July 4, 2009

What the Declaration’s Signers Endured (and What Happened to One Columnist Who Wrote About It)

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 12:01 am

Note: This post is a July 4 BizzyBlog tradition. It belongs in Positivity because the sacrifices of those involved contributed to the founding of these United States.

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The news column below is, for reasons described in “Background” below, unenforceably copyright © 2000 Boston Globe, and is reposted here for discussion, critique, and educational purposes only, pursuant to the fair use exemption of copyright law.

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Also: Michelle Malkin wrote a hard-hitting piece in late July 2000 on The Globe’s immature reaction to the controversy that will be described here and the subject reporter’s outstanding body of work.

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Finally, see the “FINAL NOTE” that appears after the column.

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Background: In July 2000, veteran Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote the column that appears below.

After publication, his ignorant editors (putting it kindly) felt that he should have included a line pointing out that he was far from the first to write about the fates of the Declaration’s signers. Because he hadn’t, Jacoby was suspended for four months without pay. Note that The Globe did not, because they could not, suspend him for plagiarism.

Jacoby’s full response to his suspension is here. His most important points were these:

In short, whatever-happened-to-the-signers is an old, old theme in American inspirational writing …. These stories have been repeated so often, and by so many people, that they have risen to the level of American legend. Which is why it didn’t occur to me to take up valuable space in the column with footnotes or citations to earlier versions….

…. I care greatly about accuracy. Knowing that previous treatments of the lives-of-the-signers theme contained mistakes and exaggerations, I tried to take pains not to repeat anything untrue. As best as I could given the constraints of a deadline, I double-checked the biographical information I had, using encyclopedias of American history, books on the American Revolution, and relevant web sites, such as the one at www.colonialhall.com.

Many online and print readers of Jacoby’s columns (I believe that The Globe never did tell us how many) protested his suspension, including me. My protest e-mail to the Globe’s ombudsman said, in part:

Repeat after me, sir: FACTUAL history, especially from over 200 years ago, is public domain, and once verified and researched, does not have to be attributed. Your position is akin to having to look in three dictionaries to get to the meaning of every word and then having to cite those dictionaries every single time.

Where Jacoby found this factual history, whether “in a short book … by Paul Harvey,” “……in a widely circulated e-mail,” on a paper napkin, or on toilet paper is, after the fact-checking that YOU acknowledge he did, (repeat after me) IRRELEVANT.

The Globe did not reconsider the suspension. Matt Drudge “suspended” the Boston Globe’s link at his web site during the term of Jacoby’s suspension. Many online users “suspended” The Globe by refusing to read anything it published during that time, and more than a few print readers cancelled their subscriptions.

Upon learning of the suspension, Joe Farah of World Net Daily wrote:

I have read Jacoby’s column. I have read other works that inspired it. In my professional and expert opinion, this is not plagiarism. Neither is it a close call. It is, simply, the kind of derivative journalism that we read in American newspapers every single day — online and off. Jacoby did nothing wrong.

In fact, the only thing he is guilty of is writing a first-rate Independence Day column that reminded Americans of the great sacrifice our founders made for the freedom we enjoy. And that, I suspect, is what really bugs the politically correct crowd at the Boston Globe.

Indeed. Which is why, on this Independence Day, I am posting that column, omitting additional information about Thomas Nelson Jr. that Jacoby subsequently found to be inaccurate.

So we never forget.

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Fifty-Six Great Risk-Takers
By Jeff Jacoby

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted 12-0 — New York abstained — in favor of Richard Henry Lee’s resolution “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”

On July 4, the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson — heavily edited by Congress — was adopted without dissent. On July 8, the Declaration was publicly proclaimed in Philadelphia. On July 15, Congress learned that the New York Legislature had decided to endorse the Declaration. On Aug. 2, a parchment copy was presented to the Congress for signature. Most of the 56 men who put their name to the document did so that day.

And then?

We tend to forget that to sign the Declaration of Independence was to commit an act of treason — and the punishment for treason was death. To publicly accuse George III of “repeated injuries and usurpations,” to announce that Americans were therefore “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown,” was a move fraught with danger — so much so that the names of the signers were kept secret for six months.

They were risking everything, and they knew it. That is the meaning of the Declaration’s soaring last sentence:

“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.”

Most of the signers survived the war; several went on to illustrious careers.

Two of them became presidents of the United States, and among the others were future vice presidents, senators, and governors. But not all were so fortunate.

Nine of the 56 died during the Revolution, and never tasted American independence.

Five were captured by the British.

