The Courage of America’s Founding Fathers
by Scott Williams
Editor’s note: One of FamilyLife’s consistent themes is calling men to courageously step up to their responsibilities as godly husbands and fathers. Sometimes as men we are inspired by stories of courage, and this week we honor America’s founding fathers by telling of the courage it required for them to craft and sign the Declaration of Independence.
When you think of the Fourth of July, what words come to mind?
Holiday? Grilling? Fireworks?
Two hundred thirty-eight years ago, it was a different three words.
Conviction. Courage. Sacrifice.
On July 4, 1776, 56 men met in Philadelphia to pass a resolution declaring their independence from England. It was anything but a picnic. What they did that day at Independence Hall would cost them greatly in the years to come. But it paved the way for a radical new way of thinking about government that would change the course of human history.
By signing the Declaration, these men knew they were inviting a declaration of war by England. They knew that, as traitors, they were essentially forfeiting all their possessions to the crown. Essentially, in signing the document, they were putting bounties on their own heads.
But in spite of the cost, they considered the impact their actions would have for the people of America. They understood from Scripture that government is a sacred trust given by God to protect the inherent rights of people created in His image. Their new document stood toe-to-toe against the prevailing governmental idea of the day—the divine right of kings, which held that, when the one on the throne spoke, it was the voice of God speaking.
The Declaration of Independence contended that King George was abusing his God-given power as leader of England and the American colonies. It was their responsibility as decent men, they stated in their document, to challenge him on this for the sake of his subjects. Benjamin Franklin himself recommended a national motto in defense of their actions: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Their courage and sacrifice
Those who led the effort to step up and break away from King George would face serious consequences. Not only would they suffer the vengeance of the British throne, but their unwavering commitment to the cause of freedom would come at high personal price as well. Consider the fate of a number of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
George Walton of Georgia was wounded and captured in 1778 leading his state’s militia in the defense of his hometown of Savannah.
Thirty-year-old Thomas Heyward, Jr. of South Carolina signed the declaration at the great displeasure of his father, who was sympathetic to the king and told Thomas he would likely hang for the act. The two men resolved their differences before the elder Heyward died the next year. Two years later, Thomas and fellow South Carolina signers Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton were taken prisoner in the siege of Charleston and held nearly a year to the war’s end.
Richard Stockton of New Jersey had his home overrun by the British invasion. He managed to get his family to safety, but he was captured, specifically because he signed the Declaration of Independence. He remained imprisoned for years and nearly starved and froze to death. In battered health, he was released and returned to his home to find that all his furniture, crops, and livestock were taken or destroyed, and his library—one of the colony’s best—was burned.
John Witherspoon of New Jersey, an active clergyman and president of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton), shut down and evacuated the school when British troops invaded the area. He spent most of the rest of his life rebuilding the college. Witherspoon also lost his son James in the battle of Germantown.
Thomas McKean of Delaware led an army the day after signing the declaration to help George Washington in the defense of New York City and narrowly escaped with his life from cannon fire. In the next year he was on the run from the British, having to move his family five times.
John Hart of New Jersey was also pursued by the British. His property was invaded and looted. Two of his young children fled to relatives’ homes nearby, and Hart himself took refuge where he could in the surrounding woods and in nearby caves. He returned to his home a few months later, and a few years after that he offered the fields surrounding his property as an encampment to Washington and 12,000 troops.
Lewis Morris of New York lost almost all of his property and wealth in the war, much of it within just two months of signing the Declaration of Independence. He served as a brigadier general during the war and spent nearly all his post-war days working to rebuild his property and farmlands. His frail wife was imprisoned by the British and never recovered her health.
Philip Livingston of New York was forced from residence to residence by the British armies. His first two homes became a British barracks and hospital, and the other two homes were burned to the ground. In addition to the properties he lost to the enemy, he sold several others to support the colonial war effort, and died suddenly in 1778 before he could rebuild.
Lyman Hall, on the advice of General Washington, took his wife and son and fled his Georgia home for Connecticut, where he remained for two years until the war’s end. He returned to his property in Georgia, but he had lost most of what he had.
Carter Braxton of Virginia invested a large amount of his wealth in the revolutionary effort, as well as the shipping and privateering industry, which furnished the war effort with supplies. The debt that he incurred forced him to leave his estate and move to a smaller home.
Robert Morris of Pennsylvania surpassed all when it came to putting up his personal fortunes to support the war effort. Before any country or major bank was willing to extend credit to the fledgling United States, Morris was there. The $10,000 that he loaned the new government supplied Washington’s desperate troops, who went on to defeat the British at Trenton. Like Braxton, he also supported the shipping industry that delivered provisions to the soldiers and citizens. Morris never recovered his pre-war wealth, but his investment helped turn the tide of war in favor of the Americans and helped established the United States as a nation.
The legacy of their actions
These were just a fourth of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. While others may not have sacrificed as much as these, each risked his personal safety, integrity, and possessions to stand for freedom from tyranny and oppose the unlawful British rule. Many of these men were not without character flaws, but at a crucial moment in history, they were willing to step up and sacrifice their personal comforts for the good of their countrymen.
Could any of them imagine that the nation they birthed would still celebrate 238 years later with fireworks and feasts?