by Glenn Swift
It’s the Fourth of July weekend! For most of us, that means a cookout, fireworks and another day or two that we don’t have to go to work. Sadly, we have forgotten what this day was really all about. Yes, we know (most of us) that this day commemorates our independence from Great Britain back in 1776, but few know the true significance of this amazing day. Perhaps some historical reflection is due.
The Fourth of July marks the day that the Continental Congress, our revolutionary government at the time, met in Philadelphia and formally separated from the British Empire by declaring the thirteen constituent states of the United States of America to be “free and independent.” By any measure, this was an extraordinary feat.
The signers of that document, composed by Thomas Jefferson, knew that this declaration might also be their death sentence. They fully understood that the wrath and might of the world’s sole global superpower would be sailing across the Atlantic to descend on the relatively defenseless colonies. They knew their scattered “states” did not have the numbers, weapons or training to stand against the mighty British, much less defeat them militarily. Yet, they put their signatures, their lives, their families, their destiny, their “sacred honor” on that parchment.
Remember, that all 56 of these gentlemen came from the upper rung of society and could easily have stepped aside to protect their own wealth and station. They chose to do otherwise.
So, what happened to these men?
Many survived the war unscathed. Others did not. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships from the Revolutionary War. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Five were captured by the British as traitors—they were tortured to death.
But the story does not end here. Over the eight years of the American Revolution, some 20,000 American made the ultimate sacrifice. What you probably don’t know is how the majority of them died. You see, during the long struggle, the British took many Americans prisoner, thousands of them. So many, in fact, that at first they didn’t know where to put them. Well, they came up with a solution. You see, one thing the British had a lot of was ships. So, they gathered the ships that were not essential to the war effort and converted them into prisons. Conditions were appalling. Dark, filthy, smelly, damp, cold, infested with rats and ridden with diseases like cholera and dysentery, these prison ships were nothing more than dungeons. Surviving under such heinous conditions for more than a few months was nearly impossible.
Every morning, out of the darkness and the filth, one of the guards would emerge and rattle the cages of these unfortunates with an offer of mercy. “Traitor come forth who is willing to accept the King’s pardon.”
You see, they had a way out. All these American patriots had to do was to profess loyalty to the king, and their time in hell would be over. Well, the British kept pretty good records. They’re very good at that kind of thing. And according to those records, not one American took the deal. They chose instead to die for the cause in which they believed…and they died by the thousands…twelve thousand in all…more…many more… than on the hundreds of battlefields from Georgia to Massachusetts.
These long-forgotten, mostly nameless Americans…they died for much more than a noble cause. They died for you.
Please remember them this Fourth of July.