It has been a very long time since I’ve been in school, so I’m not sure what they teach students about the Fourth of July, the Revolutionary War and our nation’s founding these days. I do know – from observing pop culture – that in certain circles, love of country and reverence for our Founding Fathers is generally out of fashion. This is really a shame, because the story of our nation’s birth is worth knowing and retelling in all its forms.
This week we celebrate the 246th 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, “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States…”
The signers did not undertake this endeavor lightly. To a man, they 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 revolutionaries 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 whose life’s story illustrated the promise of America. Born in 1726, Clark was the only child in a farming family of modest means. He had a limited formal education, but he possessed a natural gift for mathematics. He used that gift to learn surveying, a skill that was much in demand.
In 1748, Clark married Sarah Hatfield and he set about making up for being an only child; together they had 10 children. He also taught himself law, which was not uncommon in those days. Because of his willingness to help people who were unable to pay their legal fees, Clark became known as the “Poor Man’s Counselor.”
Clark was a popular figure in his community, and not surprisingly he 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 from Britain.
In 1776, when New Jersey decided to replace its representatives 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, just in time for his date with destiny.
As Clark added his name to the document that would change the world, he was well aware that the signers might face dire consequences. Shortly after putting his signature on the Declaration of Independence, 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 – who were 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.
The Clark brothers survived their imprisonment, but Thomas died shortly after the war. Aaron recovered from his brutal treatment and lived until 1811. Both young men paid a significant price for our liberty.
Despite what happened to his sons, Abraham 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 as a New Jersey representative to the new federal government, a position he held when he died of sunstroke in 1794, a patriot ‘til the end.
Then there’s the story of Francis Lewis, a delegate from New York. Lewis was actually born in Wales in 1713. He was orphaned as a child, but 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 as so often happened in those days, 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 the call of liberty beckoned and he became active in the patriot movement. 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. By signing, Lewis was aware that he was risking a fortune 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 launched an attack on 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 – in her early 60s 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, General 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 she wasn’t allowed to leave New York.
In 1779, about two years after her harrowing captivity, Elizabeth died at the age of 64. Lewis was heartbroken. He never rebuilt his home, and after the war he lived out his days with his sons. He was almost 90 when he died.
So there are the stories of Abraham Clark and Francis Lewis, two of our lesser-known but no-less important Founding Fathers. And here’s an important point to remember: both Clark and Lewis – and most of the other 56 – were established men of means with much to lose when they signed the Declaration of Independence. They certainly didn’t need to take on this enormous risk. It would have been far easier for them to stay out of the fray, to live out their lives in tranquility and the comfort they’d worked for all their lives.
But instead of following the easy and safe path, they took up the fight for independence. Through the sacrifice and courage of these two men, and so many others like them, the greatest country on earth was born. We who are alive today are the beneficiaries of their sacrifice and their willingness to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the “Glorious Cause of America.” To all of them we owe a debt of gratitude that, frankly, can never be fully repaid.
But at the very least, we can remember their stories and honor their names.
Happy Fourth of July everyone.