The Declaration of Independence A Timeless Document - by Debra Poulsen
I have always been impressed with the beginning statement of our Declaration of Independence; “When in the course of human events....” These few words allow our minds to traverse the scope and majesty of time itself. Yes, they are timeless words which can apply and do apply to generations. We too, are running a course in this earthly existence. Life passes before our eyes and we take little notice that human events are swirling all around us. What’s more: we are actually helping to create and to shape these events.
A few years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, my daughter called our family on the phone. She was so excited to tell us of a discovery she had just made. While working on her genealogy and tracing her ancestry back on her father’s mother’s side, she had come across a “Captain Benjamin Merrill”. The story that enfolded to our view at that time has left an impact upon our family.
Benjamin Merrill was born in 1730 in New Jersey in what was then Colonial America. The time of our story, around 1760, finds Benjamin Merrill living on a plantation of around 1042 acres. The property was located on the north side of the Yadkin River, St. Luke’s parish. It was about 2 miles north of the Jersey Baptist Church and about 5 miles south of present Lexington, North Carolina. He was a farmer and a gunsmith. On his property stood the family home and a branch of Abbot’s Creek meandered at the foot of the hill near his residence. He built a a waterwheel that could benefit from the running creek to provide power for his simple machinery. It was said that “he was an intelligent, ambitious and hardworking young man.” He was eager to grow and develop his family farm and improver their conditions. Later in life he would become a leader in the area and Captain of the Rowan County Militia.
His wife’s name was Jemima and they had 10 children. He was a man of considerable respect and noted for his piety. In fact he was a deacon in the Baptist Church in which he and his family attended regularly. Living out the course of his days with a sincere effort to get ahead and to live peaceably among his fellows, Benjamin found himself in the thrust of events that would change the course of his life and that of his family.
During those days King George would often send some of his “political favorites” over to the colonies to amass their fortunes. Many were corrupt in their hearts and persistently oppressed the people. Such was the case in the days of Benjamin Merrill. These appointed authorities such as clerks of the courts, recorders of deeds, entry -takers, surveyors, and lawyers; would demand twice to three or four times the legal fees that were suggested by the crown. At first the good people, farmers and back woodsmen of the day felt that their plea to Governor Tryon for the redress of grievances would be responded to with a fair hand. However this would not be the case. An example of the mis-treatment of the colonists isillustrated by this statement of actual events that would often take place.
“When the sheriff was going over the country distraining (to seize by distress) and selling the property of every man who did not instantly pay the amount of tax demanded, accompanied too by his deputies and perhaps some others, well armed and attending him as a life-guard, he came to the house of a poor man who was not at home; but as if determined not to be wholly disappointed in his object, and not finding anything else, or not enough of anything else to satisfy his demands, he took off his wife’s dress which she had on at the time and which she had made with her own hands, sold it under the hammer for her husband’s tax; and then; giving her a box or slap with hand... told her to go and make
her another.” These injustices over a long and extended period of time resulted in the formation of the “Regulator Movement”.
This group called the regulators was formed on the 4th of April in 1767 at Maddock’s Mill, near Hillsborough. They would eventually become a group of about 4,000 strong. Although many of these people saw themselves as loyal and faithful British citizens their desire was clear and simple: the redress of grievances and a desire to secure the rights of citizenship. They continued to hope that if the Governor could clearly see their plight and understand what was happening to them that justice could
be served and the situation regulated. But they were continually disappointed.
The tensions between the regulators and the local government leaders continued to grow and escalate. Sheriff Fanning who was a personal friend of Governor Tryon was especially oppressive to the people. As of September 1770, there still had been no action taken against the corrupt officials. At this point the regulators began to be more militant in their actions. They had petitioned and sent letters of grievances to the governor, to the assembly and to the courts and none of their pleas were responded to. The hostilities on both sides were at a fever pitch and the regulators felt justified in becoming more aggressive in their efforts. In that month of September, during a session of the Hillsborough Superior
Court, the regulators forced Judge Richard Henderson from the bench and attacked several lawyers. William Hooper, who would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence, but who at the time was a Crown Representative, was dragged through the streets, and Edmund Fanning was badly beaten as the regulators took control of the Court. Of course this outburst of frustrations was seen by many as totally out of line and riotous.
What made the struggles of these God fearing people even more challenging was the posture of their spiritual leader in the Baptist faith, Mr. Edwards. He was a Tory and was foreign born. His sympathies were with King George. Although his memory will be had in good repute among the many Baptists of our time for his untiring zeal and efforts to gather Baptist records and literature during his life, he nonetheless saw the “Regulator Movement” as a crime against the crown. The only appeal that he would recognize as a right of his congregation was to solicit the merciful hand of God to come to their rescue. These were surely “times that would try men’s souls.”
