Biography of Hon. Josiah Bartlett, Signer of the Declaration of Independence

(1729 - 1795)
Second Signer of the
Declaration of Independence

BARTLETT, JOSIAH (Nov. 21, 1729 - May 19, 1795), physician, Revolutionary patriot, chief justice and governor of New Hampshire, was a son of Stephen and Mary (WEBSTER) BARTLETT, and was born in Amesbury, Essex County, Mass. He was educated in the common schools, and after acquiring under private tuition some knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages began, when sixteen years of age, the study of medicine, in his native town, in the office of Dr. ORDWAY, a distant relative. The large clinical advantages of this office, supplemented by the diligent use of several medical libraries and one large general library, in neighboring towns, qualified him, according to the custom of the times, give years later to enter upon the practice of his profession, which he died in 1750 in the town of Kingston in southern New Hampshire. In this place which proved to be his permanent home, BARTLETT rapidly acquired a large practise as an all-round country physician and early in his career became widely known through his diagnosis of an obscure, malignant, and prevalent disease of the throat and through its successful treatment by the use of Peruvian bark. His experience gradually led him to reject the then accepted pathology and treatment of several other diseases, and relying more and more upon observation of particular cases and experiment in their treatment he introduced many medical reforms. He was married on Jan. 15, 1754, to his cousin Mary BARTON1 of Newton, Mass. They had twelve children, and three of his sons and seven of his grandsons became physicians.
BARTLETT’s wide intelligence, integrity, and active interest in public affairs led his fellow citizens to choose him as the representative from Kingston to the Provincial Assembly in 1765 and regularly to reelect him till the outbreak of the Revolution. In 1767 he was appointed by the royal governor, John WENTWORTH, a justice of the peace and soon after a colonel of a regiment of militia, but when, during the progress of the controversy between Great Britain and the colonies, he took the side of the people and maintained it with vigor and unfaltering courage, he was summarily dismissed from these offices, in February 1775. Previously, during the critical year 1774 he was recognized as an active patriot by his appointment on the important Committee of Correspondence of the Provincial Assembly and by his election to that Assembly’s Revolutionary successor, the first Provincial Congress, which chose him as one of two delegates from New Hampshire to the first Continental Congress. Although he was unable to accept this election, because of the recent destruction of his house by fire, believed to have been set because of his activity in the popular cause, in 1775-76 he was again chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and in the latter year was the first to give his vote in favor of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, to which his name was duly affixed. Although reelected to the Continental Congress for 1777 he was unable to service, because he was worn out by his arduous duties in that body during the previous year, but while at home he was still busy with public affairs.
In 1778-79 he was once more a member of the Continental Congress, and, as the states were called, had the honor of being the first to vote for the proposed Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union which took effect Mar. 1, 1781. The records of the proceedings of these two Congresses in which he served, as well as his private correspondence, show that he was a member of the most important standing committees in each of these bodies, those of Safety and Secrecy, Munitions, Marines and Privateering, as well as of numerous special committees, such as that on civil government for the United States in 1775 and also on the committee to draft Articles of Confederation in 1778. His constant, painstaking, and arduous service upon these committees made him one of the most influential members of these Congresses in shaping legislation, though he took relatively small part in the debates, of whose too frequent prolixity and futility he was a caustic critic. Physically exhausted by his labors at Philadelphia and New York during 1777-78 and by the difficulties of travel in following the Continental Congress, he declined reelection and sought a chance to recruit his strength at home, but in 1779 New Hampshire appointed him chief justice of its court of common pleas. In thus elevating a layman to the bench, the State was following an occasional practise due to its social and political conditions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, but in this case it ran scant risk, since the appointee not only had large knowledge of practical affairs but also was prepared by previous reading of law books, experience as justice of the peace, and fifteen years of almost constant association with lawyers engaged in legislative work.
In 1782, he was promoted to be associate justice of the superior court, and having become chief justice in 1788, ended his service on the bench in 1790. Tradition and his own reported statement make it probable that his decisions, like those of other lay judges of that period, were based upon equity. Some of the ablest lawyers of that time declared that justice was never better administered in New Hampshire than when the judges knew very little law. In 1788, while still upon the bench, BARTLETT was a member and temporary chairman of the state convention called to ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States. In this body he was one of the most skilful and resourceful advocates of ratification, and it is doubtful whether, without his personal efforts to allay the opposition of the smaller towns during the three months’ interval between the two session of the convention, New Hampshire would have had the honor, on June 21, 1788, of being the ninth State to ratify the Constitution, and so establish the Union. In 1790 and each of the two following years he was elected to the highest office in the gift of the State, that of chief executive, then styled president. His popularity appears by the election returns in that year which show that out of a total of 9.854 votes he received 7.385. In June 1793, the newly amended Constitution having changed the title of the chief executive, he was chosen as the first governor of the state. The policy of BARTLETT, steadily pursued during the four years of his administration, was expressed in his successive recommendations to the legislature in which he urged: any changes in the laws of the state which might be found necessary to enable it to fulfil its obligations to the recently organized Federal Government; provision for the early payment of the state debt; strict adherence to all engagements, both public and private; economy in public expenditures; the early compilation and revision of all the laws and statues deemed to be in force, and a better method of selecting certain judicial officers; the promotion of agriculture and manufactures; improvement of roads and possibly the building of canals in some parts of the state, in order to unite the people in a common interests; and the encouragement in every possible way of the rising generation in virtue, morality, and patriotism. At the close of his term of office in 1794, because of ill health he withdrew from politics.
In 1790 Dartmouth College had conferred upon BARTLETT, whose keen interest in his profession had not abated during the long period when his preoccupation with public affairs had interrupted his regular practise, the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine, and in the following year he rendered what was perhaps his greatest service to his profession by securing from the legislature a charter for the New Hampshire Medical Society which, when organized with a constitution and by-laws drafted by his own hand, fittingly elected him as its first president. But he did not long survive his retirement from public life, for he died at his home in Kingston on May 19, 1795. He is described by his contemporaries as a tall man of fine figure, affable but dignified in his manner, and very particular in his dress. He wore his auburn hair in a queue, a white stock at his throat, ruffles at his wrists, short clothes, silk hose, low shoes with silver buckles. His bronze statue, unveiled in 1888, stands in the public square of his native town, Amesbury. His portrait, an oil painting, a copy from the original by Jonathan TRUMBULL, hangs in the State House in Concord, N.H.

(Levi Bartlett, Sketches of the Bartlett Family in England and America (1875-76); Robert Waln, Jr. Biog. Of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (2nd ed., 1828), III, 123; E. C. Burnett, Letters of Members of the Continental Cong. (1921-23); J. Farmer and J. B. Moore, "Collections, Hist. And Biog. Relating to N.H.," in N.H. State Papers, vol. XXII, index; J. B. Walker, Hist. Of N.H. Convention for Ratif. Of Fed. Constitution, 1788 (1888), "Presidential Address and Sketch of Josiah Bartlett, " by Thomas Luce in N. H. Medic. Soc. Proc., 1926)

1. Name as written in DAB. Should be Bartlett.

Contributed by Winifred Simkins McNabb, 3rd Great Granddaughter of Josiah Bartlett.
[Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 2, (American Council of Learned Societies), pp. 9-11]



Timeline of the Life of Josiah Bartlett.

Letter from Josiah Bartlett
to the Committee of Safety of New Hampshire, 1776.

Letter from Col. William Whipple
to Josiah Bartlett March 28, 1776

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