It’s hard to imagine, 237 years later, how much those 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were risking when they wrote their names on the document.
While we might risk overindulging in the barbecue on this anniversary, they risked everything.
Each was accomplished, with his own family and his own interests to think of. Ranging in age from 26 to 70, they represented 13 different colonies. They knew that battles already had been fought. And each knew that signing would be considered treason against King George III.
Indeed, the president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock of Massachusetts, reportedly said, “We must be unanimous, there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” To which Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin is said to have replied: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Some of the signers had to move their families to safety. Some saw their property looted and destroyed. A number of them fought in the Revolution, and a few were taken prisoner. “Certainly most of the signers had little or nothing to gain materially and practically all to lose when they subscribed to the Declaration of Independence,” notes a National Parks Service history.
And yet, they signed their names to the document that laid the lasting groundwork for our nation.
It was an act of uncommon courage and remarkable foresight. The declaration penned by Thomas Jefferson and edited by the Congress through debate and amendments did more than break the colonies’ ties with Great Britain. It spelled out principles that Americans cherish to this day.
The idea of equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
The concept of unalienable rights, and “that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The way to protect those rights: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
It would take decades before those ideals were achieved by all, but the uniquely American document had a profound impact around the world.
The vote for independence came on July 2, when 12 of the 13 colonies (New York abstained) agreed that the colonies should be “free and independent states.” The Congress debated the Declaration of Independence itself, making changes and revisions until July 4.
According to the National Archives, the initial document was signed by Hancock and the Congress’ secretary, Charles Thomson, while the final copy was signed by most of the delegates on Aug. 2. William Ellery of Rhode Island said he stood where he could watch their faces, later recalling: “Undaunted resolution was displayed on every countenance.”
One of the signers, John Adams of Massachusetts, wrote to his wife, Abigail, knowing that simply declaring independence wouldn’t make it so. “I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.”
Adams also predicted that the date of the July 2 vote “will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival.”
He was off by a couple of days but otherwise right. And 237 years later, we’re still celebrating the founders’ vision and courage.