By Phil Devlin.
Connecticut sent four delegates to the Second Continental Congress: Samuel Huntington, Roger Sherman, Oliver Wolcott, and William Williams. Only two were present and voted for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776; all eventually signed it, though it took nearly six months for all 56 signers of the Declaration to put pen and ink to the document. Another signer, Lyman Hall, represented Georgia at the Continental Congress but was born and raised in Wallingford, and had studied medicine at Yale.
Samuel Huntington was born in Windham on July 3, 1731; studied law as a young man, and eventually became a lawyer in Norwich. Quiet by nature, Huntington distinguished himself through his hard work and sense of integrity. Eventually, he was elected to the state legislature, later became a judge, and was also called upon to represent Connecticut at the Second Continental Congress. In fact, his fellow delegates in Philadelphia thought so well of Samuel Huntington that they elected him president of the congress at the time of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. Technically, therefore, many regard Samuel Huntington as the first true President of the United States! Later appointed Chief Justice of the Superior Court in Connecticut, Samuel Huntington soon was elected governor in 1786, a position he held for the next 10 years. Huntington died while still governor at the age of 65 on January 5, 1796. Governor Huntington and his wife, Martha, were buried in Norwich.
The oldest of the four Connecticut delegates was Roger Sherman of New Haven. Sherman was born on April 19, 1721. He is the only American to have signed all four founding documents of the young republic: the Articles of Association (1774); the Declaration of Independence (1776); the Articles of Confederation (1781); and the Constitution (1787).
The father of 15 children, Sherman began his adult life as a shoemaker and farmer. Later, he studied law and was elected to the state legislature. Sherman also served as judge in the Connecticut Superior Court for 23 years from 1766-1789. He served on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration and was well regarded by his peers. John Adams said of him: “Sherman is as firm in the cause of American independence as Mount Atlas.” He later played a key role at the Constitutional Convention, as he was the moving force behind what has come to be known as the “Connecticut Compromise,” the key to breaking a deadlock at the convention and enabling its adoption.
Ever wonder why a Connecticut license plate says “Constitution State” on it? Thank Roger Sherman for that. Sherman died on July 23, 1793, at the age of 72. He is buried in the famous Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.
Perhaps the least well-known signer from Connecticut was William Williams of Lebanon. Initially a shopkeeper, Williams later became town clerk of Lebanon and a state representative as well as a judge. When Oliver Wolcott became ill at the second Continental Congress, Williams was selected to replace him. He arrived in Philadelphia on July 28, 1776, and signed the Declaration on August 2. Williams later served as a representative to the Connecticut convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Sent there to vote against its adoption, Williams decided instead that Connecticut would benefit from it, so he reversed course and voted for its adoption. Married to the daughter of Connecticut’s first governor (John Trumbull), William and Mary Williams raised three children. William Williams lived to be the oldest of Connecticut’s four delegates, dying at the age of 80 on August 2, 1811, 30 years to the day after he had signed the Declaration for Connecticut. He is buried in the Trumbull Cemetery in Lebanon.
The fourth Connecticut signer of the Declaration was Oliver Wolcott. Wolcott was born in Windsor on November 26, 1726, and attended Yale, graduating in 1746. After fighting in the French and Indian War, Wolcott moved to Litchfield at the age of 25. He married a woman named Laura Collins with whom he had five children. Wolcott was a state legislator and a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. After getting ill in June of 1776, Wolcott traveled back from Philadelphia to Connecticut. While passing through New York City, Wolcott witnessed the tearing down of a statue of King George III in the city. The head of the statue was sent back to England; Wolcott took the body of the statue back to Litchfield, had it melted down, and reformed the metal into over 42,000 bullets that were used against the British.
After recovering his health, Oliver Wolcott returned to Philadelphia, where he signed the Declaration in October of 1776. Because of his previous military experience, Wolcott was made a brigadier general and placed in command of 14 regiments that defended New York City. He later succeeded Samuel Huntington as governor in 1796 and remained governor until his death on December 1, 1797, at the age of 71. His son, Oliver Wolcott Jr., was Secretary of the Treasury from 1795-1800. A state technical school today bears Wolcott’s name. He is buried in East Cemetery in Litchfield.
Born April 12, 1724, Lyman Hall of Wallingford, moved to the South after studying medicine at Yale. Hall first settled in South Carolina, but he soon moved to Georgia, where he practiced medicine and owned a plantation. Hall was elected to represent Georgia at the Continental Congress. He volunteered to assist the Revolutionary Army with medical supplies. He, too, signed the Declaration, becoming the fifth Connecticut native to do so. Hall had to flee Georgia during the war for his own safety. He returned to Connecticut for a while, where his family hid him from the British. After the war, Hall returned to Georgia, where he spent the rest of his life. Lyman Hall died on October 19, 1790, at the age of 66. A public high school in Wallingford today bears his name.
Neither William Williams nor Oliver Wolcott were present in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, to vote on the acceptance of the Declaration of Independence; nevertheless, both men eventually signed their names to the document and incurred great personal risk by doing so. All five Connecticut natives who signed the Declaration distinguished themselves in many ways both in Philadelphia and in their native Nutmeg State. Their courage and integrity as public servants for the state and for the nation were exemplary and stand in sharp contrast to the narrowly focused vision of the special-interest-driven nature of too many modern politicians.