Franke: July 4 — Freedom Is a Risky Business
by Mark Franke
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
These concluding words to the Declaration of Independence are not as recognizable as “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” but they deserve to be. Think about what the 56 men gathered as the Second Continental Congress just did.
They declared the independence of all 13 colonies from the King and Parliament of Great Britain but those were only words. Words, however, that represented treason against the crown and subject to the ultimate penalty should their enterprise fail.
And fail, it almost did on numerous occasions. Even the indomitable George Washington had his moments of despair after battlefield losses, and he lost nearly every battle he fought. Compound this with an inept and impecunious Congress that wouldn’t and couldn’t provide adequate food, clothing and shelter for his ragtag army and one wonders how Washington persevered.
If Washington had ever become a prisoner of war, he would have been tried for treason and possibly sent to London to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Don’t ask what that form of execution entailed; it was horrific.
By signing their name to the Declaration, the same fate awaited all 56 of them should their revolution fail. Pledging their lives was not some empty gesture. They understood that affirmation to be literal.
These were not desperate men with nothing to lose. They were lawyers, merchants, farmers and other prosperous citizens. There was even a schoolteacher in the group. They chose this path, risks and all.
Did they wake up the next morning and feel doubt about what they just did? Probably as they were only human. Yet only one recanted after being incarcerated by the British army, perhaps due to the conditions of his imprisonment or his failing health.
As you might expect, there are multiple pages to be found on the internet listing the signers and their fates. Likewise, there are “fact checkers” who debunk much of what is claimed. Regardless, these men and their families were at risk and many suffered, if not directly attributable to their role as signers then certainly due to the war they intentionally provoked in the name of independence.
The risk to them was real. Thomas Jefferson was governor of Virginia when a British army moved westward from the coast and threatened the capital, Richmond. Jefferson took to the hills, literally, to avoid capture. I am not a Jefferson fan — that’s my wife’s job in our household — but I can’t fault him for running. He was a marked man without doubt and could not expect gentlemanly treatment from the British commander Benedict Arnold, a man with an enormous grudge to settle.
Return to their pledge at the conclusion of the document. Some gave their lives. Many more gave their fortunes. Only one gave his sacred honor.
Would those same percentages hold today if confronted by tyranny? Hardly. While I know of no one who has lost his life defending liberty, the daily news is replete with people being canceled from jobs and other aspects of their pursuit of happiness. Too many, I fear, willingly sacrifice their sacred honor to go along with woke dominance of our culture and society. I understand why human nature prefers to take the easy way out when faced with a difficult choice between unpleasant alternatives. It is only the normal reaction.
Fortunately for us, those 56 men in 1776 were not normal in any sense of the term.
One more clause of their pledge deserves mention: “[W]ith a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
There were certainly outsized egos in the room as well as an eighteenth century’s form of self-made men. Yet they still appealed to God to protect them in their moral cause. Even the deists and agnostics, Jefferson being the parade example of both theological positions, signed on to that prayer.
One can argue that it was a time when religion was nearly universal in society but that just doesn’t get to the root of it. My sense is that they truly believed that God was on the side of their righteous cause and would intervene to assure its success. Perhaps the deists, who believed in a clockmaker God who wound up the universe and then went on to other divine responsibilities, were following along in the spirit of the moment. Or perhaps a prick of conscience reminded them to cover all bases, theologically. Regardless, they all signed.
Would we today line up to sign this document and assume the risk of loss of lives, fortunes and reputations? I will leave that question open-ended for now but it bears reflection on July 4 if no other time.
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.