- Historic Sites
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
The tendency to stick together of the four delegates from South Carolina, all of whom were under thirty-four and all of whom studied at London’s Middle Temple, was further reflected in their war experiences. All four served in the Revolutionary forces. Even before signing the Declaration, the twenty-six-year-old Thomas Lynch had become invalided from a fever contracted while on recruiting duty in South Carolina. After three years of continuous illness, he set sail with his young wife for the West Indies, and both were lost at sea. All three of his young fellow delegates, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge, fought to resist the British forces besieging Charleston. All three were captured. All three were imprisoned in the steaming British garrison at Saint Augustine. All three were exchanged after a year’s imprisonment. Finally, all three survived the war—although Thomas Heyward, Jr., had a near miss. Freed from the British prison, he was en route by ship to Philadelphia when he fell overboard and saved himself only by clinging to the rudder until his plight was discovered.
In addition to these five signers, the British also took as prisoner the wife of Francis Lewis of New York. Lewis, an aging retired merchant of considerable wealth, was absent on his congressional duties from his country house on Long Island when the occupying British forces seized and destroyed it and captured his wife. Mrs. Lewis was deprived of any bed or change of clothes during her imprisonment. The colonials, who were no more delicate about taking civilian women as military prisoners, finally exchanged the wives of the British paymaster general and of the British attorney general in New York for Mrs. Lewis, who was, however, too weakened by the ordeal to survive long.
Several of the signers lost their fortunes not to enemy action but in acts of private generosity for the public good. William Paca, long an articulate leader in Maryland politics, used his own money to outfit troops for the Continental Army. Thomas Nelson, Jr., of Virginia had started the independence ball rolling in May, 1776, when he introduced Edmund Pendleton’s resolution calling for independence at the Virginia convention in Williamsburg and then carried it to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. During the last year of the Revolution, he took energetic military action. Having succeeded Jefferson as governor of Virginia, he gathered a militia of three thousand men and joined Washington in besieging the British forces in Yorktown. His own mansion there was known to be occupied by British officers. Nelson asked the American officers why it had been spared, and was told that it was out of respect for the private property of the governor of Virginia. Nelson urged that the artillery be turned on his house, and he was promptly accommodated. Two pieces were aimed at the building, and the shots riddled it, dislodging the occupants.
Others, too, lost their homes. The houses of William Ellery, Lewis Morris, and Josiah Bartlett were burned. Those of George Clymer, Lyman Hall, John Hart, William Floyd, William Hooper, Francis Hopkinson, and Arthur Middleton were destroyed or thoroughly ransacked. Altogether seventeen of the signers suffered extreme, and in some cases total, property losses. One in nine of them lost his life. But not one man of the fiftysix lost his “sacred honor.” Throughout the long ordeal of an often-floundering war, in a cause that at times seemed hopelessly lost, there was not among the fifty-six men a single defection—despite the reservations that some had had about independence at the beginning and despite the repeated sagging of popular support for the war.
When the war was over, the surviving signers continued active political careers, many of them extending into the early days of the republic after the unsatisfactory experiment of the Confederation. Two, Adams and Jefferson, became Presidents of the young republic, consecutively succeeding George Washington. Another, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut, was the only man, other than Washington and Adams, to receive any votes in the first presidential election in January, 1789. Three signers became Vice Presidents: Adams, Jefferson, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Two became Justices of the United States Supreme Court : Samuel Chase of Maryland and James Wilson of Pennsylvania. There were few offices in the fledgling democracy that some signer did not fill. Four became United States senators; four, ambassadors; seventeen, governors of their states; fifteen, state judges, including nine chief justices; five, speakers of their state legislatures. There was no limit to their enthusiasm for public office, nor was their enthusiasm always tempered with prudence.