On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress, meeting at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, adopted the Declaration of Independence. What would one day be called the War for Independence had been raging for over a year, but the Declaration told the citizens of the colonies and the world:
“That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
It’s difficult for living Americans to imagine how ‘heavy’ the Declaration was at the time of its adoption and signing. The body of the document was made up of a list of charges against King George III, the publication of which was considered treasonous. The idea of a group of subjects publicly condemning their sovereign, while not unique in history, was almost unheard of in 18th century Europe. And while the British Empire would not reach its greatest heights for another century, it was still a global superpower capable of exerting massive cultural, economic, and military force almost anywhere on the planet.
In most nations today, the people making the decisions of national importance are most often not the people who must make personal sacrifices to see the goals accomplished. But in the last quarter of the 18th century in the rebellious American colonies, the line between decision maker and policy instrument was much, much thinner. Some of the signers of the Declaration survived the War for Independence with nary a scratch, while others lost nearly everything. 56 men signed the document, including two future Presidents. Some of them you know, while some are only known today in the region of the country where they lived. Today, we highlight seven of these lesser-known men who risked all in July, 1776.
There was William Whipple, Jr. of New Hampshire, who was a sailor from a young age until he and his brother went into business together as merchants. In 1777, he was made a Brigadier General of the New Hampshire Militia and fought against British General Burgoyne at Stillwater and Saratoga. After the war, he became a judge of the Superior Court of New Hampshire.
There was Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island. He was elected Governor of that state nine different times, despite the fact that the suffered from cerebral palsy. He was heard to say as he signed the Declaration, “My hand trembles; my heart does not.”
Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut fought in the French and Indian War as an officer of the King. When war came again he served in the militia again, this time fighting the Redcoats. He became a Brigadier General of the Connecticut forces.
Caesar Rodney, of Delaware, also fought in the French and Indian War as a Captain in the militia. He was helping put down a Loyalist rebellion in Delaware when word came that the Delaware delegation were deadlocked on the vote over adopting the Declaration. Since he alone could break the tie, he rode 80 miles through a thunderstorm to Philadelphia, arriving just in time to cast his vote and break the stalemate. He later became a Major-General of the Delaware militia.
There was Carter Braxton of Virginia, a very wealthy man who contributed most of his wealth to the revolutionary cause. His shipping investments were destroyed and several of his plantations went up in flames during the war. He remained in debt for the rest of his life and lived his last years in a small house in Richmond.
George Walton of Georgia was a Colonel of the First Regiment of the Georgia militia. He was injured and eventually captured at the Battle of Savannah. He was held for a year until he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. Walton County, Georgia, is named in his honor.
Arthur Middleton of South Carolina helped defend the city of Charleston against the British in 1780. He was captured and sent to St. Augustine, Florida as a prisoner-of-war. He, too, spent a year as a captive until being released as part of a prisoner exchange. The war took a terrible toll on his health: he died at the age of 44.
These men, and the thousands like them who fought in one way or another so that future generations would know liberty, remind us today that freedom is not and never has been free.