“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other out Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Although not really a new argument, today some say that America was founded by “rich white men” and that because of this and the fact that some were slaveholders we should not honor them or the documents they authored. This shallow attitude ignores the facts, and that while a few of them, such as John Hancock and George Washington were wealthy merchants or landowners, not all of them were “rich” by colonial standards. A few did lose their wealth or saw their fortunes significantly diminished as a result of the war and its economic effects. And, being traitors against the King of England was no small thing.
This view of the Founders and their generation also disregards the sacrifices made and blood shed by the men (and women), respectively, who fought for and supported the cause of independence. It is important to note that Black soldiers were scattered throughout the Continental Army in integrated infantry regiments, where they were often assigned to support roles as waggoneers, cooks, or artisans. African Americans also served as gunners, sailors and privateers in the Continental Navy during the Revolution.
The Declaration’s bold assertion that “all Men are Created Equal” and Constitution’s Article 1, twenty-year clause, put the slave trade on a path to extinction. See: “All Men are Created Equal: America's Defining Creed.” While we may wishfully look back and judge that they somehow should have done more to eradicate these wrongs in their lifetime, they first had to declare independence from their mother country (the originating empire of the colonial slave trade), out-maneuver and defeat the world-renown British army and navy, establish a new nation with a Bill of Rights, and simultaneously raise a standard of truth sowing the seeds of individual liberty and human rights-- that would eventually bear fruit after the Civil War of the 1860’s (with 612,000 casualties) and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. What risks did these men individually and together undertake for the freedoms we now enjoy? Among them was death for High Treason.
“The most serious of all felonies in the 1700’s was High Treason, or treason against the King of England. Eighteenth-century laws describe the four basic types of high treason:
1. “When a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, of our lady his queen, or of their eldest son and heir.”
2. “If a man do violate the king's companion, or the king's eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the king's eldest son and heir.”
3. “If a man do levy war against our lord the king in his realm”.
4. “If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere.”
This aspect of the treason law pertains to trading with enemy nations, as well as trading with pirates. Many English colonies, including the American colonies, trading openly with pirates because the merchants could avoid the high English tariffs. Since High Treason was, and arguably remains, the most serious capital crime, testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act was required to convict, and the punishment in the Eighteenth century was severe.
Blackstone states that “the punishment of high treason in general is very solemn and terrible”:
1. That the offender be drawn to the gallows, and not be carried or walk: though usually (by connivance length ripened by humanity into law) a sledge or hurdle is allowed, to preserve the offender from the extreme torment of being dragged on the ground or pavement
2. That he be hanged by the neck and then cut down alive
3. That his entrails be taken out and burned, while he is yet alive
4. That his head be cut off
5. That his body be divided in four parts
6. That his head and quarters be at the king's disposal.
The punishment did not end with the personal suffering of the offender; the punishment extended to his or her family. The law states that a person who is found guilty of treason must also undergo "forfeiture" and "corruption of blood." In forfeiture, the person is forced to give all their lands and property to the state. Corruption of blood prevents the person's immediate family and hereditary heirs from owning property or conducting business-- in effect ruining the offender's family forever.
But the punishment of treasonous women is similar, yet different from men. “For as the decency due to the sex forbids the exposing and publicly mangling their bodies, their sentence (which it to the full as terrible to sensation as the other) is to be drawn to the gallows, and there to be burned alive.”
Today, the most famous offenders of the eighteenth-century English treason laws are the Founding Fathers and American Revolutionaries. The Declaration of Independence violates the 3rd law of Treason, [and their subsequent actions violated the 4th]. When John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other founding fathers signed this statement, they did not sign some empty philosophical statement, they signed their death warrant. This action displayed their dedication to the cause of American independence and the ultimate disloyalty to King George III. Until the Declaration of Independence, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the others only disagreed with Parliament, not the Crown; in fact, after a day of fighting the British soldiers, Washington and his officers would toast the King before dinner. This document is important because it marks the revolutionaries' acknowledgment that the corruption of the English government was not contained within the Parliament, but extended all the way up to the King; it marks the point of no return: either the revolutionaries were going to gain their independence from England and create a new country, or they were going to lose the war to the best army in the world, forfeit everything they owned, ruin their families, and be hung, drawn and quartered.” As Benjamin Franklin exclaimed to his fellow signers on August 2nd, 1776 (when the Declaration was actually signed), “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Of those fifty-six men who pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor,” no signer was killed outright by the British. One, Richard Stockton, was imprisoned solely for having signed the Declaration of Independence. Others were captured while fighting in the army and were treated like other prisoners of war (which was fairly harsh). Of the 56 signers, seventeen held commissions in the army or did medical duty during the war. While the majority survived the conflict, many of those had property that was looted or destroyed, but most managed to re-establish themselves financially after the war. Carter Braxton did suffer financial hardship because of the British, but he retained other holdings. What ruined him were commercial setbacks after the war [just as those that affected Thomas Jefferson]. “The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew they could have been targeted by the British as traitors. They showed tremendous courage and bravery by willingly putting their names on a document that could bring about their deaths. They were remarkable men.”
And, lest we forget, throughout the course of the seven-year Revolutionary War, an estimated 6,800 Americans were killed in action, 6,100 wounded, and upwards of 20,000 were taken prisoner. Historians believe that at least an additional 17,000 deaths were the result of disease, such as smallpox, including about 8,000–12,000 who died while prisoners of war. Are we as willing to risk our lives and fortunes (great or small) and so unselfishly sacrifice for human liberty? Without regard to the color of their skin, we owe a great debt of gratitude to our nation’s founders and to the Patriots of ’76.