Tag archives: Founding Fathers

The 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial: Life, Liberty, and Legacy

by Molly Carman

August 14, 2020

The history of the United States is preserved in archives, books, and the collective memory of the American people. It is also preserved in monuments, memorials, and statues made from marble, granite, bronze, or plaster.

Our nation’s capital is home to some of the world’s most recognizable and frequently visited monuments. This blog series will explore the events and people they commemorate, devoting particular attention to the spiritual themes depicted. By shedding light on our nation’s deep religious heritage, this series aims to inspire the next generation to emulate virtues and merits from America’s past that are worth memorializing.

FRC’s blog series on monuments is written by FRC summer interns and edited by David Closson, FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. Be sure to read our previous posts on the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Joan of Arc Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial.

The memorial to the 56 signers of our nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, is often overlooked or unfamiliar to most visitors to Washington, D.C. The memorial is located on a small island, in a part of the National Mall called Constitution Gardens, which is north of the reflecting pool between the World War II and Lincoln memorials.

In April 1978, Congress passed an act “To authorize the Secretary of the Interior to memorialize the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence in Constitution Gardens in the District of Columbia.” The completed memorial was dedicated on July 2, 1984, 208 years after the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence.

The first stone of the footbridge to the island reads, “A Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence; A gift from the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration 1976.” The final stone of the bridge reads, “In Congress, July 4th, 1776, The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.” The first step into the memorial is engraved with the final lines of the Declaration, “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.”

Designed and sculpted by landscape artist Joseph Brown, the memorial is comprised of a semi-circle of angled blocks of granite. Brown engraved onto these blocks each signer’s signature, enhancing them with gold leaf. Below the signatures, he printed each man’s name, profession, and hometown. The stones are grouped together by state, with Pennsylvania’s nine signers flanking the memorial’s entrance. The 13 state names are written at the base of the stones.

The 56 signers held a variety of professions. There were 19 lawyers, as well as 23 farmers, planters, or merchants of some kind. Four were doctors, three were judges, and two were politicians. The last five were a writer, a surveyor, an ironmaster, a statesman, and a clergyman.

Interestingly, one of the signers, a lawyer from New Jersey named Richard Stockton, became the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to recant his support. On November 30, 1776, he was captured by the British and thrown in jail. After months of harsh treatment and meager rations, Stockton repudiated his signature on the Declaration of Independence and swore his allegiance to King George III. When he regained his freedom, he took a new oath of loyalty to the state of New Jersey in December 1777, and again supported the Revolution until victory was achieved in September of 1783. Despite once repudiating his signature and recanting his support for the Revolution, Stockton is nonetheless included in the memorial.

While the signers of the Declaration of Independence held several different types of political positions, only John Witherspoon from New Jersey has “clergyman” identified as his occupation. However, Layman Hall from Georgia was also a clergyman who had graduated from Yale Divinity School; he changed careers and became a physician out of Yale Medical School in 1756. Because being a physician was his second and primary occupation, this is what is engraved on the memorial.

Originally from Scotland, Witherspoon attended the University of Edinburgh, where he received a Master of Arts, followed by four years of divinity school. Afterward, he became an ordained minister, all by age 20. Because of his contribution to the church and his educational background, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity from the University of St. Andrews.

At that time in history, the most educated men where the clergy. The College of New Jersey (modern-day Princeton) needed additional scholars to join their assembly. Witherspoon made the treacherous journey to the American Colonies in 1768.

Initially abstaining from political involvement, Witherspoon focused on his success in the college and his church. However, with time he came to support the revolutionary cause, accepting appointments to the committees of correspondence and safety in early 1776. That same year, during his commencement speech at Princeton, Witherspoon demonstrated a change of heart, saying, “I beseech you to make wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs, and to remember that your duty to God, to your country, and to your families, and to yourselves, is the same.”

Later that same year, Witherspoon was elected to the Continental Congress just in time to vote in favor of Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution for independence and sign the Declaration of Independence. In Witherspoon’s later years, he suffered an injury that caused him to lose one of his eyes, and with time he lost the sight of the other, rendering him completely blind. He later died on his farm near Princeton at the age of 71.

Like Witherspoon, Christians should not be afraid to be engaged politically. Witherspoon was often characterized as one devoted to advancing the “cause of Christian liberty by forming the minds of youth.” Family Research Council chartered a program in 1997 called the Witherspoon Fellowship. Though not under the same name, the internship program continues today, challenging, mentoring, and developing students academically, practically, and spiritually.

Molly Carman is a Policy and Government Affairs intern whose research focuses on developing a biblical worldview on issues related to family and current events.

