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We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes And Our Sacred Honor
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence had very few illusions about what they were risking. How much of what they pledged did they actually lose?
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
By far the most versatile of this versatile group was Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. Hopkinson wrote verse and essays that were published in a wide variety of important publications and later in book form, practiced law, composed cantatas and liturgical music, wrote social and political satires, wrote and directed theatrical productions, was a professional artist noted for his drawings, invented several generally used devices such as shades for candlesticks, served as a judge of admiralty, designed the American flag, designed the seals of the State of New Jersey, the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society—oldest of American learned societies—excelled at the harpsichord, played a leading role as a layman in establishing the Protestant Episcopal Church after its organizational separation from the Church of England, was a merchant, and served as a collector of customs.
Men of such varied and rich accomplishments could be expected to have had somewhat better than average educations, and they did. Half of them, twentyeight, were college graduates. Eight of these went to Harvard, five to William and Mary, four to Yale, two to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), and one to the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Eight went to college abroad, including all four of the youthful South Carolina delegates, who studied law in London. Only three were limited to a common-school education, and eleven were largely selfeducated. Fourteen had the advantage of good private education by tutors and in academies below collegiate level.
Eighteen, a little less than a third of the signers, were rich men, though some were to lose all their fortunes, which they pledged along with their lives and honor that August day in Philadelphia, in support of independence. The richest of all was Charles Carroll, who styled himself “of Carrollton,” and of whom, as he signed the Declaration, another delegate observed ominously, “There go a few millions.”
There is no doubt that the signers of the Declaration knew they were up to something far more serious than making a brave gesture when they put their signatures on the document. Indeed, for reasons of security, the Declaration with the signatures was not published until January, 1777—six months after the signing—for it was fully understood that if the Revolution failed, the signers would be rounded up, their property confiscated, and their lives forfeited.
As it happened, Washington’s victory at Trenton the day after Christmas in 1776, and his defeat of Cornwallis at Princeton a week later, turned the tide, and the Declaration was published with all the signatures.
Nearly all the signers, in either a civil or a military role, became involved in the prosecution of the war. Over a fourth of them—seventeen—saw military service, and twelve of these were actively in the field during the Revolution. Four of them were taken prisoner. A civilian signer, Richard Stockton of New Jersey, father-in-law of Dr. Rush, who served as Surgeon General, was, however, the first to be captured. Late in September, 1776, scarcely seven weeks after he had signed the Declaration, Stockton was appointed by the Congress to visit the northern army at Saratoga, where he found the colonials marching with neither shoes nor leggings. Before he got home to Princeton, the British had invaded New Jersey and his handsome estate, Morven, was sacked. In December, he succeeded in getting his family installed in the house of friends in Monmouth County; but some Loyalists informed the enemy of his presence there, and he was captured and taken off to a British prison, first in Perth Amboy and later in New York City. Cold, poorly fed, and badly treated, he was kept jailed until the Congress eventually succeeded in arranging his exchange. Stockton was one of those who gave both his life and his fortune to back the instrument that he had signed: his health permanently broken by the ordeal of imprisonment and his fortune virtually wiped out, he died, at fifty, before the war was over.
The second signer to be imprisoned was George Wallon, a Georgia lawyer, who was commanding the First Georgian Regiment at the siege of Savannah in 1778. Walton was shot from his horse, his leg shattered by an enemy ball, and captured. His energetic civil service in the cause of independence was known to the British, who informed the colonials that he was much too important to be exchanged for anything less than a brigadier general. Some ten months later, despairing of a general, the British settled for a captain of the Royal Navy. Walton survived to live an active political life for twenty-eight years after the signing.