Independence Day

A couple weeks ago we celebrated Flag Day with a spectacular parade in Hudson. “Bob Ferris would have been proud,” I whispered to myself during the event. The following weekend I heard a woman on the street, obviously a tourist, loudly proclaim to her friends, “Boy, they sure put their 4th of July decorations up early around here.” I decided it was not worth explaining; after all it is a short time between holidays.

As a high school student I memorized Patrick Henry’s words and delivered them at a statewide speech contest. It was March 23, 1775 that Henry, a man of deep conviction said, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” There was no applause as Patrick Henry finished his speech and took his seat. A long, silent moment passed before someone rose shouting, “To arms!” Instantly the room was filled with a like resounding chorus.

Next Thursday is the 4th of July, Independence Day. Of course some will persist in observing it the following Monday, but we discussed all that in May.

At this very moment 226 years ago Thomas Jefferson was holed up in the Graff House at 7th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania writing the document that would change the world. Between June 11 and June 28 he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

On July 2nd , 1776, the Continental Congress voted 12-0 that, “these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” New York abstained. July 4th, 1776 the much argued over and edited Declaration of Independence was adopted without dissent. General George Washington read it to his troops in New York City on July 9th. The second of August saw 56 men affix their signatures to that document.

A decree had been delivered to the Colonies from England in early 1776 offering a large reward for the capture of several leading colonial figures, radical dissenters. The name of Boston’s John Hancock was on the list. Once he had signed the Declaration, his signature large and made with great flourish, Hancock commented, “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.”

The act of signing the Declaration of Independence was an act of treason, punishable by death. The danger of this act was so great the names of the signers were kept secret for six months.

The concluding sentence of the document reads, “And for the support of this document, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” The men who signed that piece of parchment were for the most part men of means and social standing; the elite of their colonies. They didn’t really have to do it. As businessmen and lawyers couldn’t they simply have cut a deal with good King George III? Judging by today’s standard they may well have done just that, but these men held something in their hearts to which we perhaps have become all too accustomed. These men had a passion, a hunger for freedom. They, unlike that credit card commercial, truly knew the meaning of ‘Priceless.’ No cost was too high for freedom.
All but nine of the 56 men who signed the Declaration survived the war. Two went on to become President, others Vice President, Senators and Governors. The British captured five of them. Eighteen lost their homes, including the Livingston home just a few short miles away in Clermont, simply because they had the courage to sign a piece of paper.

The other New York signers, Lewis Morris, William Floyd and Francis Lewis lost everything. Floyd’s family lived without income as refuges for seven years. The difficult existence took Mrs. Floyd’s life two years before the end of the war. Mrs. Francis Lewis was taken prisoner and so harshly treated she succumbed shortly after her release. Mr. Lewis spent his remaining days in poverty. John Hart of New Jersey was forced to flee his dying wife’s bedside. When he returned she had died, his thirteen children were gone, his property destroyed. In 1779 he too died, shattered, never again seeing his family.

Richard Stockton, Carter Braxton, Thomas Heyward Jr., Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, William Ellery, just names now, but names of those who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor; individuals who gave their word, their commitment and in the end sacrificed all for freedom.

I find two questions keep gnawing at me. One, “Who among us today, knowing the possible consequence of our commitment, possesses courage sufficient to affix our signature to such a document?” and two, “Do you savor still a hunger for freedom?”

Just thoughts these questions, but thoughts quite worthy of consideration this Independence Day.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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