Benjamin Merrill found himself living the course of his days with a penetrating and inward battle and question of what should be done? How should he respond to the injustices at hand? How could he best serve his family, friends and fellow countrymen? How could he be true to the spirit of Liberty within his heart and still be true to his Baptist faith?
As our family has reflected on his life and the anguish of spirit that he endured as well as many others, we often wonder what we would have done given the same circumstances. It is likely that these questions come into the heart of many people, but there are few that will rise to the occasion, face the seemingly invincible foe and fight for their God given rights.
It would only be a few short years into the future when Patrick Henry, a contemporary of Benjamin Merrill would recite the now famous lines: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it , Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death! “ These stirring words would be heard by another great man of the time, Thomas Jefferson, who said that this oration of Patrick Henry changed his life forever.
Benjamin Merrill would go on to fight the good fight. The people among whom he lived and enjoyed his own personal human existence had been wronged and insulted and borne it and endured it until “forbearance ceased to be a virtue.” Again and again they would seek for redress of grievances of Governor Tryon. His lack of concern for their plight and complete disregard of their petitions would lead to the Battle of Alamance.
On that fateful day on May the 16th of 1771, an armed group of regulators having formed a militia marched westward and approached Governor Tryon on the banks of the Great Alamance Creek to discus their differences and to seek for a redress of wrongs. He was also accompanied by a force of his own. These regulators simply wanted to make the colony’s political process more equal and fair. Governor Tryon scoffed at their requests and demanded that the regulators disarm. He gave them one hour to surrender. Their reply; “Fire and be damned!” Governor Tryon ordered his men to fire. At first his men resisted the command to which he yelled. “Fire, fire on them or on me.”
After two hours of conflict, Governor Tryon with a more trained and organized militia won the day. Many on both sides were killed and wounded, but the regulators took the greater hit. Where was Captain Benjamin Merrill in this battle? He had a force of three hundred men at his command and was within an easy day’s march of Alamance. When he heard of their defeat he regretted not being there in time and said if he would have got there the results would have been different.
Nonetheless, Governor Tryon commanded the execution of some of the main leaders of
the regulator movement, of which Captain Benjamin Merrill was a member. On June the 19th of 1771, Captain Benjamin Merrill along with Captain Robert Messer, Robert Matear, and James Pugh, and two others that were not recorded, were hung for treason on a beautiful hill just above the
Courthouse in Hillsborough, North Carolina. None of them received a trial or were given the right of defense.
Captain Merrill was said to have spoken to those gathered there. His first thoughts gave rise to the tormenting doubts that assailed his heart. He saw his beloved wife Jemima and his 10 children and wondered what would become of them without a father. He was quoted as saying, “In a few minutes I shall leave a widow and ten children. I entreat that no reflection be cast on them on my account, and, if possible, I shall deem it a bounty, should you gentlemen petition the Governor and Council that some part of my estate may be spared to the widowed and fatherless.
“He went on to profess his faith in Christ, his hope of heaven and willingness to go, but sang a Psalm very devoutly and died with the resignation and composure of a Christian soldier. One of his enemies was heard to say, “If all went to the gallows with Captain Merrill’s character, hanging would be an honorable death.”
After learning of this heroic ancestor and feeling the pulse of his powerful life in our own, my daughter and I went to Hillsborough in October of 2021. While we were there we learned many things that cannot be written on paper but only upon the tables of the heart. We learned that the cause of freedom is basic to the cause of Christ. We learned that the ground upon which the Battle of Alamance occurred and the place of hanging on that beautiful hill in Hillsborough are sacred ground. We learned that to lay one’s life down in the cause of Liberty is like the words of James Pugh who said, “his blood would be as good seed sown on good ground, which would produce an hundredfold.”
There is no doubt that these wonderful men and the story of the regulators played an important role in the cause of the American Revolution. In fact, many historians recognize the battle of Alamance as the first battle of the Revolution.
How many grievances were committed before the founders were willing to write: “WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”
We all live in our own times and in our own course of human events. How do we see the times we live in, and how will we respond to the cause of liberty in our day? What responsibilities do we have to each other and those who come after us? Our founders gave us our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights and our beloved Constitution.
These documents are among the most powerful documents of liberty to be penned by the human hand. Given the challenging and difficult times in which we live, do we have questions that arise in our own hearts? Do we seek the guidance of a gracious God to help us in maintaining our rights and freedoms? And above all are we able to feel the spirit of liberty pulsating through our veins from our ancestors who have gone before us?
I am excited to embrace September as Founder’s Month in the State of Utah. May it serve as a Revival for all of us in growing the Patriotic Spirit. Many of our ancestors like Captain Benjamin Merrill have shown us the way. May their lives kindle a new spark and flame of liberty in our hearts as we pursue the course of human events in our own days.