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Remembering The Price of Freedom

  • William J. Federer
  • 2002 4 Jul
Remembering The Price of Freedom

"I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost to maintain this Declaration....Posterity will triumph in that day's transaction, even though we [may regret] it, which I trust in God we shall not."


- John Adams, letter to his wife Abigail, after signing the Declaration of Independence, 1776


After September 11th, we have come to appreciate our freedoms more than ever. At a time like this, it is important to remember the price of freedom paid by our founders.


Fifty-six representatives signed the Declaration with this accord: "With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."


What happened to their "lives" and "fortunes?"

  • 17 lost their fortunes
  • 12 had their homes looted, ransacked and burned
  • 5 were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died
  • 2 lost sons serving in the Continental Army
  • 1 had two sons captured, imprisoned and starved in the hull of a British ship
  • 9 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.


Caesar Rodney, afflicted with cancer of the jaw, was in New Jersey preparing to sail overseas to seek medical help. He received emergency notification that the other Delaware delegate was going to vote against Independence. Rodney gave up his voyage, which may have saved his life, and in his ill condition rode 80 miles non-stop on horseback all night long to make it to Philadelphia just in time to cast his vote for Independence.


Carter Braxton, a wealthy Virginia planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags.


Thomas McKean was hounded by the British and forced to move his family constantly. He served in Congress without pay; his possessions were taken and he died in poverty.


The properties of William Ellery, Lyman Hall, George Clymer, George Walton, Button Gwinnett, Thomas Heyward, Edward Rutledge, and Arthur Middleton were looted and vandalized.


At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr., saw his home used by British General Cornwallis as a headquarters. Nelson urged General Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt.


Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. His wife was jailed and died within a few months.


John Hart was driven from his dying wife's bedside. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were destroyed. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. Shortly thereafter he died from exhaustion.


Lewis Morris and Philip Livingston suffered similar fates.


The stories of sacrifice in the American Revolution are many:


On June 1, 1774, the British blockaded the Boston Harbor. The Colonies called for a Day of Fasting and Prayer, " seek divine direction and aid." George Washington's diary entry that day was, "Went to church and fasted all day."


On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry addressed the Second Virginia Convention:


     "It as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery.... Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence.... The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave....Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"


On June 17, 1775, three thousand British troops, under General William Howe's command, charged from Bunker Hill to attack the colonial soldiers on Breed's Hill, led by Colonel William Prescott. Amos Farnsworth, a corporal in the Massachusetts Militia, made this entry in his diary:


     "We within the entrenchment...having fired away all ammunition and having no reinforcements...were overpowered by numbers and obliged to leave....I did not leave the entrenchment until the enemy got in. I then retreated ten or fifteen rods. Then I received a wound in my right arm, the ball going through a little below my elbow, breaking the little shellbone. Another ball struck my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny. But I got to Cambridge that night....Oh the goodness of God in preserving my life, although they fell on my right and on my left!"


On March 6, 1776, General Washington issued the command: "Thursday, the 7th instant, being set apart by the honorable Legislature of this Province as a day of fasting, prayer and humiliation, 'to implore the Lord and Giver of all victory to pardon our manifold sins and wickedness, and that it would please Him to bless the Continental army with His divine favor and protection.'"


On July 2, 1776, General Washington addressed his troops:


     "The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die."


On August 27, 1776, British General Howe had trapped General Washington and his 8,000 troops on Brooklyn Heights, Long Island, intending to advance the next morning to crush them. In a desperate move, Washington gathered every boat he could find and spent all night ferrying his army across the East River. When the morning came, there was still a large number of troops dangerously exposed to the British, but fortuitously, the fog did not lift from the river, covering the retreat until all of Washington's army had evacuated! Never again did the British have such a rare chance of winning the war.


Major Ben Tallmadge, Washington's Chief of Intelligence, wrote of that morning:


     "As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety, and when the dawn appeared there were several regiments still on duty. At this time a very dense fog began to rise [off the river], and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well, and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.... We tarried until the sun had risen, but the fog remained as dense as ever."


In the bitter winter of 1776, Washington's volunteer ranks had dwindled to only two thousand badly clothed, poorly fed and ill-equipped soldiers, who were disappearing daily to return to care for their farms. If he did not act quickly, there would be no army left by spring.


On Christmas Day night, December 25, 1776, General Washington courageously ferried what was left of his Continental Army across the Delaware River in the midst of a freezing blizzard to attack the Hessian mercenary troops at Trenton. One thousand Hessians were captured by complete surprise, as they had not yet recovered from their holiday festivities. Washington then pressed on to Princeton to defeat part of General Cornwallis' army of eight thousand.


The next year, Washington's army was pinned down at Valley Forge. The freezing weather caused soldiers to die at the rate of twelve per day. The Commander-in-Chief wrote to John Banister:


     "No history, now extant, can furnish an instance of an Army's suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude. To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions as with; marching through frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day's march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them till they could be built and submitting without a murmur, is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled."


A Committee from Congress reported "feet and legs froze till they became black, and it was often necessary to amputate them."


An incident during this crisis was recorded by Isaac Potts, with whom General Washington was temporarily residing:


     "In 1777 while the American army lay at Valley Forge, a good old Quaker by the name of Potts had occasion to pass through a thick woods near headquarters. As he traversed the dark brown forest, he heard, at a distance before him, a voice which as he advanced became more fervid and interested. Approaching with slowness and circumspection, whom should he behold in a dark bower, apparently formed for the purpose, but the Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the United Colonies on his knees in the act of devotion to the Ruler of the Universe!"


President Theodore Roosevelt stated:


     "Freedom is not a gift that tarries long in the hands of cowards. Neither does it tarry long in the hands of those too slothful, too dishonest, or too unintelligent to exercise it. The eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty must be exercised, sometimes to guard against outside foes; although of course far more often to guard against our own selfish or thoughtless shortcomings."


In light of the recent tragedy of September 11th, let us remember the words of President John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address, 1961:


     "The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe - The belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.... Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."