We Mutually Pledge
by Paul Harvey
“From the American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776: ‘for the support of this Declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.’
While you may recognize those impressive words, you may not fully understand or appreciate them until you know the whole story.
In the Pennsylvania State House (today known as Independence Hall in Philadelphia), the best men from each of the 13 colonies sat down together one hot summer. It was a fortunate hour in our nation’s history, one of those rare occasions in the lives of men when we had greatness to spare.
These were men of means and well-educated: twenty-four were lawyers and jurists, while nine were farmers and owners of large plantations.
They were men who knew that King George III had denounced all rebels in America as traitors. They knew the punishment for treason was hanging. They were acutely aware of the enormous change they were talking; in fact, the names now so familiar from the several signatures on the Declaration were initially kept a secret for six months. Each man knew the full meaning of that magnificent last paragraph in which his signature pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.
Fifty-six men placed their names beneath that pledge. Fifty-six men knew, when they signed, that they were risking everything. All other revolutions, before or since, were initiated by those with nothing to lose; but these men had everything to lose, and only one thing to gain—freedom.
They knew that if they won the fight, the best they could expect would be years of hardship in a struggling new nation… If they lost, they would face the hangman’s rope. But they signed the pledge, anyway. And they did, indeed, pay the price.
Here is the documented fate of a few of those gallant men:
Carter Braxton, of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas. To pay his debts, he lost his home and properties and subsequently died in rags.
Thomas Lynch, Jr., a third-generation aristocrat and large plantation owner, fell ill after signing the pledge. With his wife, he set out for France to regain his failing health. Their ship never reached its destination and they were never heard from again.
Thomas McKean, of Delaware, was so harassed by the enemy that he was forced to move his family five times in as many months. He served in Congress without pay, his family living in poverty and in hiding.
Wartime vandals looted the properties of Declaration signers Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Gwinnet, Walton, Heyward, Rutledge and Middleton.
Thomas Nelson, Jr. a Virginian, raised $2 million on his own signature to provision our Revolutionary allies (the French fleet). After the war, he personally paid back all the loans, wiping out his entire estate. The new United States government never reimbursed him. In the Battle for Yorktown, Nelson urged the burning of his own home (then occupied by Cornwallis); accordingly, General Washington ordered the Nelson home destroyed. Thomas Nelson, Jr. later died bankrupt, having pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.
Hessian forces seized the home of Declaration signer Frances Hopkinson, of New Jersey.
Francis Lewis died in the wartime destruction of his home and property. His wife was imprisoned, and she died within a few months.
Richard Stockton, who signed the Declaration, was captured and mistreated. His health was broken to the extent that he died at the age of 51. His estate was pillaged.
Thomas Heyward, Jr., was captured when Charleston fell.
John Hart signed in the fifth column of the Declaration, second name from the bottom; his is hardly one of the more recognizable signatures on that document, but he nevertheless paid a dear price. Hart was driven from his dying wife’s side, as their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and gristmill were laid waste. For more than a year he led a fugitive’s life, hiding in forests and caves. When he returned home after the war, he found his wife long-dead, his children long-gone, and his properties utterly destroyed – within a few weeks he died of exhaustion and a broken heart.
Likewise, Lewis Morris saw his land razed, his family scattered.
John Hancock history remembers best for that great, sweeping signature, attesting to his vanity; yet, he lived up to his pledge as readily as the others. One of the wealthiest men in New England, he stood outside Boston on a terrible war-torn night and intoned, ‘Burn Boston, though it makes John Hancock a beggar, if the public good requires it.’
Of the fifty-six Declaration pledges, few went unscathed for very long; Five were captured by the British and tortured before they died; twelve had their homes – from Rhode Island to Charleston – sacked, looted, occupied by the enemy, or burned to the ground; two lost their sons in the army; one had two sons captured; 9 of the 56 died from the hardships of war, or from its more merciful bullets.
Folks, I don’t know what impression you have had of those men who gathered together during that hot Philadelphia summer, but I think it’s important that we remember this about them: These were not poor men or wild-eyed revolutionaries – they were men of means, most of them rich, who enjoyed much ease and luxury in their lives before the Revolution. They were not hungry men – they were wealthy landowners, substantially secure in their prosperity.
But they considered liberty (and they fully understood the meaning of the word) to be so much more important than security, that they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors to see it made manifest.
They fulfilled their pledge… They paid the price… and American Freedom was born.”