Saturday, July 4, 2015

Cost of Signing the Declaration of Independence


Homeless in a tent, sleeping on the ground, I lived in wild topography without cell phone reception. Not just I but others read books, or settled into easy conversation around the campfires, the only sounds, fire crackling, fish leaping in the river, raptor wings and the wind.

People also sat on rocks not talking at all, seemingly listening to the earth herself. We watched black bear and big horn mountain sheep on the steep ledges across the river.

Climbing on "my" side of their habitat, I found petroglyphs from long ago and big critter scat. Feeling watched, I caught glimpses tawny, russet, and black bear wild from peripheral sight.

Paperback books became treasures we shared; sometimes stories read aloud and stories told. Am remembering that time in the wilderness and the celebration of "Banned Book Week" by fairly wild librarians.

When the towers went ashes, ashes, they all fall down, and the so-called Patriot Act burst in its hundreds of pages, unread, from the jutting brow of Congress, we began to hear its contents.

A classmate, with whom I'd actually studied American History with a fiery black Irishman, was particularly incensed at the wee intrusion into the tidy world of librarians.

They were suddenly expected by "law" to function as instruments of police-state and report the reading preferences of those with library cards!

My classmate suggested that everyone we knew should check out Mao's little red book as an up-yours to petty bureaucrats pulling on jackboots for size.

Meanwhile, librarians at the much-loved public library where I served as children's reader turned their desk into a stage set. All draped in pirate-ship faux-chains, including the black table with a selection of banned books--on offer for check-out!

Hullo to readers overseas, today celebrates American independence from the tyranny of British Empire, long ago and far away.

The founders were literate men in colonies still dominated by wilderness. They had splendid multi-lingual libraries, including ancient languages. They studied history, and world-shaking minds, aflame with independent thought...

Fast forward to government-mandate schooling, which now excludes history, including that of courage.

We forget the personal risk dared by those who signed the Declaration of Independence---repudiating the alleged divine right of kings, including King George, their current demented outrage upon liberty.

Signing meant flagrant treason to the Crown. Have you ever wondered, at what cost?

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. 

Two lost their sons in the revolutionary army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the fifty-six fought and died from wounds or hardships resulting from the Revolutionary War. 

These men signed, and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor! 

What kind of men were they? Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants. Nine were farmers and large plantation owners. All were men of means, well educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty could be death if they were captured.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags. 

Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.
Vandals or soldiers or both, looted the properties of Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring examples of "undaunted resolution" was at the Battle of Yorktown. Thomas Nelson, Jr. was returning from Philadelphia to become Governor of Virginia and joined General Washington just outside of Yorktown. 

He then noted that British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters, but that the patriots were directing their artillery fire all over the town except for the vicinity of his own beautiful home. 

Nelson asked why they were not firing in that direction, and the soldiers replied, "Out of respect to you, Sir." Nelson quietly urged General Washington to open fire, and stepping forward to the nearest cannon, aimed at his own house and fired. The other guns joined in, and the Nelson home was destroyed. Nelson died bankrupt. 

Francis Lewis's Long Island home was looted and gutted, his home and properties destroyed. His wife was thrown into a damp dark prison cell without a bed. Health ruined, Mrs. Lewis soon died from the effects of the confinement. The Lewis's son would later die in British captivity, also.

"Honest John" Hart was driven from his wife's bedside as she lay dying, when British and Hessian troops invaded New Jersey just months after he signed the Declaration. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and his grist mill were laid to waste. 

All winter, and for more than a year, Hart lived in forests and caves, finally returning home to find his wife dead, his children vanished and his farm destroyed. 

Rebuilding proved too be too great a task. A few weeks later, by the spring of 1779, John Hart was dead from exhaustion and a broken heart. Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates. 

New Jersey's Richard Stockton, after rescuing his wife and children from advancing British troops, was betrayed by a loyalist, imprisoned, beaten and nearly starved. He returned an invalid to find his home gutted, and his library and papers burned. He, too, never recovered, dying in 1781 a broken man.

William Ellery of Rhode Island, who marveled that he had seen only "undaunted resolution" in the faces of his co-signers, also had his home burned. 

Only days after Lewis Morris of New York signed the Declaration, British troops ravaged his 2,000-acre estate, butchered his cattle and drove his family off the land. Three of Morris' sons fought the British. 

When the British seized the New York houses of the wealthy Philip Livingston, he sold off everything else, and gave the money to the Revolution. He died in 1778.

Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward Jr. went home to South Carolina to fight. In the British invasion of the South, Heyward was wounded and all three were captured. 

As he rotted on a prison ship in St. Augustine, Heyward's plantation was raided, buildings burned, and his wife, who witnessed it all, died. Other Southern signers suffered the same general fate. 

Among the first to sign had been John Hancock, who wrote in big, bold script so George III "could read my name without spectacles and could now double his reward for 500 pounds for my head." If the cause of the revolution commands it, roared Hancock, "Burn Boston and make John Hancock a beggar!" 

Read  a banned book lately?

Happy Independence Day to us everywhere, including the Greeks who began it all.

To read about life in the wild:


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