The Greatest and Most Daring Day in the History of America
By David R. Barnhart
Volume 31 Summer 2016 Issue 3
War with Great Britain had been raging for over a year when the Continental Congress appointed a committee of five to draft a resolution of independence. The committee was composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson was asked to write the first draft. Franklin, age 70, was the oldest member of the committee, while Jefferson was the youngest at age 32. Interestingly, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826.
Following the Committee of Five’s presentation of the document to the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, a rigorous debate took place July 1-2. A total of 85 revisions were made to Jefferson’s draft in those two days; however, no changes were made to the Preamble. The document was approved by the Congress on July 2, 1776, but it was not officially adopted until July 4. The official signing of the document did not take place until August 2, 1776.
Robert Livingston, who helped to draft the Declaration of Independence, could not bring himself to sign it. He felt that it was too soon for the Colonies to declare their independence. Others, including John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, were also calling for a delay in signing the document. Two speeches that are credited with persuading the wavering delegates came from John Adams and John Witherspoon.
Witherspoon, a Presbyterian clergyman and president of New Jersey College (later named Princeton), rose to persuade those who questioned the timing. He stated: “There is a tide in the affairs of men. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery. That noble instrument should be subscribed this very morning by every pen in this house. Though these gray hairs must soon descend to the sepulcher, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at the crises, the sacred cause of my country.”
The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence knew that they were placing their lives on the line from the moment they put their signatures on the document. For that reason the last sentence in the Declaration stated: “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.”
For many signers of the Declaration of Independence that pledge was quickly put to the test. Five signers were captured by the British during the Revolutionary War and remained imprisoned under the most extreme conditions. They include: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Arthur Middleton, George Walton and Richard Stockton. Stockton never recovered from his treatment as a prisoner of war; he died in 1781.
John Witherspoon’s son James lost his life at the Battle of Germantown. When the British occupied the college where Witherspoon served as president, they burned down the library.
Francis Lewis of New York had his property confiscated and destroyed by the British. His wife was taken prisoner and died shortly thereafter.
John Hart had his farm confiscated and was forced to go into hiding.
Thomas Nelson Jr., whose house at Yorktown was occupied by General Cornwallis, demanded that his house be fired upon by the Continental Army. The house still stands today with cannon balls still visible in its east wall.
These are but a few sacrifices our Forefathers endured to give us our Republic. What a glorious heritage we have. Surely the time has come for all living patriots to find our courage and similarly pledge to each other— our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. The stakes are just as high for America today as they were in 1776, and so are the consequences if we fail to stand!