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Commentary: They define a 'Patriot'

"Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism." -Thomas Jefferson The most precious asset we have as citizens is our freedom. In fact, the Bill of Rights is the only thing that presently stands between us and an oppressive authoritarian government....

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

The most precious asset we have as citizens is our freedom. In fact, the Bill of Rights is the only thing that presently stands between us and an oppressive authoritarian government. That is why it is so essential that we voice our concerns and speak truth to power-even if the authorities don't want us to and even when it may get us into trouble.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, contained in the Bill of Rights, gives us the right to speak out. It affords every American the guarantee of free speech and the right to protest when we don't agrfee. And although most of us say we cherish our freedoms, do we really know what it means to stand up and be counted?

Let me tell you a story about 56 men and what freedom meant to them. They risked everything-their fortunes and their lives-to take a stand for truth. As a result, these men and their courage are forever etched into our memories. History has judged them to be extraordinary for their bravery and commitment to unwavering principles. They pledged it all-in their words, "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

These men laid everything on the line because they believed in a radical idea. That idea was that all people are created to be free. They believed that we are given inalienable rights endowed by our Creator. At the heart of these rights is Liberty-the liberty to speak, to think and stand up for ideas even when it's not popular to do so. Indeed, even when it's dangerous to do so.

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Labeled traitors, the crime of these men was treason, punishable by death. Their signatures, famously scribbled on a piece of parchment, expressed their unfettered willingness to speak out in truth against perhaps the most powerful man in the world. And there was no turning back.

For some, their signature on that parchment cost them their homes and, for a few, even their lives. Others survived their stand, only to continue taking more stands-for religious freedom, the right to speak and the right to be free from oppression.

We celebrate these men and their realized dream once a year with family cookouts and thoughts of patriotism. Knowing the heavy price they might have to pay with their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, these men dared to speak up when silence could not be tolerated. And because of their bravery in raising their voices to the most powerful nation in the world, we honor them, adorning them with the titles Founding Fathers and Patriots. These 56 men were the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Some are remembered for their ultimate accomplishments-such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom later became American presidents. But there were other signers, men who never sought glory but rather a cause, who do not often get mentioned. They knew that sacrifice was necessary to secure freedom. And they were willing to make the sacrifice.

Let's look briefly at four of them-Lewis Morris, Carter Braxton, Thomas Nelson and Richard Stockton.

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.

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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.

Today, their dream of freedom lives on. It is because of these brave men that America prides herself in being "the land of the free and the home of the brave." We look to them as examples of what true patriotism is.

But their words and ideas alone do not maintain our freedoms. Their spirit, their fire for freedom and their unwillingness to remain silent, which lives on through more modern patriots, is what keeps us free.

The reason we celebrate people such as these with national holidays is because they refused to let the dream of freedom die. Like the brave men before them, they would carry the flame of liberty no matter the cost.

There are many more stories of heroic patriots throughout American history who have risked it all to preserve our freedom. 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 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 face the sacrifice to raise their voices in truth. They put freedom before their own interests.

How can we repay them? I believe if you asked any of these individuals that question, they would reply with one simple, yet important, answer. They would say, "Speak out when you see an injustice, and support others who dare to risk it all." They gave up so much in defense of our freedom. For some, it was their career. For others, it was their reputation and honor. And yet for others, it was their life. We at least owe them our commitment to stand up and support those who dare to risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.

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We don't always have to agree with them. We just have to stand up for their right to say it.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org .

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