Better Know a Founder: Josiah Bartlett

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March 29, 2009 by Daniel Stack

Now that I have two young children, I don’t get to go hiking nearly as much as I did pre-kids. But when I did go hiking my favorite place was the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I love driving up Interstate 93 from Massachusetts and seeing the mountains in the distance, getting closer and closer, until you are driving through them. Perhaps due to being a helpless techie, we would usually do day hikes, starting early in the morning and finishing in the afternoon and then returning to civilization. Since we would usually go hiking with our dog, if we wanted to stay in an inn our choices were limited. We found a really nice place in North Conway, New Hampshire called the Stonehurst Manor. Dog friendly, excellent cooking, and close to a lot of excellent places to hike, like Crawford Notch which includes Mount Washington (the highest peak in New England) and Mount Willard (a nice hike with gorgeous views). To get to Crawford Notch from North Conway you pass through a beautiful town called Bartlett.

The name of the town didn’t sink into me until the first time I saw the movie 1776, based off of the Broadway musical. It was July of 2002 and I had a ton of free time, the startup I had been working for just recently going out of business. One of the delegates at the Continental Congress was Doctor Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire… This caused for some googling! Sorry, no wikipedia in 2002. (OK, it existed, most people hadn’t yet heard of it.)

So who was Dr. Josiah Bartlett? Like so many people of the 20th and 21st centuries, he was born in Massachusetts (Essex County, 1729) but later became a resident of New Hampshire. He was well-educated, learning Latin and some amount of Greek. He studied medicine and moved to Kingston, New Hampshire (in the southeast of New Hampshire) to set up his practice. Kingston was a frontier settlement and he was the only doctor in the area. He also purchased a farm in Kingston. He and his wife Mary had twelve children. Their three sons who lived to adulthood also followed him into medicine.

Bartlett was active in the political life of Kingston and was elected in 1765 to represent it in New Hampshire’s provincial assembly. In 1767 Royal Governor appointed Bartlett as Justice of the Peace and soon after as a colonel in the colonial militia. However. Bartlett was dismissed from these royal appointments in 1775 as a result of his involvement with the Committees of Correspondence and the Provincial Congress in 1774. The Committees were set up to allow the thirteen colonies to coordinate with each other and arrange collective actions in their dispute with Britain. His house was burned to the ground, allegedly by Tories (those who were against separation from Britain). He also served in the New Hampshire’s illegal Provincial Congress, established after the Royal Governor disbanded the Provincial Assembly. This chaos in his home life caused him to decline his appointment from the Provincial Assembly to the First Continental Congress.

He was again appointed to the Continental Congress and he was able to serve this time, being one of the (and occasionally the only) delegates from New Hampshire in Philadelphia from August of 1775 through 1776. He was the second signer of the Declaration of Independence, after John Hancock (something accurately reflected in the musical 1776.

He served in the Continental Congress again in 1778-79 and voted for the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (commonly known as the Articles of Confederation). Much of the work of the Continental Congress was done in committees and Bartlett served actively on several, among them Safety and Secrecy, Munitions, Marines and Privateering. Bartlett also helped draft the Articles of Confederation, the first attempt at establishing a written constitution for the United States.

In 1779 he left the Continental Congress but didn’t receive much rest, being appointed Chief Justice of New Hampshire’s Court of Common Pleas, despite his lack of formal legal training. However, his time in the Contintal Congress and New Hampshire’s local government gave him abundent experience with the law. He advanced through the New Hampshire Judicial system, becoming an associate justice on the state supreme court and later chief justice of the state supreme court. In 1788, while still serving as a justice he vigorously promoted and defended the proposed United States Constitution, traveling throughout several small towns in New Hampshire initally opposed to ratification. His efforts were succusful and New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify the Constitution.

He was selected by New Hampshire to be a senator in the newly-established United States Congress. However, he declined, preferring to accept election to the office of President of New Hampshire. He later served in this office under its new (and current) title as governor. He retired from public life in 1794 due to declining health and died in 1795.

Despite the need to suspend his medical practice due to his public life, he remained involved and interested in medical matters. In 1790 Dartmouth conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine. In 1791 he secured the charter for the New Hampshire Medical Society.

Doctor Bartlett was a busy man but not a flashy one. He didn’t achieve the fame that Washington, Adams, and Jefferson would achieve. But he served his nation and state in countless ways, large and small. The town of Bartlett, New Hampshire was named in his honor. And the fictional US President Josiah Bartlet from the television series “The West Wing” was named in honor of the differently spelled Josiah Bartlett, with both hailing from New Hampshire.



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