Berger’s Burg: Signers of the Declaration all paid heavy prices for freedom

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There are those ... who will reply that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. ... It is the American Dream. — Archibald McLeish

On Sunday, America is 234 years old. Thanks to the Declaration of Independence, every citizen of this nation is given rights not granted in other countries. But many Americans overlook the meaning of the Fourth of July.

They no longer observe Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays on their true birthdays. Their commemorations have morphed into three-day weekends so people can spend more time watching TV, shopping at malls or making quick getaways. July 4 is no exception. Is patriotism becoming extinct?

Nowhere in the world is presented a government of so much liberty and equality. — Abraham Lincoln

But because patriotism is subjective, it is impossible to say whether it has truly vanished since it cannot be measured by opinion polls. Most of us take patriotism for granted and as if it were not needed when it is. At its best it creates a sense of belonging that binds us together and inspires Americans to give their lives defending their country. But many Americans have forsaken the Declaration of Independence, thus destroying its importance and power.

America’s emphasis on individual “rights,” opportunity and economic gain has always been somewhat at odds with patriotism. What is incontestable is that patriotism no longer seems worth worrying about and Americans consider it largely irrelevant to today’s problems.

The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave. — Thomas Jefferson

Patriotism should flourish when the nation is threatened but, although the present scope of terrorism is apparent, real and imagined differences pull us apart. The politics of group identity — race, sex and ethnicity — subsist on differences. Longtime citizens and newly arrived immigrants who feel drawn between their native countries and adopted homeland need a common thread to unite both groups. Patriotism provides the counterweight to these and other divisions.

We live in the most prosperous land in the world. The root of that prosperity can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the 56 men who signed it at great risk. Why? Read and find out what happened to these patriots.

Many signers of the Declaration were captured by the British as traitors, tortured and executed. Many died from battle wounds. Many lost their sons fighting in the Revolutionary army. Many had their homes burned. And all lost their fortunes.

Who were these men who pledged their honor, money and lives in the fight for freedom? Twenty-four were lawyers, 11 were merchants, nine were plantation owners and 12 were farmers. All were educated and signed the Declaration of Independence knowing the penalty would be death to themselves should they be captured.

Carter Braxton, a wealthy trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British navy. He sold his properties to pay his debts and died in rags. Thomas McKeam, who served in Congress without pay, was so hounded by the British that he and his family were constantly on the run. And British soldiers and vandals looted the family and business properties of the others, including Dillery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge and Middleton. Poverty was their reward.

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. — Benjamin Franklin

At the Battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson Jr. noted that British Gen. Charles Cornwallis had taken over his home. He urged then-Gen. George Washington to open fire and destroy it. Nelson died bankrupt. Francis Lewis had his home and properties burned and his wife jailed. She died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. His fields and gristmill were destroyed and their 13 children fled for their lives. Living in forests and caves, Hart finally returned home, only to find his wife dead and his children missing. John Hancock’s claim to fame was his bold signature. It signified his optimism in America’s ability to survive British onslaught and points toward a bright future.

So take a few minutes this Fourth of July to remember these patriots and the price they paid to make America. And do not forget those patriots who fought and died defending the Declaration of Independence through the years. Freedom was and is never free.

Contact Alex Berger at

Updated 5:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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