Our Founders Were Flawed, But Our Founding Ideals Endure

by Laura Grossberndt

July 3, 2020

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The United States of America is a nation founded on ideals, particularly ideals relating to the dignity of the human person. Unfortunately, the laws of our government and the personal lives of our leaders have not always perfectly reflected these ideals. For example, consider the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, who—despite penning the words “all men are created equal”—owned slaves. Such blatant moral failings and hypocrisies have led some to disparage America, the men who founded it, and even question the ideals for which the Founders stood. But the moral failings of men like Thomas Jefferson don’t automatically invalidate the ideals they claimed to espouse. Truth is truth, regardless of human behavior. But how do we know if the ideals Jefferson wrote about are true? Is there anything supporting them besides a purported “self-evidence”?

Jefferson and the rest of the Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston) were students of Natural Law theory. They believed certain things could be self-evidently true (that is, known through ordinary human reason and not needing further proof). But Christians should nevertheless evaluate such truth claims against Scripture, no matter how self-evidentially true they might seem.

Let’s put our deeply ingrained, patriotic feelings about the Declaration aside for a moment and ask ourselves: Are its underlying claims about human beings true? As Christians, we believe the standard of truth is God’s revealed Word. As self-evident as the truths of America’s founding documents may seem to those of us who have grown up in this country, we must examine its claims against Scripture, as we must do with any truth claim.

First, let’s take a closer look at the structure of the Declaration. It is comprised of five parts: an introduction, a preamble (providing a philosophical justification for separation), an indictment (a list of 27 grievances against the King of Great Britain), a denunciation (detailing America’s efforts to make peace with the British people), and a conclusion (asserting that the necessary conditions for declaring independence from Great Britain have been reached).

We will concern ourselves with the preamble, the most famous of the five parts. It provides the philosophical justification for American separation from British rule. Crucial to this justification are three truth claims about human beings, claims which the Declaration considers to be “self-evident”: 1) all men are created equal; 2) all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; 3) these unalienable Rights include Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Does the Bible support these claims? Let’s examine them one by one:

1. All men are created equal

While the Bible never says the words “all men are created equal,” Scripture tells us in clear, unambiguous language that all human beings have equal standing before God. We are all created by God (John 1:3) and made in His image (Genesis 1:27). We were all created out of dust (Psalm 103:14). Finally, we are all sinners and fall short of God’s glory and perfect standard (Romans 3:23). 

Scripture also tells us of God’s impartiality towards humans (Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34, Ephesians 6:9). As it is commonly said, the ground at the foot of the cross is level, and all come to God in need of His grace. He will redeem people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9-10). Eternal life is available to anyone who believes (John 3:16). Thus, from the Bible’s point of view, all humans are indeed created equal.

2. All men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

While the Bible never uses the phrase “unalienable Rights,” it does talk a great deal about our Creator. This is significant for our discussion because the Declaration purports that our inalienable rights proceed from our Creator. To put it another way, our Creator is the reason or grounds for why we have rights in the first place.

The Bible does tell us that our worth and dignity as human beings is directly contingent upon the identity of our sovereign, omnipotent Creator. Those who bear the Creator’s image (all humans) are due a certain type of treatment from their fellow image-bearers (one might even call this proper treatment “rights”). Such due treatment can be said to be “unalienable” in the sense that our status as God’s image-bearers cannot be taken away. To unjustly harm another image-bearer is an offense against the Creator (Psalm 51:4; 2 Samuel 12:9, 13). From these considerations, the Declaration’s claim of certain unalienable rights agrees with a Christian worldview.

3. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness

According to the Declaration of Independence, all of us are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And while the Bible does not enumerate these rights in exactly the same way, it is clear, on closer examination, that the biblical text speaks to these issues. Consider the following rights and their biblical support:

Life

Murder is explicitly forbidden in the Bible (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17) precisely because humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 9:6). Human life can only be justly taken away under the authority of God—either by an authority established by God (Romans 13:1-4) or in a situation authorized by God.

Liberty

Stealing another person’s autonomy through kidnapping and forcible enslavement is prohibited (Exodus 21:16). Jesus proclaimed a (spiritual) liberty to the captives and oppressed (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 14:18-19). Stealing other people’s possessions is prohibited (Exodus 20:15, Deuteronomy 5:19).

Pursuit of happiness

True happiness is found in God (Psalm 16:11, 37:4). Finding satisfaction in one’s labor is called a gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).

Forming a “More Perfect Union”

It is tragic—and a horrible stain on our country’s reputation and conscience—that some of the men who helped found the United States of America willingly participated in the institution of slavery, which was so fundamentally inconsistent with the high ideals professed by the Declaration of Independence. Whether it was due to love of money or comfort, fear of financial ruin, or fear of their fellow (white) man’s opinion, enough of these men balked at the idea of relinquishing their slaves that the nation built on the conviction of the universal dignity of humanity began with a monstrous hypocrisy.

Thomas Jefferson’s personal failure to respect the human dignity of the men and women he enslaved is just that, a personal failure, albeit one that affected far more people than just himself. Just because the purveyors of our founding ideals failed to live up to those ideals does not mean that those ideals are flawed. Rather, it means that human beings are flawed, as Scripture tells us repeatedly (Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 53:1-3, Isaiah 53:6, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12, etc.).

