Sundin column: Some Independence Day history
As I See It
In June of 1776, the Continental Congress of the American Colonies deliberated over declaring that the 13 colonies should be free from British rule, and on July 2 adopted a resolution to that effect.
On July 4 the delegates adopted an official Declaration of Independence that had been drafted by Thomas Jefferson. A formal copy of the Declaration was signed by 53 of the 61 delegates on August 2. An additional five delegates signed it within the next couple of months. The signers were all well-educated men of means — lawyers, jurists, merchants and plantation owners.
It had to have taken tremendous courage for these men to put their names on the Declaration. This was an act of treason against the Crown, punishable by hanging and confiscation of all their assets, leaving their families destitute. The closing sentence in the Declaration confirms their dedication to their cause and to one another, “And for the purpose of this declaration … we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
There must have been some unnerving times during which it looked like the revolution might be a lost cause. The British had evacuated Boston and New England in the spring of 1776, but shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence they inflicted two crushing defeats on Washington’s rag-tag army and drove them out of New York.
But Washington’s daring victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey as 1776 ended must have restored some measure of confidence.
However, Washington was constantly pleading with the Continental Congress for more money to pay, feed and clothe his troops, and was almost always going up against larger numbers of better-equipped British troops due to the expiration of term enlistments and desertions. The low point was during the severe winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, when his troops suffered horribly from privation, and a fifth of his army of only 11,000 deserted.
You would have thought that with many members of the Continental Congress being signers of the Declaration of Independence there would have been a greater sense of urgency for supplying Washington’s appeals.
In 1777, the British commenced a three-pronged campaign with armies driving north up the Hudson River led by General Howe, south along Lake Champlain led by General Burgoyne, with a smaller force proceeding east along the Mohawk River, intending to separate New England from the rest of the colonies. But Howe was busy driving Washington out of Philadelphia, so his army got a late start and never connected with Burgoyne.
New England colonial forces adopted guerilla tactics to slow Burgoyne’s progress, and in October 1777 attacked and stopped his army’s progress at the Battle of Saratoga, forcing its surrender.
This was the turning point in the war. Benjamin Franklin was able to convince England’s long-time enemy, France, to enter the war on the side of the colonists, leading to the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781 and victory for the colonies.
Around 1950, Paul Harvey of “The Rest of the Story” fame, in a fit of patriotic fervor, published a book recounting the price many of the signers of the Declaration had paid. In his book he claims that five were captured, tortured and died, nine died of battle wounds and hardships they had endured, and 17 lost everything they owned. These statistics were widely quoted in a number of books by other writers, including Ann Coulter, Oliver North, Pat Buchannan and Rush Limbaugh, and disseminated by email in 1999.
A website response was created refuting the contents of the email. In 2002, Kelly Duddleston published the results of extensive research in “History News Network” that two of the signers were wounded in action and neither of them died of their wounds, and five of the signers had been captured by the British, not as traitors but as prisoners of war, and all were eventually released.
This disproved the “common knowledge,” an example of which is Thomas McKean who was claimed to have died broke after the British seized his fortune. The facts are that he became Pennsylvania’s second governor and died a wealthy man in 1817.
This takes nothing away from all of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the courage they exhibited in signing a document that could have been their death sentence.
Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. “As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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