Founding Fathers Friday: Oliver Wolcott
by Derrick G. Jeter
Oliver Wolcott’s roots ran deep in the little colony of Connecticut. His ancestor, Henry Wolcott moved into the territory we now know as Connecticut in 1636 and was among the first to organize a government and obtain a charter from King Charles II. By the time young Oliver arrived on the scene—the youngest of fifteen children—in 1726, the Wolcott’s had lived in Connecticut for almost one hundred years. And longevity and being one of the first families of Connecticut had it’s rewards, Wolcott’s father was the royal governor.
As a child of Connecticut, Wolcott naturally attended Yale, where he studied law. Later he would study medicine under his uncle, Dr. Alexander Wolcott, but it’s doubtful Wolcott practiced either professions for he was drawn to the military arts. Wolcott received a captain’s commission in the Connecticut militia in 1747, the year he graduated from Yale. Recruiting a company of men, he immediately marched off to the northern frontier to fight the French and their Indian allies. His service during the French and Indian War eventually won him a major general’s commission.
His experience with Indians during the war also provided him with needed background and knowledge to be one of the key negotiators with various Indian tribes in the northern and western parts of the United States. Wolcott was instrumental in negotiating a vital peace treaty with the tribes of the famed Six Nations—the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Tuscaroras.
Of course what Wolcott is known for—if he’s known for anything outside of Connecticut—he’s known for signing the Declaration of Independence. But what Wolcott didn’t do was vote for independence, not because he wasn’t fourscore behind it but because he became sick before the July 2 vote. William Williams was sent to replace Wolcott in Congress, but Williams arrived in Philadelphia too late to cast the third Connecticut vote for independence.
Shortly after the critical vote and the signing by John Hancock and Charles Thomson (the secretary of the Congress) on July 4, 1776, Wolcott was in New York City. On July 9th, General George Washington received a copy of the Declaration and read it to the troops. As soon as Washington finished, the troops whooped and hollered, and a gang of soldiers, patriots, and ne’er-do-wells rushed to Bowling Green where a large statue of King George III stood. The mob threw a lasso over George’s head and over the horse ol’ George was astride. And then the rabble pulled down the 4,000 pound lead made, gold leaf encrusted monarch from his pedestal. The story goes the king’s head broke off when he hit the ground. It was placed on a pike and marched through the city and eventually shipped to London as a warning of things to come.
When Wolcott saw the headless monarch a flash of brilliance struck his mind. He had the pieces of the king collected and shipped to his home in Litchfield. Once there, he set his family to work melting down king George and casting him into bullets. According to family tradition, Wolcott and his family produced 42,088 bullets. Wolcott then took the bullets to Saratoga, where he and his militia helped capture “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne and defeat the British army, killing many with “His Majesty’s” melted image.
When Wolcott returned to Philadelphia in October 1776 he signed the Declaration. In 1777 he signed the Articles of Confederation. At war’s end, Wolcott returned to his roots in Connecticut, where he was elected lieutenant governor in 1786—a post he held for the next ten years. When fellow signer Samuel Huntington died in 1796, Wolcott became the governor—the same office his father held forty-five years earlier, but under a completely different constitution. Just before his own death, Wolcott served as the elector from Connecticut in the Electoral College and had the honor of voting for his friend and fellow signer John Adams, making Adams the second president of the United States.
An early biography of Wocott summed up his life like this: “As a patriot and statesman, a Christian and a man, Governor Wolcott presented a bright example; for inflexibility, virtue, piety and integrity, were his prominent characteristics.” This is not a bad memorial for a men hardly known outside Connecticut, even if he signed of the Declaration of Independence.