It has been said that you cannot go back and change the beginning, but you can start right now and change the ending. There was a lot of good about America’s beginning, along with a great deal of shamefulness. We can allow the shamefulness of America’s original sins to continue to define us, or we can learn from them, reject them, and press on toward the “more perfect union” that our Founding Fathers aspired toward and that we are capable of being.

Fifty Years After

by Robert Morrison

October 27, 2014

Every poll confirmed that the Republican nominee for President in 1964 was headed for a major defeat. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) had pulled off an amazing victory to gain the GOP nomination in San Francisco. He had soundly defeated such Eastern Establishment figures as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R-N.Y.) and Gov. William Scranton (R-Penn.) Goldwater’s campaign for the nomination is seen today as the beginning of the modern conservative movement in politics.

The liberal media was determined to destroy Sen. Goldwater. They depicted him as the “mad bomber.” Their editorial pages ran hostile cartoons. One typical one showed him as a crazed trainman on a San Francisco cable car. “Streetcar Named Disaster” was the caption for that political cartoon, a reference to the play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Despite all this, and fully aware that he was about to make his national political debut backing a losing cause, actor and TV personality, and former union president Ronald Reagan went on national television to deliver a 29-minute speech titled: “A Time for Choosing.”

It’s worth watching this speech in its entirety. We see her a younger, edgier Ronald Reagan than we may be used to. He is angry but his righteous indignation is kept under tight control. He clearly believes that his friend, Barry Goldwater, has been savaged by the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign and by their willing accomplices in the press.

Reagan hammers home point after point, but he takes care to use stories to convey his message. My favorite line is about the Cuban exile who tells of his brutal mistreatment under Communist dictator Fidel Castro. When his American businessmen listeners remark how lucky they are to live under freedom, the Cuban says how lucky he is. “I had some place to escape to!” Reagan makes the point: If we lose freedom in America, there will be no place to escape to.”

I was too young to vote in 1964 and I missed this famous speech. In those days, you couldn’t DVR or TiVo TV broadcasts. But I certainly heard about Reagan’s amazing speech. It raised millions of dollars for the doomed Republican campaign. It was perhaps the only bright spot that fall for the outgunned GOP.

President Johnson carried forty-four states that fall and swept thousands of liberal Democrats into office on his coattails. Towns in Vermont and Kansas that had never elected a Democrat to any office at any level went with the Democrats that Election Day.

But within two years, the wheels were coming off the LBJ bandwagon. Within his own party, opponents to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began to be heard. Inflation took off, leaving millions of Americans—especially retirees on fixed incomes and service members still enduring the military draft—falling further and further behind. By the time of the 1966 mid-term elections, scores of those Johnson had swept into Congress were swept out by voters.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California. He defeated liberal Democrat Pat Brown (father of the current Gov. Jerry Brown) by more than one million votes. Reagan served two highly successful terms as California’s governor.

His election as President in 1980 was still considered something of a long shot, largely because the liberal media continued to view him as “extreme” and “dangerous.” Reagan, however, never reacted angrily. He learned to keep his temper in check and use his well-developed sense of humor to puncture liberal shibboleths.

Still, it’s well worth remembering that it all began for Ronald Reagan this day in 1964, half a century ago. Reagan was what they call a conviction politician. Or, in more recent computer jargon, WYSIWYG—What you see is what you get.

Here’s an example: I attended a staff conference in the federal education department in 1985. Mrs. Patricia Hines had convened the meeting of Reagan appointees to decide on a policy to pursue about education. Of five options offered us by the career civil service employees, Mrs. Hines opened the meeting by saying: “Options number three and number five are off the table, but let’s look at one, two and four.”

Innocently, I asked why she had ruled out those two choices. As if she was gently chiding a slow student, Mrs. Hines said: “Numbers three and five are specifically condemned in the Republican Platform on which President Reagan was elected. This president may not be able to do all the things the Republican Platform recommends, but he will never do something the platform condemns. That’s basic to government by consent of the governed.”

I was embarrassed that I had not studied the Platform, but I was thrilled to be so corrected. Ronald Reagan believed that the people who nominated him and elected him had done so because they believed in him and trusted him to do what he said he would do. He would not break faith with them.

For thirty years—from this day in 1964 until that day in 1994 when  he wrote his dignified and moving letter telling us he had Alzheimer’s Disease, Ronald Reagan was the acknowledged leader of American conservatism.

I especially like the fact that he quoted Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in his 1964 speech:

The nation that prefers disgrace to danger is ready for a master—and deserves one.”

This quote reminds us that Reagan quoted the timeless wisdom of the Founding Fathers more than any of the four presidents who preceded him (and more, too, than any of the four presidents who have succeeded him.)

America’s leaders have disgraced us all too often in the tumultuous years since President Reagan left us. Strong majorities today tell public opinion pollsters our country is on “the wrong track.” There is deep cynicism about political leadership.

Studying Reagan’s career is not an exercise in nostalgia. It is a necessary task if we would seek to place our beloved country on a better course.

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