JOSIAH BARTLETT was in many respects an ordinary man who achieved historical greatness because he met the stimulus of extraordinary times with distinction. He had neither the erudition and theoretical brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, the inventive genius and unfailing wit of Ben Franklin, the superb formal education of Benjamin Rush nor the explosiveness of the young Alexander Hamilton.
Signed The Declaration
He has, moreover, remained largely the. property of New Hampshire "statists" who proudly point to his signature at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, and who are quick to mention that it appears first among the delegates as if he had taken the quill from the hand of John Hancock. Yet, even in New Hampshire, he is largely unsung, despite the fact that he was for several years its representative at the Continental Congress and played a decisive part in the remarkably peaceful transition from royal to republican administration in that state. Versatile and largely self taught, he was a physician, farmer, family man, public servant and phenominally skilful organizer of men and property.
The son of an Amesbury, Mass. shoemaker, Josiah Bartlett at the age of 21 journeyed to New Hampshire, and by hard work, determination and not a little luck became a man of property and influence.
An Unlikely Revolutionary
During the pre-revolutionary years he wed Mary Bartlett, had a large family, opened a medical practice and built a large home in Kingston. He gained town office for the "establishment" at that date. He represented the town at the Provincial Assembly and held both royal commissions and royal confidence. He was a highly unlikely revolutionary, at times downright stingy, he could be both dour and self-righteous. Yet his courage was amazing. When the time came to "separate the sheep from the goats," he was decisive and unbending. He gave all of which he was capable to his town, his state and the fledgling nation at great sacrifice to himself and his family. Bartlett became one of the dominant men in New Hampshire state government, serving on the Committee of Safety and as a member of the Council. His importance in state politics was second only to that of Meshech Weare, with whom Bartlett was closely allied. Bartlett was a member of the Continental Congress from August, 1775 through 1776 but declined a reappointment for the following year. He also served for five months in 1778. Although he had no legal training, Bartlett was judge of the Court of Common Pleas from 1779 until 1790.
"President Of New Hampshire"
He worked for the ratification of the federal Constitution as a member of the New Hampshire Ratification Convention and he was elected first as president and, when the title was changed, as governor of the state 1790-94.
It is tempting to regard our ancestors as more than human and to endow them with godlike qualities that they did not possess. Faced with Bartlett's kaleidoscopic private accomplishment and public service, it is comforting to remember that through it all he remained a devoted and loving family man who anguished over his children when they were ill, rejoiced with them when things went well and retained his humanity even though, to this age of specialization, his accomplishments seem superhuman.
By Anne and Charles Eastman, Jr.
Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976. Reprinted by permission of the authors.
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