Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias We appropriately hear a lot these days about The Greatest Generation.

They are made up of American men and women who, through toil and at great personal sacrifice, fended off two destructive world powers during World War II to keep this country free.

There's another generation worthy of note. They really don't get that much attention.

They are the generation that helped forge this nation in the first place.

When my classmates and I first heard of the Declaration of Independence while sitting in our elementary school classroom decades ago, we thought it was a pretty big deal. It was, in our minds, the document that made it possible for us to have a fun time on the Fourth of July.

We especially thought it would have been neat to have been one of the guys that signed the document back in 1776. Talk about an easy way to make history, especially John Hancock, who left no doubt with his large, bold mark, that he was indeed one of our Founding Fathers.

What I'm beginning to appreciate more and more, thanks, from all sources, the History Channel and research on the Internet, is that the men and women who declared themselves to be a free people over 200 years ago probably could have used a lifetime supply of Prozac after declaring their intentions to break away from the British.

In much the same way that the 20th century's Greatest Generation put everything on the line, so too did what I'll term America's original Greatest Generation.

The first generation of Americans who fought in the revolution against the British paid a terrible price. We know that simply by studying what happened to many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Signing that document didn't mean new, glorious, free lives for many of these men, as I had always reasoned as a child. By identifying themselves as truly original American patriots, many of these individuals effectively signed their lives away.

When Carter Braxton of Virginia signed the Declaration of Independence, he was a wealthy planter and trader. He saw his ships swept from the seas and to pay his debts, he lost his home and all of his property and he died in rags.

Thomas Lynch Jr., who signed that pledge, was a third generation rice grower and aristocrat � a large plantation owner � but after he signed his health failed. With his wife he set out for France to regain his failing health. Their ship never got to France; he was never heard from again.

Thomas McKean of Delaware was so harassed by the enemy that he was forced to move his family five times in five months. He served in Congress without pay with his family in poverty and in hiding.

Vandals looted the properties of Ellery and Clymer and Hall and Gwinett and Walton and Heyward and Rutledge and Middleton.

Thomas Nelson Jr. of Virginia raised $2 million on his own signature to provision our allies, the French fleet. After the war, he personally paid back the loans. It wiped out his entire estate; he was never reimbursed by his government. And in the final battle for Yorktown, Nelson urged General Washington to fire on his (Nelson's) own home, then occupied by Cornwallis. He died bankrupt after pledging his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.

The Hessians seized the home of Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. Francis Lewis had his home and everything destroyed. His wife was imprisoned and died within a few months.

Richard Stockton was captured and mistreated, and his health broken to the extent that he died at 51. His estate was pillaged.

Thomas Heyward Jr. was captured when Charleston fell. John Hart was driven from his wife's bedside while she was dying; their 13 children fled in all directions for their lives. His fields and gristmill were laid waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves and returned home after the war to find his wife dead and his children and properties gone. He died a few weeks later of exhaustion.

Lewis Morris saw his land destroyed, his family scattered. Philip Livingston died within a few months of hardships of the war.

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, few were long to survive. Five were captured by the British and tortured before they died, 12 had their homes � from Rhode Island to Charleston � sacked and looted, occupied by the enemy or burned. Two of them lost their sons in the Army; one had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 died in the war.

It's important that we remember this about these individuals: they were not poor men, they were not wild-eyed pirates; these were rich men, most of them, who enjoyed easy, luxurious lives before the Revolutionary War.

But they had learned that liberty is so much more important than security, that they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. And they fulfilled their pledge � they paid the price, and freedom was born.

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