Eleven score and 18 years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
They knew the odds against them. They were taking on the greatest superpower in the world, the British Empire. And they knew that if they lost, they would be hanged as traitors -- if they were lucky. The standard punishment for treason in those days was drawing and quartering, the same torture Mel Gibson's character suffered at the end of "Braveheart."
The largest signature on the Declaration was John Hancock's, who exclaimed, "There! Now King George can read it without his spectacles!" Then he gave a little pep talk to his colleagues, saying, "We must be unanimous. There must be no pulling different ways. We must all hang together."
"Yes," cracked Benjamin Franklin. "We must hang together, or we will be pretty sure to hang separately."
Not only their lives, but their property was at risk, too. As traitors, all their goods would be forfeited to the Crown, turning their children into paupers. But against all odds they won the war, so none of them were executed, although a few were killed in battle. But many of them still suffered grievously.
Josiah Bartlett, of New Hampshire -- yes, that's where "The West Wing" got the name -- saw his house burned to the ground by Loyalist arsonists.
William Floyd, of New York, was forced to flee with his family to the Connecticut woods, where his wife died a few months later from exposure and stress. When he and his children were finally able to return home two years later, they found their fields and timber stripped, their fences destroyed and their home ransacked and burned.
Another New Yorker, Philip Livingston, lost both of his homes to the invading British, who turned one into barracks and stables and the other into a Royal Navy hospital. By the time he returned after the war, they were unfit for human habitation.
William Hooper, of North Carolina, lost his home and property, forcing his family to wander the countryside, destitute as well as homeless. It was 10 months before he was able to find them again.
Richard Stockton, of New Jersey, and George Watson, of Georgia, were captured and imprisoned in horribly unhealthy conditions. When Stockton was finally released he returned to find his home destroyed. He died a broken man less than two years later.
All told, one percent of the American population died during the war. If the United States were to lose one percent of its population today, the toll would be 3.15 million dead.
So as we celebrate the Declaration, we have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Are we worthy of the sacrifice they made? Or are we throwing it all away?
We now live in a country that is divided almost 50-50, with each side convinced that the other side is not only wrong but downright evil. Some Americans hate other Americans more than they love their country. As Yeats said, the worst are full of passionate intensity.
We are the most powerful military superpower the world has ever seen, and I've never felt weaker. Al-Qaida may not be capable of bringing us down, but we are.
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.