By John W. Whitehead
Let me tell you about 56 men who risked everything—their fortunes and their lives—to take a stand for truth. These men laid everything on the line, pledged it all—”our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”—because they believed in a radical idea: that all people are created to be free.
They believed that freedom is a spiritual concept in that the rights we possess are, in their words, given to us by the Creator. Let me emphasize: at the heart of these rights is a radical freedom—the freedom to speak, to dissent, to protest and to seek relief, if necessary, against an unjust government—that is, one that won’t listen to the people.
Labeled traitors, these men were charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. For some, their acts of rebellion would cost them their homes and their fortunes. For others, it would be the ultimate price—their lives. Yet even knowing the heavy price they might have to pay, these men dared to speak up when silence could not be tolerated.
Their signatures, famously scribbled on a piece of parchment, expressed their unfettered willingness to speak out against the most powerful empire in the world. These 56 men were the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Some we remember for their later accomplishments—such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom went on to serve as American presidents. But there were others—such as Lewis Morris, Carter Braxton, Thomas Nelson and Richard Stockton—who do not often get mentioned, who sought not glory but rather a cause. They knew that sacrifice was necessary to secure freedom, and they were willing to make the sacrifice.
Lewis Morris lost his entire estate. The British ravaged and destroyed it, sending his family fleeing in desperation with nowhere to go.
Carter Braxton’s entire career and way of life were decimated. Losing his ships to the British Navy, his shipping company was forever lost and he was never able to revive it.
Thomas Nelson’s price for liberty was to the tune of $2 million—and that was in 1776. He ran up the $2 million credit debt for the “Patriots’ Cause.” In the end, repaying the debt cost him his entire estate. He died bankrupt and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Richard Stockton paid dearly also. Once a prominent judge, he gave up his cherished seat on the bench to fight for liberty. For his decision, he was dragged from his bed and tortured by British soldiers.
All in all, of those 56 signers, 9 died during the Revolution, 5 were captured by British soldiers, 18 had their homes looted and burned by the Red Coats, 2 were wounded in battle and 2 lost their sons during the war. Remarkably, these men—who were community leaders, business owners, judges, lawyers and inventors—sacrificed their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor so that you and I could live freely in a nation where we have the right to stand up and speak out.
There are many more stories of heroic patriots throughout American history who have risked it all to preserve the freedoms we possess. Most of them have come from radically different walks of life—different upbringings, different educations, different ideas. But the one thing that unites them is their love of and commitment to freedom and their willingness to stand up and speak out, no matter the cost. Although many of them lost everything, they were willing to sacrifice in order to raise their voices in truth. They put freedom before their own interests. Because of their bravery in speaking truth to power and their commitment to unwavering principles, history has judged them to be extraordinary.
Thus, it is only right that we should still honor them every Fourth of July. Yet how do we do so? We go through the motions, spouting patriotic sentiments and putting on displays of national pomp and circumstance that at the end of the day mean nothing. Sadly, as a nation, we have become jaded and apathetic, content to celebrate our independence with cookouts and fireworks but little else.
America, we must remember, is a concept. We must earn our right to be American. What does that mean? First of all, it means learning the core principles of citizenship that are laid out in the Constitution. Any person in this country who cannot list from memory the rights enshrined in those 462 words that make up the Bill of Rights is not a true American. Unfortunately, this applies to the great majority of the populace. Second, it means taking a stand on those principles and fighting to keep the freedoms that are being stripped from us on a daily basis. This may well mean grabbing a picket sign and taking to the streets.
The bottom line is that we owe it to those who have put their lives on the line for our freedoms to make our citizenship count for something. We need to take responsibility for what’s going on around us. And we need to stand up and support those who refuse to remain silent when they see an injustice and who, like those 56 brave men, dare to put it all on the line in order to speak truth to power.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org
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