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December 1, 2000

At a meeting I attended the other morning, a question came up: "Whatever happened to the brave men who signed the Declaration of Independence?" One of those men, John Hart, was an ancestor of Mrs. Dave Woods of. Perry. He was her great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-grandfather. The question sent me to a pile of information on my desk where I remembered once seeing something that shed a bit of light on the subject. Here's a rundown on those early Americans who helped bring forth this nation.

Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration, five were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War. They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.

What kind of men were they? Thirty-four were ministers, jurists and attorneys. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners, men of means, well-educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy 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 McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding, His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery, Hull, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Rutledge and Middleton. At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson Jr. noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife's bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.

Such were the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution. These were not wild-eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken spiritual men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty and freedom more. Standing tall, straight and unwavering, they pledged: "For the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

A couple of morals can be seen in this: Freedom is never free, and patriotism is not a sin. Pass it on.