Founding Fathers Friday: William Williams

by Derrick G. Jeter

People with the same first and last name never have to worry about forgetting who they are. And if you were William Williams, you’d never have to worry about forgetting what you did for America, which was give more than just your double name to the Declaration of Independence.
Williams (or William, if you prefer), was a remarkable man. Born into a preacher’s perish in Lebanon, Connecticut, Williams graduated from Harvard with honorable distinction and began a rigorous study of theology under his father. But the drums of war were more alluring than thumping a Bible, so he left his theological studies and joined the Connecticut militia to fight in the French and Indian War. Serving under a relative, Colonel Ephraim Williams, William Williams marched in an expedition to Lake George, where, unfortunately, Colonel Williams was killed. What (William) Williams learned in his short stint in the military would last a lifetime. British officers, particularly, were proud and made it known that they thought the militiamen of the colonies as inferior and deserved little of their respect. This haughty attitude left a distinctive distaste in the mouth of Williams—one he never really got rid of.
When Williams returned home he decided to try his hand at business, instead of theology. He opened a mercantile store in Lebanon and ran it successfully for many years. Williams’s little store brought him face-to-face with most of the citizens of Lebanon and they like what they saw in the young man. They like him so much they appointed him as town clerk—a position he held for forty-four years. He was twenty-five. The good folks of Lebanon must have also like his work on behalf of the town, for they soon elected him as selectman (councilman)—a post he held for twenty-five years. And if that wasn’t enough, Williams was also asked to serve in the colonial legislature, where he stayed for twenty-one years. Oh, and he was also a deacon in his church for sixty years and a colonel in the militia off and on for many years.
If you think he accomplished all of this throughout the span of his almost eighty years of life . . . well, you’d be wrong. He did all this before his thirtieth birthday!
It was a good thing he was named William Williams, with all the places he had to be and all the things he had to do, it would be easy to forget whether you were coming or going, much less remember your name. Perhaps that’s why he waited another ten years before marring—the man was simply worn out! But marry he did in 1771, at the age of forty, to the lovely Mary Trumbull (daughter of the governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, and sister of the painter, John, whose famous painting of the signing of the Declaration now hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol). They had three children . . . and yes, one of them was named William. Mercifully, the boy was given the middle name Trumbull. With all those Williams running around the house a young man could get confused whenever his name was called.
Williams (William the father, that is) had a busy life—family, business, church, and public service. Yet, somehow he found time to organize his father-in-law’s state papers and scratch out published articles on behalf of the colonists’ cause.
Williams wasn’t just generous with his time; he was generous with his money. In 1775 he dug deep into his own purse to help fund the Connecticut militia and their fight at Fort Ticonderoga. One year later, he resigned his colonel’s commission because he was taking on a new title: Congressman. Oliver Wolcott had grown ill during his service in Congress, and, as if Williams didn’t already have more on his plate to say grace over, Williams was selected as Wolcott’s replacement. Williams arrived in Philadelphia too late to join in the raucous debate over Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of independence, but in plenty of time to write his name (twice—“William Williams”) on the Declaration.
Williams, along with his already overloaded load of local public service (he also took up the robe and sat on the bench after the war, serving for thirty-four years), continued to serve in Congress until 1778, returning in 1783 and 1784. He lent a hand in drafting the Articles of Confederation, though he did not sign them. And in 1788 he helped shepherd the Constitution through Connecticut’s ratifying convention. And just for good measure, in his old age he became a member of the governor’s council.
One episode, however, sums up the life of this workaholic with the double name.
Sometime after signing the Declaration, in 1776, Williams attended a meeting for the Committee of Safety, the local organization in charge of protecting citizens during the war. At this meeting the patriots discussed the dismal state of affairs with Washington’s army, which had been thrown out of New York and driven like cattle through New Jersey, and were now penned up on the outskirts of Philadelphia. After winter, the British were sure to smash what remained of Washington’s little band of men. The war would be over and Williams would be dangling from the end of a rope.
“Well,” Williams reportedly said, “if [the British] succeed, it’s pretty evident what will be my fate. I have done much to prosecute the contest, and one thing I have done which the British will never pardon—I have signed the Declaration of Independence. I shall be hung.”
Mr. Huntington quipped that he would escape such a necktie party because he had done nothing and signed nothing in which to accuse him of treason against the Crown.
Williams replied, “Then you, sir, deserve to be hanged—for not having done your duty!”
Williams obviously wasn’t hung in 1776. He live a good long live, dying in 1811. His tombstone is inscribed: “a firm, steady, and ardent friend of his country, and in the darkest times risked his life and wealth in her defense.”
Now that’s worth remember—twice over!