Paying the Price

As the British moved across the colonies following America’s announcement of separation, they sought out the 56 who had signed the Declaration to ensure that they paid an especially high and brutal price for their action. Consider some of the sacrifices made by today’s forgotten signers.


It may seem unusual to have 13 children today, but among the signers of the Declaration, Carter Braxton had 16; Roger Sherman and William Ellery each had 15; Benjamin Rush, 13; Josiah Bartlett, 12; etc. In that day, large families were common, but often many, and sometimes most, of the children never lived to adulthood. In the 1770s the average lifespan in America was 35 years; today it is 78.

JOHN HART of New Jersey was 65 when he signed the Declaration. In late 1776, he was at the bedside of his ailing wife when the British

 approached, seeking his life. To secure his wife’s safety and that of his 13 children, he left ahead of the British, believing that his family would be safer if he were gone.

With Hart absent, the British spared the lives of his family, but not their possessions. The property was looted, belongings destroyed, and the family scattered.

Over the next several months, the British searched for Hart, but he was able to elude them at great cost to himself. Throughout that winter, the elderly Hart lived in the mountains and woods, constantly moving. Occasionally he would stay with friends, but often he slept in the woods, burying himself under leaves or hiding under rotted logs. On one occasion, he even crawled into a dog house and spent the night with the large hound in order to elude British pursuers.

When the British left the area the next spring, he returned home only to find his estate in ruins and discover that his wife had died. He never regained his health and succumbed well before the end of the Revolution, never witnessing the independence he had so strongly sought for his countrymen.

RICHARD STOCKTON of New Jersey was a signer who fell prey to his own neighbors. Unfortunately, it was not just the British against whom the patriots had to be on constant guard; often it was their neighbors—the "Loyalists" who supported the British cause.

One night while Stockton was safely asleep in his own bed, a number of Loyalists entered his home, seized and dragged him off to a prison ship where he was starved, abused, and tortured.

Significantly, 4,435 Americans died in battle during the Revolution, but 11,500 died as prisoners of war. Of the numerous British prisons, the two most deadly were the prison ship Jersey and the Sugar House Prison.

The Sugar House Prison was a tall structure, dank and dirty. The smell of death and disease inside the prison made its air rancid and almost unbreathable. In fact, after the Revolution one former prisoner returned to the Sugar House and recounted to his friend:

For 12 months, that dark hole was my only home. And at that door I saw the corpse of my brother thrown into the dead-cart among a heap of others who had died in the night previous of the jail-fever. While the fever was raging, we were let out in companies of 20, for half-an-hour at a time, to breathe the fresh air; and inside we were so crowded that we divided our number into squads of six each. Number one stood 10 minutes as close to the window as they could crowd to catch the cool air, and then stepped back, when number two took their place, and so on. Seats? We had none; and our beds were but straw on the floor with vermin intermixed. And there is my kill-time work: "A.V.S. 1777"—viz. Abraham Van Sickler, which I scratched with an old nail. When peace came, some learned the fate of their fathers and brothers from such initials [carved into the walls].

The prison ship Jersey was equally abominable. It was a dismantled 64-gun British warship that housed 1,200 prisoners in the most deplorable conditions. The prisoners received infrequent rations, which were often spoiled or undercooked. Confinement on the Jersey was usually a death sentence, and for nearly a century after the Revolution, the bleached bones of American bodies could still be seen along the shore where the British dumped the dead overboard.

Stockton was eventually released from the prison ship, but he never regained his health; he survived only a few months. In his final weeks, Stockton knew he was dying. Concerned for the welfare of his family — especially his teenage children who would now grow up without the guiding hand of their loving father—he placed his temporal affairs in order and penned his last will and testament. Knowing that it would contain the final words that his beloved children would hear from him, he filled it with tender fatherly advice. Notice his dying words to his children:

[A]s my children will have frequent occasion of perusing this instrument, and may probably be particularly impressed with the last words of their father, I think it proper here not only to subscribe to the entire belief of the great and leading doctrines of the Christian religion… but also, in the bowels of a father’s affection, to exhort and charge them that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; that the way of life held up in the Christian system is calculated for the most complete happiness that can be enjoyed in this mortal state; that all occasions of vice and immorality is injurious either immediately or consequentially — even in this life.

FRANCIS LEWIS of New York was a wealthy merchant who had been a close ally of the British in the decades before the Revolution. When the British entered New York, they sought out their former ally now turned patriot. Unable to find him, they destroyed his home and took his wife, ELIZABETH LEWIS, as a prisoner of war. She was placed in a dungeon-like prison and kept in close, damp confinement for several months. She was allowed no bed or change of clothes, and only occasionally was food given to her. General Washington finally secured her release, but her health was so broken that she died shortly afterward. Francis Lewis lost not only his possessions but also his precious wife; he spent his last days "in comparative poverty, his independent fortune having in a great measure been sacrificed on the altar of patriotism."

Many other signers’ wives also suffered great privation, including MARTHA JEFFERSON, who lost several children during the Revolution. On one occasion, she was forced to flee with her small children just ahead of the marauding British. As a result of charging into the snow and freezing temperatures of a harsh winter with her children, her 3-month-old daughter became ill and died. Thomas and Martha shared much loss and grief: of their six children (five daughters and one son), only two lived to adulthood. Martha saw three of her children die before her (she died during the Revolution), and Thomas saw five of them buried.

Before the Revolution, THOMAS NELSON JR. of Virginia was one of the wealthiest men in America, owning a vast estate. When the British invaded Yorktown at the end of the war, Nelson was Virginia’s governor. His home was one of the finest, so British officers took it as a headquarters. During the siege of Yorktown, Nelson led the Virginia troops against the British, but the American soldiers, out of respect for their beloved commander, refused to level their artillery on Nelson’s home. Nelson therefore took charge of a battery and personally opened fire, aiming the first cannon at his own house. He then offered the gunners a reward of five guineas for every cannon ball that hit his home. Judging from the condition of his house after the battle, some of the gunners must have become rich! Nelson died shortly after the close of the war, a poor and broken man who had willingly given all in the cause of independence.

The price paid by the signers and their families was immense. The reason they sacrificed so much was summarized by Samuel Adams, who told fellow signer Benjamin Rush:

If it were revealed to me that 999 Americans out of 1,000 would perish in a war for liberty, I would vote for that war rather than see my country enslaved. The survivors in such a war, though few, would propagate a nation of freemen.


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