By Matthew Miklave
Democratic Mayoral Candidate
Common Councilman, District A
NORWALK, Conn. – Two hundred, thirty-five years ago, 56 individuals debated and signed what would become an enduring declaration of freedom, putting thirteen separate colonies on a course to nationhood. Their “Declaration” ended with fourteen often overlooked words. “[W]e mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
With these words, the “Philadelphia 56” pledged their willingness to sacrifice all they had for a simple idea – that they and their neighbors ought to be free to chart their own course.
As we enjoy this Fourth of July holiday, it is fitting to look at their pledge to secure our freedom and ask what price we are willing to pay to preserve our freedom.
The 56 who met in Philadelphia were most decidedly not “representative” of the American colonies. They were all men. They were all white. And at a time when most did not attend any school at all, most of these men were well educated – eight attended Harvard College; four attended Yale; three attended William and Mary; three attended Princeton; nine attended foreign colleges and universities; five attended “private” school; and three completed apprenticeship programs.
Most were well-established in their professions. A stunning 31 of the 56 people who signed the Declaration of Independence were or would become lawyers or judges. Nine were merchants. Eight were farmers. Four were physicians. Two were politicians. One was a clergyman. One was an ironmaster. And, least we forget, one was simply “all of the above” (Benjamin Franklin – philosopher, scientist, inventor, publisher, author, politician, diplomat, post master, librarian).
Those who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 had much to lose. Almost all had families to support. Almost all had earned or acquired sufficient sums to be considered “comfortable” if not outright wealthy. Two would become presidents of the United States (Thomas Jefferson and John Adams). Two would have sons grow up to become presidents of the United States (John Adams and Benjamin Harrison). All had earned reputations for their political skill and advocacy. Almost all had “bright futures.” And by declaring that they would no longer recognize the sovereign – King George III – they committed an act of treason for which they could have been executed, their possessions seized and their families ostracized.
The risk they took was great. As David McCullough wrote so well in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “1776,” the war was not going well for the “home team.” George Washington had taken commanded of an army of amateurs – undisciplined, unequipped and untrained. It faced one of the best trained, experienced and equipped armies in the world under the command of seasoned officers. The British had assembled one of largest naval fleets in history to quell the insurrection. By June 1776, there was a fear that the British (whose warships were within 30 miles of Philadelphia at one point) would march on the city, arrest the delegates to the Continental Congress and burn the city to the ground.
In July 1776, those original signers of the Declaration pledged their sacrifice. Many would pay dearly for their role in Philadelphia and in the New Republic. John Adams spent years away from his home, children and the woman he adored, fearing that his commitment to his country would leave his family in poverty. (In a day without telephones, e-mails, or instant messaging, the letters between John and Abigail Adams reflect the depth of their love and the price they paid for Adams’ role in the Revolution.) Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration and one of our greatest Presidents, would die virtually penniless. Many lost everything they owned when the British seized their lands and burned their farms and homes. Arthur Middleton not only lost everything when Charleston fell, he was held prisoner of war by the British for more than a year. And some, as a result of illness and the physical hardship caused by their service in the Continental Congress, would not survive a year following their gathering in Philadelphia.
When these 56 pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” they knew they were putting much at risk.
They did so anyway.
Two hundred and thirty-five years later, one should ask if there is any resemblance between us and those who signed that Declaration. While our nation’s sons and daughters risk all that they have on foreign shores, no one calls for or expects sacrifice at home. While we struggle to fund foreign conflicts and tackle any of the other numerous challenges facing us, we seem more interested in purchasing SUVs, plasma TVs, and the other “things” which have become “necessities” in the modern era.
What may be worse than the absence of sacrifice is the absence of tolerance. We seem incapable of listening to one another. On any political, moral or social issue, the debate inevitably devolves into a shouting match designed not to enlighten, but to silence the opposition or entertain the crowd. Political talk shows, where wealthy “talking heads” attempt to out shout and out bully one another, have set the tone for political discourse. Serious discussion of policy takes place only away from the limelight, rarely in the open.
We are all responsible for this condition.
The Philadelphia 56 were willing to sacrifice everything for their beliefs. This July 4th, perhaps it would be a good time to ask, “What are we willing to sacrifice for ours?”