The true meaning of Independence Day often is lost in barbecues, beach parties and fireworks events, so each year in July, we like to bring back the following Connecticut Report detailing the lives of Connecticut’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and the risks they took for freedom:
Connecticut always pauses with the rest of the U.S. to mark Independence Day, that early summer holiday dominated by cookouts and fireworks. Americans tend to view most national holidays as a day off from work, but the Fourth of July is worth some thought. The Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776 was not political puffery. It meant war and a life-and-death struggle for freedom.
The four men from Connecticut who signed the Declaration knew that all too well. William Williams of Lebanon (for whom Williams College in Massachusetts is named) described the danger in a discussion with colleagues in his hometown late in 1776. The Revolutionary War was going badly for America at the time and the talk turned to the consequences if the Brits won.
“It is pretty evident what will be my fate,” said Williams. “The one thing I have done which the British will never pardon—I have signed the Declaration of Independence,” he explained. “I shall be hung,” he intoned.
When a friend replied that he could probably escape the gallows because he had not signed the Declaration, Williams roared back, “Then, sir, you deserve to be hanged—for not having done your duty!”
William Williams and America survived, and the Lebanon patriot dedicated his life to public service. He served as the town clerk for 44 years. He was a local selectman for 25 years. Williams was a member of the provincial and state legislatures for nearly 40 years, and worked the Hartford convention where Connecticut ratified the U.S. Constitution.
Another Connecticut signer of the Declaration was Roger Sherman, a remarkable soul who went from being a shoemaker in New Milford to finishing off his career as United States Senator from Connecticut. Despite humble beginnings, Sherman eagerly studied law and would use that knowledge to serve as justice of the peace, legislator representing New Haven, and superior court judge.
Known for his integrity and common sense approach to complex or controversial issues, Sherman was reportedly described by Thomas Jefferson as “a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.”
Samuel Huntington of Windham began a law practice in Connecticut in 1754 and served as the King’s attorney in the province, but later became involved with the American rebel group, the Sons of Liberty, and Huntington added his ink to the Declaration of Independence.
Like his fellow signers from Connecticut, Huntington gave his life to the public, serving in the legislature, the Continental Congress, the state courts—and eventually he was elected governor and held that post for a decade until his death in 1796. His term was noted for the development of roads and industry in the state.
The final signer of the Declaration from Connecticut, Oliver Wolcott of Litchfield, provides a testament to the courage of this state’s “founding fathers.” Wolcott actually had a chance to avoid the dangerous duty of putting his name on the Declaration. He was not present when others signed the document in July 1776, having gone home to Connecticut because of illness.
In October, Wolcott returned and placed his signature on the Declaration. From that point on, Wolcott alternately served in government and in the military. He commanded 14 regiments of the Connecticut militia during the Revolutionary War, reaching the rank of brigadier general before the conflict ended. Wolcott finished off his days as lieutenant governor and governor of Connecticut, dying in office in 1797.
There is plenty of cynicism about our leaders these days, but it is clear that when America was launched on that Fourth of July in 1776, Connecticut had a quartet of dedicated public servants who knew the gravity of the simple action of placing their signature on the Declaration of Independence, together pledging “to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour,” no matter what the consequence might be.
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