of Independence.”