Founding Fathers Friday: Josiah Bartlett

by Derrick G. Jeter

Josiah Bartlett was first in his class, thanks to his birth.
Bartlett wasn’t literally first in his class since, as the son of a New Hampshire cobbler—a shoemaker to you and me—with very little money, he never actually received much formal education. But he had a ready mind and set it on the studying medicine. So, at the age of sixteen, he found a local doctor who would train him. Eventually he completed enough training to pass a medical examination and opened an office in Kingston.
Bartlett was in the process of building a successful medical practice when he decided he also wanted to practice politics. In 1765, or sometime around then, Bartlett accepted a royal appointment as a colonel in the New Hampshire militia and as a justice of the peace, he was also elected to the New Hampshire provincial assembly. But as tensions grew between English Americans and the English government, particularly over the Stamp Act, Bartlett took the side of the radicals and the governor stripped him of his appointments and his seat in the assembly when that body was dissolved.
Bartlett, however, wasn’t out of politics for long. In 1774 he was elected to the First Continental Congress. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take his seat in Philadelphia because his house burned to the ground. American lore has it that Barlett’s home was torched by British soldiers in retaliation for signing the Declaration of Independence. Not true. The fire was mysterious to be sure, and Bartlett did blame Loyalists neighbors for starting it, but British troops and his signature on the Declaration had nothing to do with the tragic event.
During the Second Continental Congress Bartlett showed why he was first in his class—a source of pride to the good people in New Hampshire, and rightly so. But though the fine folks of New Hampshire like to boast that they were first in so many historic decisions because of their independent “Live Free or Die” attitude, they were actually first because Congressional votes preceded geographical, from north to south. Be that as it may, good ol’ Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire was first in a number of nation building votes.
  • He was first to cast a vote for independence on July 2, 1776.
  • He was first to approve the language of the Declaration on July 4, 1776.
  • He was first—after the president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock—to sign the engrossed Declaration on August 2, 1776.
  • He was first to vote for the Article of Confederation on November 15, 1777.
  • He was the leader in New Hampshire to ratify the Constitution and though the state did not cast the first vote, it did cast the decisive vote (the ninth) which made the Constitution law—so in a way Bartlett and New Hampshire were first again.
  • He was the first elected U.S. Senator from New Hampshire (though he refused the office and never served).
  • He was the first governor of the state under the new Constitution.
  • He was the founder and first president of the New Hampshire Medical Society.
Bartlett did a whole bunch of other things, although he wasn’t the first to do those. He served as a doctor to the New Hampshire militia and the Continental army when they fought General Johnny “Gentleman” Burgoyne at Bennington, New York. He served, though he didn’t have a legal degree (he didn’t even have a medical degree from a college until Dartmouth awarded him an honorary doctorate of medicine in 1790), as the chief justice of the New Hampshire court of common pleas and eventually as chief justice of the state’s superior court.
Today, Josiah Bartlett isn’t the first founder in the hearts of Americans—maybe not even in the hearts of most New Hampshirites—but he was first on the really important things in our early history. And for that he should be in our hearts and memories as being first in his class.