When reading the Declaration of Independence over the holiday weekend, it’s easy to skip over the names of the signers and focus instead on the sweeping language of the second paragraph.
This overlooks the fact that the signers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in order to found a country upon self-evident truths rooted in the nature of man.
A look at the historical record shows that the signers’ pledge was more than mere hyperbole.
Of the 56 men who signed the declaration, twelve fought in battles as members of state militias, five were captured and imprisoned during the Revolutionary War, 17 lost property as a result of British raids and five lost their fortunes in helping fund the Continental Army and state militias battle the British redcoats.
Though Americans are familiar with the famous signers such as Jefferson, Franklin and the Adams’, some of the lesser known have perhaps the most interesting stories to tell.
Thomas Heyward Jr.
Thomas Heyward Jr. of the South Carolina delegation served in the state militia as a captain of artillery.
After signing the declaration and the Articles of Confederation in 1778, Heyward drew the further ire of the British when as a circuit court judge he presided over the trial of several loyalists who were all found guilty of treason.
They were then executed in full view of British troops.
Heyward’s compatriot in the South Carolina delegation, Edward Rutledge, was the youngest signer at age 26.
After returning home from attending the Second Continental Congress in 1777, Rutledge joined the militia as captain of an artillery battalion.
Arthur Middleton, the last of the South Carolina delegation who served in the militia, took up arms against the British alongside Heyward and Rutledge in the siege of Charleston in 1780.
Upon the surrender of Charleston, all three men were captured by the British and were sent to a prison in St. Augustine, Fla., that was reserved for persons the British thought were particularly dangerous.
They were held there for almost a year before being released in Philadelphia in July 1781.
On the way to the prisoner exchange, Heyward fell overboard and only survived by clinging to the ship’s rudder until he could be rescued.
While Heyward was imprisoned, his wife died at home, and his estate and property were heavily damaged at the hands of the British.
Though Arthur Middleton’s family and estate was left relatively untouched, his collection of rare paintings was destroyed during the British occupation of his home.
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Thomas Nelson, Jr., of the Commonwealth of Virginia was appointed to the position of brigadier general and commander-in-chief of the Virginia militia by Governor Patrick Henry in August 1777.
At that time it was thought that the British would be making a full-scale invasion of the commonwealth.
Nelson was able to muster only a few hundred men to defend Virginia, but the British instead decided to attack Philadelphia.
Nelson inherited a vast family fortune and used it liberally for the American cause.
He personally paid for the return journey home of 70 troops he had led to meet the British in Philadelphia during the summer of 1778.
In the spring of 1780, Nelson signed his name to a loan for 2 million dollars that was needed to buy provisions for a fleet of ships coming in from France.
As then-governor of Virginia (he succeeded Thomas Jefferson in office) in 1781, during the Battle of Yorktown he ordered American troops to fire upon his mansion, which had been commandeered by Gen. Cornwallis and his men.
Caesar Rodney of the Delaware delegation served in that state’s militia and attained the rank of brigadier general.
He was with his men in the field during the brutal winter of 1776, helped quash an uprising in Delaware and aided George Washington’s defense of Philadelphia against the British.
With his fortunes built on trade, Joseph Hewes of North Carolina was a vigorous proponent of the decision of the First Continental Congress to cut off all imports and exports with the British.
This of course had the effect of drying up his wealth. Interestingly, Hewes also renounced his Quaker religion in order to support the war.
Lastly, Robert Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania, personally financed George Washington’s ambush of the Hessians at Trenton the day after Christmas in 1776.
He also helped insure Washington’s victory at Yorktown by using his own credit to obtain the supplies necessary to defeat the British (he spent more than one million dollars of his own money to accomplish this).
In present day, it is easy to read the signers’ pledge with a certain sense of historical inevitability. But the signers were under no supposition that history chooses winners and losers.
They knew instead that human action and choice define history. Principles are not self-enforcing; they require defenders today just as they did in 1776.