The Heroes of 1776

by Patrick J. Buchanan – July 3, 1994

History may view it differently, but one senses we are living today in unheroic times. Our senators argue the cruciality of their retaining free parking space at the National Airport, while our president wail that no other one leader has suffered as he has been made to suffer — at the hands of those cynical radio talk-show hosts.

Contrast this self-indulgence and self-pity with the spirit of the forgotten heroes of 1776, the men who pledged “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to defend their declaration of Independence.

Disaster struck “Honest John” Hart first. Just months after he signed, British and Hessian troops invaded New Jersey, forcing him and his family to flee. His wife did not survive. Broken in health from hiding in barns all winter, Hart went home to find his farm destroyed. Rebuilding proved too great a task. By the spring of 1779, John Hart was dead.

New Jersey’s Richard Stockton, suffered a similar fate. After rescuing his wife and children from advancing British troops, he was betrayed by a loyalist, imprisoned, beaten and nearly starved. He returned an invalid to find his home gutted, his library and papers burned. He, too, never recovered, dying in 1781 a broken man.

Hart and Stockton lost all they had, but honor.

William Ellery of Rhode Island, who marveled that he had seen only “undaunted resolution” in the faces of his co-signers, had his home burned also. Francis Lewis’ Long Island home, too, was looted and gutted, his wife thrown into a damp dark prison cell without a bed. Health ruined, Mrs. Lewis died in two years. Lewis’ son would die in British captivity.

Only days after Lewis Morris of New Your signed, British troops ravaged his 2,000-acre estate, butchered his cattle and drove his family off the land. Three of Morris’ sons fought the British.

“The time is now at hand, when we shall see whether America has virtue enough to be free,” Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire had said at Philadelphia. In that summer of ’76, she surely did.

When the British seized the New Your houses of the wealthy Philip Livingston, he sold off everything else, gave the money to the Revolution and died in 1778.

Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward Jr. Went home to South Carolina to fight. In the British invasion of the South, Heyward was wounded and all three were captured. As he rotted on a prison ship in St. Augustine, Heyward’s plantation was raided, buildings burned, and his wife, who witnessed it all, died. Other Southern signers suffered the same fate.

Among the first to sign had been John Hancock, who wrote in big, bold script so George III “could read my name without spectacles and could now double his reward for 500 pounds for my head.” If the cause of the revolution commands it, roared Hancock, “Burn Boston and make John Hancock a beggar!”

Here were men who believed in a cause far beyond themselves.

But perhaps the most inspiring example of that “undaunted resolution” was Thomas Nelson Jr. Returning from Philadelphia to become Governor of Virginia. Nelson joined Washington’s army just outside Yorktown. Observing during that battle that his artillery men were directing fire all over the town, but were being careful to avoid the area where his own beautiful home was located, Nelson asked why they were not firing in that direction.

“Out of respect to you, Sir,” came the reply.

Nelson stepped forward to the nearest cannon, aimed it at his house and fired. The other guns joined in: his home was destroyed.

These stories of what became of the men who defied a king to give birth to a country were lovingly gathered by a great patriot, former Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. Of New Hampshire. Gov. Thomson put them all in his patriots book, “One Hundred Famous Founders.”

As Gov. Thomson relates on his death bead John Adams, most famous of the signers save only Thomas Jefferson, who had taken the presidency from him, was asked to make a toast.

“Independence forever” Adams cried. That was the spirit of the old man, as it had been of the young. He and Jefferson, with whom he had long since reconciled died the same day, July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day they had together cast their vote for American independence.

We shall not see their like again.