Eighteen had their homes — great estates, some of them – looted or burnt by the enemy.

Some lost everything they owned.

Two were wounded in battle.

Two others were the fathers of sons killed or captured during the war.

“Our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” It was not just a rhetorical flourish.

We all recognize John Hancock’s signature, but who ever notices the names beneath his? William Ellery, Thomas Nelson, Richard Stockton, Button Gwinnett, Francis Lewis — to most of us, these are names without meaning.

But each represents a real human being, some of whom paid dearly “for the support of this Declaration” and American independence.

Lewis Morris of New York, for example, must have known when he signed the Declaration that he was signing away his fortune. Within weeks, the British ravaged his estate, destroyed his vast woodlands, butchered his cattle, and sent his family fleeing for their lives.

Another New Yorker, William Floyd, was also forced to flee when the British plundered his property. He and his family lived as refugees for seven years without income. The strain told on his wife; she died two years before the war ended.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, an aristocratic planter who had invested heavily in shipping, saw most of his vessels captured by the British navy. His estates were largely ruined, and by the end of his life he was a pauper.

The home of William Ellery, a Rhode Island delegate, was burned to the ground during the occupation of Newport.

Thomas Heyward Jr., Edward Rutledge, and Arthur Middleton, three members of the South Carolina delegation, all suffered the destruction or vandalizing of their homes at the hands of enemy troops. All three were captured when Charleston fell in 1780, and spent a year in a British prison.

“Our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Thomas Nelson Jr. of Virginia raised $2 million for the patriots’ cause on his own personal credit. The government never reimbursed him, and repaying the loans wiped out his entire estate.

Richard Stockton, a judge on New Jersey’s supreme court, was betrayed by loyalist neighbors. He was dragged from his bed and thrown in prison, where he was brutally beaten and starved. His lands were devastated, his horses stolen, his library burnt. He was freed in 1777, but his health had so deteriorated that he died within five years. His family lived on charity for the rest of their lives.

In the British assault on New York, Francis Lewis’s home and property were pillaged. His wife was captured and imprisoned; so harshly was she treated that she died soon after her release. Lewis spent the remainder of his days in relative poverty.

And then there was John Hart. The speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, he was forced to flee in the winter of 1776, at the age of 65, from his dying wife’s bedside. While he hid in forests and caves, his home was demolished, his fields and mill laid waste, and his 13 children put to flight. When it was finally safe for him to return, he found his wife dead, his children missing, and his property decimated. He never saw any of his family again and died, a shattered man, in 1779.

The men who signed that piece of parchment in 1776 were the elite of their colonies. They were men of means and social standing, but for the sake of liberty, they pledged it all — their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. We are in their debt to this day.

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A FINAL NOTE (originally added July 2, 2005 at 8:30 PM): A distinction needs to be made between Jacoby’s column and the contents of an e-mail that was making the rounds of the Internet in the late 1990s. That e-mail (but not Jacoby’s column) has been critiqued at the Snopes.com Urban Legends web site and deemed “Some true. Some false.” None of the falsehoods or exaggerations criticized at Snopes appear to have made their way into Jacoby’s column, and Jacoby’s column provides a few additional facts not in the e-mail that have not been addressed by Snopes or verified by me (though it should be noted that The Globe never published a correction to any of the facts presented in Jacoby’s column).

A comment about the Snopes critique: Much of their non-factual criticism revolves around what they believe is an implied claim that the Signers were specifically targeted because they signed the Declaration. The subject e-mail never makes that claim, nor does Jacoby’s column. In both cases, I don’t see how any such implication can be derived. Why Snopes devotes so much of its critique to debunking the idea of “targeting,” and why the final two non-sequitur sentences of that critique are so, well, almost immature, is bewildering, to say the least:

But we should also not lose sight of the fact that many men (and women) other than the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence — some famous and most not — risked and sacrificed much (including their lives) to support the revolutionary cause. The hardships and losses endured by many Americans during the struggle for independence were not visited upon the signers alone, nor were they any less ruinous for having befallen people whose names are not immortalized on a piece of parchment.

Nobody ever said the Signers’ suffering was worse than that of others. But the Signers on average certainly had more to lose, at least materially, and they bore a special burden because they ensured that The Revolutionary War, already a year old, was about independence, and not some kind of peaceful coexistence with the British. It is my unprovable opinion that Snopes’ borderline-disrespect for the Signers comes from a deep-seated politically-correct need to minimize heroism wherever it is found.
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Sites commenting on this post in 2005: