Let's honor some of our lesser-known patriots.
Another Fourth of July is upon us, and we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But how many of the 56 men who signed our nation's birth certificate can any of us actually name?
John Hancock is easy. His name is not only at the head of the list of signers, he is remembered for signing in letters so large that, as he put it, "Fat George in London could read it without his spectacles."
After Hancock, most of us probably remember that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, with help from Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. But after naming Hancock, Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, most of us, including me, would have difficulty naming any of the others.
For most of them, fame has been fickle.
The man who signed the Declaration immediately after Hancock, Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire, achieved a strange sort of recognition more than two centuries later when his name was used for a fictional president of the United States in the TV series, "The West Wing."
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts is remembered for the dubious distinction of giving his countrymen a name for the practice of "gerrymandering."
Another of history's booby prizes goes to Button Gwinnett of Georgia. Gwinnett was killed in a duel at age 42, less than a year after he signed the Declaration, with the result that his signature is today one of the rarest and most valuable in the world, avidly sought by autograph collectors.
Catholics remember Charles Carroll of Maryland, because he was the only Roman Catholic signer, but Carroll has other claims to fame. He was the last signer to die - in 1832, at age 95. He was also the only signer to append more than his name. He signed himself as "Charles Carroll of Carrollton."
Thereby hangs a tale.
The story goes that when he signed, another delegate pointed out that Carroll had a cousin in Maryland with the same name, so he was running less of a risk than his fellow-signers. At that, Carroll is supposed to have seized the pen and added "of Carrollton" next to his name, exclaiming, "They cannot mistake me now!"
Dramatic as that episode is, it pales in comparison to the story of Caesar Rodney of Delaware. Rodney was one of three delegates from that state. A citizen-soldier, he had been called back home to deal with a Loyalist uprising when he got word that Congress was about to vote on independence, and that the two other delegates from Delaware were hopelessly deadlocked.
Although in frail health, and with a violent thunderstorm raging, Rodney saddled his horse and rode the 80 miles to Philadelphia in one night - a journey that usually took two days.
He arrived mud-spattered, exhausted and drenched to the skin, but in time to break the tie between the Delaware delegates and make the adoption of the Declaration unanimous.
My favorite among our lesser-known signers is John Witherspoon of New Jersey. An eminent theologian, Witherspoon served as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University, where my son is a student). Witherspoon was a native of Scotland, so he knew full well, even before he arrived in America, what it meant to be misgoverned from London. A human dynamo, Witherspoon served on more than 100 committees in the Continental Congress and exercised enormous influence. One reason he is not better known is because many of his papers were burned when the vengeful British sacked his college and his home after the Battle of Princeton.
But I think he deserves to be remembered for a single sentence. When another delegate in Philadelphia timidly opined that America was not "ripe" for independence, the doughty Scotsman shot back: "In my judgment, the country is not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it!"
I could tell other stories about the forgotten signers of our Declaration: stories of homes and properties confiscated or destroyed, lives spent as fugitives on the run or as soldiers in the Continental Army, sons killed in battle, relatives harassed or imprisoned, poverty, neglect and other hardships. None of the signers of the Declaration was spared sacrifice.
Wouldn't it be nice this Fourth of July if, along with the fireworks and the hot dogs, we were to take a moment to remember, along with the immortals, those modest patriots to whom history has given less than their due?
Tom Stewart of Eugene is a retired University of Oregon Foundation trustee and a current business owner.