Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John W. Whitehead Headshot

Would You Risk It All for Freedom?

Posted: Updated:

"Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism."--Thomas Jefferson

Let me tell you a story about 56 men who risked everything -- their fortunes and their lives -- to take a stand for truth.

These men laid everything on the line, pledged it all -- "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor"-- because they believed in a radical idea: that all people are created to be free. They believed that the rights we possess are, in their words, given to us by the Creator. At the heart of these rights is freedom. The freedom to speak, to think and to stand up for ideas -- even when it's not popular to do so, even when it's dangerous to do so.

Labeled traitors, these men were charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. For some, their acts of rebellion would cost them their homes and their fortunes. For others, it would be the ultimate price -- their lives. Yet even knowing the heavy price they might have to pay, these men dared to speak up when silence could not be tolerated.

Their signatures, famously scribbled on a piece of parchment, expressed their unfettered willingness to speak out against the most powerful empire in the world. These 56 men were the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Some we remember for their later accomplishments -- such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom went on to serve as American presidents. But there were others -- such as Lewis Morris, Carter Braxton, Thomas Nelson and Richard Stockton -- who do not often get mentioned, who sought not glory but rather a cause. They knew that sacrifice was necessary to secure freedom, and they were willing to make the sacrifice.

Lewis Morris lost his entire estate. The British ravaged and destroyed it, sending his family fleeing in desperation with nowhere to go.

Carter Braxton's entire career and way of life were decimated. Losing his ships to the British Navy, his shipping company was forever lost and he was never able to revive it.

Thomas Nelson's price for liberty was to the tune of $2 million -- and that was in 1776. He ran up the $2 million credit debt for the "Patriots' Cause." In the end, repaying the debt cost him his entire estate. He died bankrupt and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Richard Stockton paid dearly also. Once a prominent judge, he gave up his cherished seat on the bench to fight for liberty. For his decision, he was dragged from his bed and tortured by British soldiers.

All in all, of those 56 signers, 9 died during the Revolution, 5 were captured by British soldiers, 18 had their homes looted and burned by the Red Coats, 2 were wounded in battle and 2 lost their sons during the war. Remarkably, these men -- who were community leaders, business owners, judges, lawyers and inventors -- sacrificed their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor so that you and I could live freely in a nation where we have the right to stand up and speak out.

There are many more stories of heroic patriots throughout American history who have risked it all to preserve the freedoms we possess. Most of them have come from radically different walks of life -- different upbringings, different educations, different ideas. But the one thing that unites them is their love of and commitment to freedom and their willingness to stand up and speak out, no matter the cost. Although many of them lost everything, they were willing to make the sacrifice to raise their voices in truth. They put freedom before their own interests. Because of their bravery in speaking truth to power and their commitment to unwavering principles, history has judged them to be extraordinary.

Thus, it is only right that we should still honor them today. Yet how do we do so? We go through the motions every Fourth of July, spouting patriotic sentiments and putting on displays of national pomp and circumstance that at the end of the day mean nothing. Sadly, as a nation, we have become jaded and apathetic, content to celebrate our independence with cookouts and fireworks but little else.

What we need is a fresh outlook and a renewed commitment to not let the American dream of freedom die. And we need to remember that "citizenship," as actor Sam Waterston reminded a group of newly minted citizens last year on the Fourth of July, "isn't just a great privilege and opportunity, though it is all that, it's also a job."

Gathered at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, those new citizens, having migrated to the U.S. from all over the world, took an oath of allegiance to the United States, solemnly swearing to "support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

I've always thought it a shame that Americans born in this country aren't asked to make a similar pledge of allegiance to our Constitution. Still, pledge or not, we owe it to those who have put their lives on the line for our freedoms to make our citizenship count for something. We need to get educated about our rights. We need to take responsibility for what's going on around us. And we need to stand up and support those who refuse to remain silent when they see an injustice and who, like those 56 brave men, dare to put it all on the line in order to speak truth to power.

As Waterston pointed out, "We all need to exercise our lungs in the discussion. This is not a job just for the talking heads on TV and the politicians. Nor for moneyed interests, nor for single-issue movements. As the WWI recruiting poster said, 'Uncle Sam needs you', needs us."