Founding Fathers - William Williams

William Williams

Born: April 8, 1731 (Lebanon, CT)

Died: August 2, 1811 (Lebanon, CT)

I'll be honest, I picked this week's focus because his repetitive name caught my attention.  William Williams was born in 1731 to a popular Congregationalist minister and his wife, Solomon and Mary Williams, in the small town of Lebanon.  Young William would ultimately call Lebanon his home for the rest of his life.  Wanting to follow in his father's footsteps, he studied for the ministry but also earned a law degree from Harvard, the college where both his father and grandfather had graduated, in 1751 at the age of 20.  William then returned home and began serving as the town clerk the following year, while also continuing his pastoral training under the instruction of his father.  Within three years, however, his plans were sidetracked with the start of the French and Indian War and his enlistment with the British colonial forces.  His uncle, Ephraim, served as a colonel of a Massachusetts regiment and was with William alongside a force of some 2,900 men under the command of General William Johnson in 1755.  During a battle along Lake George in eastern New York, Colonel Williams was killed in an ambush during the first volley of the fight against the French, but the British ultimately emerged from the engagement as victors.  William returned safely home from the experience but neither his admiration for British commanders nor his plans to become a pastor survived.  He believed that the British were generally condescending towards the colonists, seeing them as inferior men, and this would color his political leanings for the rest of his life.  Setting aside his religious studies, Williams chose instead to become a merchant and opened a business named The Williams Inc.

Economic success was soon followed by political success, as William Williams was elected to the state legislature in 1757.  He rose to the level of Speaker of Connecticut's colonial assembly while also serving as a selectman in his home town of Lebanon.  As his hometown was also the residence of Connecticut's Governor Jonathan Trumbull, he was well-acquainted with the only royal colonial governor who sided with the Patriots at the beginning of the struggle for independence, and in 1771 a 40-year-old Williams married Trumbull's daughter Mary, who was 25 at the time.  Mary's brother, John Trumbull, Jr. became the most well-known artist during the American Revolution, painting many Founding Fathers and important scenes from the war.  Williams made no attempt to disguise his feelings about independence, joining the Sons of Liberty as well as the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence to establish communication with other colonies in opposition to British regulations.  When Britain enacted the Coercive Acts to punish Boston's revolutionaries, Williams published an anonymous open letter to King George III - a scathing, satirical rebuke.  In 1775 he helped raise funds to send Connecticut militia to help capture Fort Ticonderoga, which sat just to the north of the very same Lake George where he had once fought alongside British forces.

Although not initially chosen to represent Connecticut in the Continental Congress, William Williams was sent to replace Oliver Wolcott, who was forced to return home for a time due to a severe illness.  He missed all deliberations and the eventual vote for independence, but arrived in time to affix his signature to the Declaration on August 2, 1776.  He had resigned his position of colonel with the colonial militia to accept the position in Philadelphia, a move that was criticized by some, but he nevertheless served admirably on the Board of War throughout the Revolution and supported the army from his own resources.  He was even noted to have moved out of his own home in order to provide lodging for the officers of a French regiment that had arrived to support the Continental Army.  After the war Williams remained active in local politics, serving as a judge for well over 30 years and also sitting on a committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation, although he was largely critical of the resulting document and did not sign it.  He did, however, go against the wishes of his constituents and voted to ratify the US Constitution in 1788, protesting only against the language that banned religious tests for elected officials.  Williams was also finally able to serve as a minister at the church his father has pastored for years, Lebanon's First Congregational Church.  In 1810 the oldest of his three children died, a loss that took a tremendous toll on the elderly Williams, and after experiencing a rapid decline in health he died the following summer.  He was buried just a mile from his home in the Trumbull family cemetery, to remain for all time in the town he always called home.

The signature of William Williams can be found as the eleventh name on the sixth (farthest right) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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