SHAMING SACRED HONOR
by David Sisler
For the United States of America, today is the day, plus 222 years.
July 4, 1776, the day when our Declaration of Independence was signed. Whether we can recall many of the more than 1300 words or not, certain timeless phrases come immediately to mind: "WHEN, in the Course of human Events," and "We hold these Truths to be self-evident." Famous words. Powerful words.
One more phrase, all too often forgotten.
"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."
Have you ever wondered what happened to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence? Garry Hildreth of Erie, Pennsylvania researched the lives and fortunes of the 56 men who joined their futures to the independence of the thirteen states.
These were ordinary men, but without question, they were extraordinary patriots. Merchants, farmers, teachers, musicians, painters, manufacturers, jurists, ministers, they signed the Declaration knowing that it could mean — to use a phrase broadcast 87 years later — their last full measure of devotion. Five did die, captured by the British, condemned as traitors, and tortured . Twelve had their houses burned. Two gave sons to the revolution, seeing them fall in battle. Two more had sons who were taken prisoner by the enemy. Nine signed their names, and took up arms, fighting and dying in the war for independence.
John Morton of Pennsylvania was the first to die. His friends and relatives supported the British and so turned against him. He died in March, 1777. His final words were, "tell them that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service that I ever rendered to my country."
Carter Braxton of Virginia, gave ships to the revolution and when they were sunk or captured, was forced to sell everything else he owned to pay his debts. He died a pauper.
Hildreth says, "Perhaps one of the most inspiring examples of ‘undaunted resolution' was at the Battle of Yorktown." Thomas Nelson, Jr., governor of Virginia, joined General George Washington just outside of Yorktown. The British General Cornwallis had secured the Nelson home for his headquarters. As the forces under Washington shelled Yorktown, they consistently aimed their artillery away from Nelson's home. When Nelson learned that it was out of respect for himself that the enemy's headquarters was being spared, he urged General Washington to open fire, and then stepped to the nearest cannon, aimed at his own house and fired. The other guns joined in, and the Nelson home was destroyed. Nelson died bankrupt, at age 51.
History, or tradition, it is sometimes difficult to tell which, says that John Hancock watched from a distance as a battle raged in Boston and cried out, "Burn, Boston, burn. Though it make John Hancock a beggar."
Hildreth concludes, "These were not wild eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more."
The Russian Federation, observed their seventh occasion of national independence on June 12. The original day was not marked by a written declaration to which men pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. No shots were fired. June 12, 1991, was the day when Russia held its first free, presidential elections in the nation's history. We mark our anniversary of freedom with a document and a war. They note theirs with the ballot box, from the day of their first democratic elections.
When Boris Yeltsin was re-elected president on June 12, 1996, almost 70 percent of the Russian voters went to the polls. They walked or took inconvenient public transportation to vote — less than ten percent of the population own private automobiles. There were almost no automated polling booths, most ballots were cast by hand, with electors choosing from more than a dozen parties and candidates. One choice on their ballot is "none of the above." If the majority of voters had rejected all of the candidates, a new election would have been called, and none of the losers would have been permitted a second chance — not a bad idea!
When Bill Clinton was re-elected the same year, less than 50 percent of the voting age population of the United States went to the polls — and the total has been dropping every year since 1960.
Americans mark the anniversary of our liberty by recalling the War for Independence. In Russia, the anniversary is not one of bullets, but of ballots. In honoring their freedom with almost three-fourths of their population voting, they surpass us. By neglecting this most elemental of freedoms, we shame the heroes of our Revolution — the 56 whose names we know and the thousands more who fell, their names unknown, their deeds not forgotten — and in so doing, we shame ourselves.
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 7/4/98
Copyright 1998 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.
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