Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that he was going to end up being the third President of the United States. At the time, no one knew what a President was. Benjamin Franklin didn’t know he would be famous for his inventions and would end up on the $100 bill. John Hancock didn’t know he would be known for his large signature, and that an insurance company would be named after him.
What they did know was that they had the desire for freedom from England. And by signing the Declaration of Independence, they knew that they could very well be signing their own death warrants. What they were signing would be considered treasonous to the English. If the ragtag Continental Army led by George Washington could not stand up and defeat the forces of the mighty British Empire, the signers of the document would probably be executed as traitors.
Even if they were not executed as traitors, the signers of the Declaration of Independence still had much to lose if the war with England was lost. Most of the men who placed their signature on the document were quite well off. Twenty-four of the signers were lawyers, nine were plantation owners and farmers, and eleven were merchants. These were not poor individuals with nothing to lose. If the British had won the War for Independence, the signers would have surely seen their property and wealth seized and taken, even if they were not imprisoned or executed.
During the Revolutionary War, four of the signers were actually captured by the British. George Walton, Thomas Heywood Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge were captured, but were eventually released. Another signer, Richard Stockton, was also captured by the British during the war. After months of harsh treatment, Stockton recanted and swore allegiance to King George III. But, after his release from prison, he recanted again and took a loyalty oath to the new United States.
Looking back, we know the history. We know what would happen. We know that the ragtag army of George Washington would somehow defeat the British. But the signers didn’t. While celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, we need to remember the courage of those signers. Because they didn’t know what would be the outcome from their actions, but they did it anyway.
There’s another group of brave individuals we need also to remember. It’s the soldiers who have fought and died for our country. You see, they also didn’t know. They didn’t know if fighting for their country would lead to victory or defeat. They didn’t know if it would lead to their own personal injury or death. They didn’t know. But they did it anyway. And the American soldier is still doing it today.
President Ronald Reagan echoed that thought in a Veteran’s Day speech he gave on November 11, 1985. In the speech he remembered those young soldiers who gave all. He said, “Most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives — the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember.”
We do need to remember. We need to remember the rich plantation owner in Virginia, who put his life on the line by signing the Declaration of Independence. And the young soldier who gave his life on the beach at Normandy. This July 4th, there will be cookouts, fireworks and parades. But let’s take a moment to remember those who, by their sacrifice and bravery, made it possible. Because they didn’t know what would be the outcome, but they did it anyway.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at email@example.com