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This Day in History: “Let us prepare for the Worst. We can Die here but once.”

On this day in 1726, a signer of the Declaration of Independence is born.

Abraham Clark must have had nerves of steel! On the day the Declaration was signed, he wrote a stirring letter: “We are now Sir embarked on a most Tempestuous Sea, Life very uncertain, Seeming dangers Scattered thick Around us . . . Let us prepare for the Worst. We can Die here but once.”

Well, I suppose so!

Clark was a surveyor and a lawyer who was elected to the Continental Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia. His service so far away from home was a very real sacrifice. His home was in New Jersey, close to the Revolutionary War battles then taking place. Can you imagine how he must have worried about his family? Indeed, as it would turn out, much of his property was damaged during the war.

But none of that compared to what happened to his children.

Two of Clark’s sons were unfortunately captured and held as prisoners of war during the Revolution. By some accounts, both sons were held aboard an especially notorious prison ship, the Jersey. Other accounts say that one of the sons was taken to the notorious New York Sugar House. Whether it was on the ship or at the Sugar House, one of the sons was apparently treated quite badly and nearly starved to death. The only food he had for a period of time was the food that other prisoners managed to shove through a keyhole.

A story is told that Clark was offered the opportunity to make a trade: If he’d renounce the Revolutionary cause, the British would release his boys. He did not make such a deal. But it’s hard to tell whether this story is truth or legend.

Clark famously wrote a letter on the day the Continental Congress finalized and then approved the Declaration of Independence, as discussed above. But he wrote another letter shortly after he affixed his name to the engrossed copy of the Declaration in August 1776.

“I assure you, Sir,” he wrote, “I see, I feel, the danger we are in. I am far from exulting in our imaginary happiness; nothing short of the almighty power of God can save us.”

The men who declared our independence can too often be taken for granted today. But, in the moment, the danger was real. They knew that their actions would be considered treason by the British—and they knew that the punishment for treason was death. Yet they bravely declared American independence anyway.

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