239 years ago 56 guys signed a document that made them traitors. This incredibly brave and reckless act changed humanity. We take their ultimate success as a fact of history. For them it was far less certain. Not all of them lived. All of them suffered. All of them fought. And victory was ultimately theirs.
If I can manage to remember, every year we’ll take a look at one of these men and reflect upon their lives.
Josiah Bartlett – New Hampshire
Born 1729 in Massachusetts, we find our young 21 year old Bartlett bound for Kingston, New Hampshire in 1750 to practice medicine, without a license, or having been to medical school, or even taken a single college course. I guess back then you could get away with this. He seems to have had some great doctors to teach him and a fierce propensity to read and then read some more.
In 1752 he fell ill with a fever normally inclined to end human life. He’s credited with treating his own illness with cider (hydration) against the advice of other doctors and managed to pull through. In this we see the emerging nature of a young man not inclined to do what other people say.
In 1754 he marries Mary Bartlett, who also happened to be his first cousin. I guess back then you could get away with this. It would prove a highly loving but also very practical marriage, mutually supporting through all the tough days that lay ahead.
He needed his prior personal brush with death when in 1754 an outbreak of diphtheria in Kingston killed scores. He treated the sick using quinine, then a relatively new procedure in America, and undoubtedly saved hundreds including his own children. As you can imagine, this made his name.
He transitioned into politics in 1757 as a town elector and by 1765 is in the Provincial Assembly. He never looked back to his days as a small town doctor. Within two years we find him serving as a key player in relations with the Royal Governor and commander of a Militia Regiment. Over time he found himself more and more at odds with the Royal administration.
By 1774 he’s clearly in the colonial camp. He gets it in his head (at grave risk to himself and his family) to join illegal underground committees and corresponds with average calm men like Samuel Adams. He’s warned by Royalists to end this “pernicious activity”.
But again, here is a man not inclined to do what other people say. The Royalists respond by burning down his home. This mild hint kept him from representing New Hampshire at the First Continental Congress. But he rebuilt. And he didn’t take the hint. And so in 1775 the Royal Governor kicks him out of office.
After the gunfire started, Bartlett is again elected to the Continental Congress and is in Philadelphia for all the key moments. Towards July 1776, he writes to Mary:
“May God grant us wisdom to form a happy Constitution, as the happiness of America to all future Generations Depend on it.”
When the delegates voted for independence it’s said of his legendary vote:
“He made the rafters shake with the loudness of his approval.”
He signed the document right after John Hancock. And then he went to war. He raised New Hampshire militia units and fought at Bennington as a battlefield physician. He was back in Philly for a while with the Congress but ultimately returned home to New Hampshire for good.
Just as he was an uncertified doctor, he now managed to make himself an uncertified lawyer and judge. For you see, all the signers of the Declaration were freaking supermen. If Bartlett had wanted to be a cage fighter or a quantum physicist, I’m sure he could have gotten away with it.
He serves as a normal judge, then joins the Supreme Court, then becomes Chief Justice. Because why not? Later on he helps ensure New Hampshire’s ratification of the Constitution in a very close vote of 47 to 37 at the State Convention. We tend to brush over what a near run thing the Constitution really was.
Bartlett serves as New Hampshire’s Governor for four years. In 1790, he’s finally made legal when Dartmouth gives him a doctorate in medicine. Ten of his immediate descendants become doctors as well.
In 1794 he retires from public service due to his age and what one would guess as the fatigue of decades in the fray. But like a lot of brawlers, once he takes off the spurs there’s not much left in the tank. He dies only a year later at the age of 66 and is buried alongside Mary in Kingston.
His farewell message to New Hampshire:
“I now find myself so far advanced in life that it will be expedient for me, at the close of the session, to retire from the cares and fatigues of public business to the repose of a private life, with the grateful sense of the repeated marks of trust and confidence that my fellow-citizens have reposed in me, and with my best wishes for the future peace and prosperity of the State.”