In the summer of 1974, the United States was at a crossroads.
The Watergate scandal raged, and congressional hearings revealed the shady dealings of the “plumbers” who had done President Richard Nixon’s bidding for him: dirty deeds such as breaking into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (Ellsberg had been a whistleblower with the release of the Pentagon Papers); secretly recording every conversation on an elaborate tape system in the White House; and, of course, the infamous break-in at the Watergate office building, home to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
The Vietnam War was winding down; returning prisoners of war were greeted with a society that had radically changed in their absence while Vietnam veterans faced indifference or outright hostility.
The oil embargo was also happening during this time. Gas prices soared as Americans thought, “Can this get any worse?”
On July 4, 1974, radio commentator Paul Harvey aired a special edition of his “News & Comment” show. He detailed the “rest of the story” of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some were wealthy, but died in rags; some moved countless times to evade harassment; others lost not only their money but their families. These weren’t ordinary guys. They were experienced thinkers, politicians, landowners, businessmen. They were leaders, although at the time they were revolutionaries.
Below I would like to share some of Mr. Harvey’s words. May we all have a greater understanding of the men and women who founded this great nation who fought for liberty. Happy Independence Day.
The United States of America was born in 1776. But it was conceived 169 years before that. All others of the world's revolutions before and since were initiated by men who had nothing to lose. Our founders had everything to lose, nothing to gain except one thing — their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
Fifty-six men placed their names beneath that pledge. Fifty-six men knew — when they signed — they were risking everything.
They knew if they won this fight, the best they could expect would be years of hardship in a struggling nation. If they lost, they'd face a hangman's rope.
All of the Americans who lived in those times paid the price. John Adams wrote years later all through the Revolution he would have given anything to have things returned to the way they were. He wasn't lamenting his own losses. Any human who has ever seen the suffering of the soldiers and innocents in a war zone has to wonder if an armed conflict is ever a worthy price for change. But the clock can't be turned back. The deed was done. And from it a glorious country emerged.
Of the 56 signers of the declaration, few were long to survive. Five were captured by the British and tortured before they died; 12 had their homes — from Rhode Island to Charleston — sacked and looted, occupied by the enemy or burned. Two of them lost their sons in the Army; one had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 died in the war from its hardships or from its more merciful bullets.
I don't know what impression you'd had of these men who met that hot summer in Philadelphia, but I think it's important this July 4 we remember this about them: They were not poor men; they were not wild-eyed pirates; these were men of means — rich men, most of whom enjoyed much ease and luxury in personal living. Not hungry men, prosperous men, wealthy landowners, substantially secure in their prosperity.
But they considered liberty — this is as much I shall say of it — they had learned liberty is so much more important than security they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. And they fulfilled their pledge — they paid the price and freedom was born.
Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools and a longtime weekly columnist for The Tribune.