Calculating the Cost of Freedom

Two out of three doesn’t often equal more than 100 percent, but the love of freedom and the desire to do good can generate their own mathematics. The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged three things, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. None of them compromised the third. But many of them in various measure laid down the first two and more on the alter of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The fortunes and positions they offered up for freedom were not inconsiderable. Half were lawyers or judges. The others were merchants, doctors, ministers, politicians and landowners. All but two had families. This was by no means the typical revolution of the have-nots against the haves. These men had much more to lose than gain by signing this document. The Declaration was their death warrant if their bid for freedom failed.

A few names we may remember. Most we don’t. John Hart gave not only his own life, but his wife and his 13 children from the effects of the war.

Of the 55 other signers, nine died of wounds or hardships. Five were captured and imprisoned with brutal treatment. Several lost wives, sons or entire families. All were driven from their homes by British manhunts. Seventeen lost everything they owned.

Journalist Lee Davidson summarized some of their sacrifices: “Hart, 65, slept in caves and the woods. When he was finally able to sneak home, his wife had been buried and his children taken away. He never saw them again. He died a broken man in 1779.

“Francis Lewis of New York had his home and estates completely destroyed by British soldiers. He wife was captured and treated brutally. Although later freed, she died from the effects of her abuse.

“Dr. John Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied it and burned the finest college library in the country.

“Judge Richard Stockton of New Jersey was betrayed by a Tory sympathizer and was brutally beaten when captured with his family. He was deliberately starved in jail. He was finally released but was an invalid. He returned home to find his estate looted. His family was forced to live off charity.

“Thomas Nelson was from Yorktown, Va. He was there as U.S. artillery started shelling British forces trapped in that town. The British commander, Lord Cornwallis, had set up his headquarters in Nelson’s own palatial home.

“At first, U.S. forces spared his home. Nelson asked commanders why and was told it was out of respect to him. He is said to have then fired the first shot himself at his own home — which was ruined in the battle that finally won the war.

“Nelson’s sacrifice was not over. He had raised $2 million for the Revolution by pledging his estates as collateral. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them. Nelson forfeited his property and died impoverished.

“Two of the sons of Abraham Clark were officers in the U.S. Army. Captured and sent to a British prison ship, they were beaten brutally, and one was slowly starved to death. With the end almost in sight, few would have blamed Clark if he had renounced his pledge to save his sons. But he refused.

Lives + fortunes + sacred honor. Calculating the formula for freedom shows us that liberty is a costly commodity. It also reminds us that the sum of the inputs is not a constant. The total is enlarged or diminished by every generation. How does our commitment and contribution stand up to theirs?