It was spring 1776, and while some still hoped for peace, the colonies were at war with England. The battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill were year-old history. George Washington had taken command of the Continental Army’s 17,000 men, and the idea of independence had caught fire throughout the colonies. Royal colonial governments were being ousted up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
In May, eight colonies voted to support independence, and a resolution to that effect was presented to the Second Continental Congress by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was June 7.
The British began sending a massive war fleet on its way to New York—30 battleships, 1,200 cannons, and more than 30,000 soldiers.
On June 11, 1776, a vote on Lee’s resolution was postponed, and Congress recessed for three weeks after appointing a committee of five to draft a statement presenting the colonies’ case for independence to King George III—and to the world. The five were John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.
Jefferson wrote the document, which was then revised and edited by the committee. Congress reconvened on July 1, and passed Lee’s resolution for independence the next day. Then it took up Jefferson’s document.
Passage would not be easy: Some delegates opposed independence, others opposed Jefferson’s wording. Worse, all delegates knew the vote had to be unanimous. For two days they struggled, changing Jefferson’s document 39 times, until—in the late afternoon of July 4, 1776—delegates to the Second Continental Congress of what they declared to be the United States of America voted unanimously to adopt what we now call the Declaration of Independence.
The Price of Freedom
But the price of freedom can be dear, as it was to many of those who dared sign their names to the document declaring this a free land. Below is an accounting of what their signatures cost some of our founding fathers.
Francis Lewis, New York: His wife was captured by the British in 1776 and later died as a result of her captivity. Lewis himself lived out his years in relative poverty, having sacrificed his independent fortune to the cause of patriotism during the War of Independence.
Phillip Livingston, New York: He and his family had to flee their home to escape the British army and never returned.
Lewis Morris, New York: His family fled the approaching British army, which plundered his estate, destroyed hundreds of acres of crops, and took his livestock.
John Hart, New Jersey: Hessians destroyed Hart’s farm, livestock, and other property. The hardships brought on by the destruction caused Hart’s wife to become sick, and she died as her husband was trying to reach her. Hart was forced to flee into the woods and slept in caves when the British troops invaded New Jersey. His children were forced into hiding and sought refuge with family and friends.
Richard Stockton, New Jersey: He was dragged from his bed by a group of royalists and imprisoned in New York, where he was denied basic necessities. He was finally released, but he had endured so much suffering that he never fully recovered. His fortune was nearly wiped out, his lands ruined, his papers and library were burned, and his livestock seized. For a while, he was forced to depend on the good will of his friends for survival.
George Clymer, Pennsylvania: His family eluded British soldiers who ransacked their house. Clymer was in Philadelphia during this time. When British troops arrived there, they found where he lived and started to tear the building down and only stopped when told the house didn’t belong to Clymer.
William Ellery, Rhode Island: His house was burned down and the rest of his property was destroyed while the British army occupied Newport.
Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, South Carolina: All three were imprisoned at St. Augustine, Fla., for almost a year.
Thomas Nelson Jr., Virginia: He lost his fortune aiding the war effort and died a poor man.
John Morton, Pennsylvania: On his deathbed, he asked those in attendance to tell his enemies—those who didn’t forgive him for voting in favor of independence—that one day it would be acknowledged that casting his vote was the most important act of his life.
Abraham Clark, New Jersey: Two of Clark’s sons were officers in the army. They were captured by the British and confined to the prison ship Jersey, where thousands of American captives died. One was held in solitary confinement and given no food. Reportedly, Clark still refused to change his position and support the crown when the British offered to spare his sons’ lives if he did so. His headstone reads:
Firm and decided as a patriot,
zealous and faithful as a friend to the public,
he loved his country, and adhered to her cause
in the darkest hours of her struggles