Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lives of the Signers

America’s birth month is rapidly passing from the scene and I have not adequately addressed issues I had intended to address at the beginning of this month. Primarily, I thought I would highlight some books from my library that have been helpful in formulating my understanding of patriotism, the Christian heritage of our Founding Era, and exposing me to some incredible people and epics of a bygone age.

Chief among the “must-read” books relating to our War for Independence is a book now called Lives of the Signers. It was originally written by B.J. Lossing in 1848 and titled “Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence: The Declaration Historically Considered; And a Sketch of the Leading Events Connected with the Adoption of the Articles of Confederation, and of the Federal Constitution.” Those of you accustomed to reading older books are well acquainted with such verbose titles. Title truncating is one of the few points of modern book marketing of which I am grateful.

This book gives a brief introduction of the men who “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” mutually pledged “to each other [their] Lives, [their] Fortunes and [their] sacred Honor.”

Many Americans have a vague recollection of some of them. Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania would be the most prominent of the signers in the collective memory of Americans; John Adams of Massachusetts—future 2nd President and perhaps the greatest champion of the document; his cousin, Samuel Adams—organizer of Boston’s Sons of Liberty and often called the Father of the American Revolution because of his zeal. Thomas Jefferson, who actually wrote the document, would be almost universally recognized. John Hancock’s large signature has become an American catchphrase. As he signed with gigantic letters, he reportedly said, “There! His Majesty can now read my name without his spectacles!”

But few Americans have ever heard the names of Caesar Rodney, Charles Carroll, Carter Braxton, Arthur Middleton or any of the other signers, some of whom would pay dearly and suffer greatly before the War ended.

Lives of the Signers is a wonderful book to help Americans have “profound veneration for the men who were the prominent actors on that remarkable scene in the drama of the world’s history.” It gives only brief snapshots of the lives of these men, leaving us wanting to know more. But its brief exposure makes a great primer for someone wanting a cursory exposure to the history of American Independence.

Consider the life of signer Thomas Lynch, Jr, of South Carolina. He was a 30 year old young man afflicted by a serious disease. His physicians advised him to return to Europe, so about the time John Paul Jones was telling the British commander of the Serapis “I have not yet begun to fight!” (September, 1779), Lynch was sailing toward the West Indies with his precious wife. However, the ship, like so many of the day, became lost at sea. Lossing tells us, “Like a brilliant meteor, he beamed with splendor for a short period, and suddenly vanished forever.”

Signer Richard Stockton of New Jersey declined his election as Chief Justice of the State so he could more actively aid in the Revolutionary cause. When his family was in peril of capture, he returned home where he was betrayed by a Tory loyalist. He was beaten and deprived of adequate food and shelter by the British. “The hardships he endured shattered his constitution, and when he found himself almost a beggar, through the vandalism of the British in destroying his estate, and by the depreciation of the continental paper currency, he was seized with a despondency from which he never recovered.”

Concerning New Jersey signer John Hart, Lossing writes: “The signers of the Declaration everywhere were marked for vengeance, and when the enemy made their conquering descent upon New Jersey, Mr. Hart’s estate was among the first to feel the effects of the desolating inroad. The blight fell, not only upon his fortune, but upon his person, and he didn’t love to se the sunlight of Peace and Independence gladden the face of his country. He died in the year 1780 (the gloomiest period of the War of Independence), full of years and deserved honors.”

Lives of the Signers removes the mystique and romance from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. There was much more pain than pageantry from that event. And suffering would follow the celebration. American freedom did not come through oratory; it was achieved because people sacrificed their “lives…fortunes…and sacred honor.”

The book reminds us that great movements require great men; men who were willing to pay a price for their convictions in order for those convictions to be cherished and prevail. And that message is as relevant today as it was when they signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

No comments: