Founding Fathers Friday: William Floyd

by Derrick G. Jeter

If you were asked to name the four delegates from New York to the Second Continental Congress you might, with time and effort, remember Philip Livingston, Lewis Morris, and Francis Lewis, but only true history geeks would come up with the name William Floyd. Some men are unforgettable because of their presence—their bearing, dignity, and charisma . . . George Washington, for instance. Other men are hard to forget because of their personalities—Benjamin Franklin comes to mind. And then there are those who work themselves into our memories—men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. But there are always who stand in the spotlight of history for a brief moment and then fad into the background. This is William Floyd.
Floyd was the son of New York land gentry. His family’s estate, sitting firmly on Long Island, had a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike his wealthy peers, however, Floyd did not receive a formal education. His parents died when he was in his teens, and being the eldest of nine, the task of managing the estate fell to him. He married Hannah Jones while in his twenties, and with the help of family slaves, he and Hannah care for his siblings as well as their own children.
Like his great-grandfather before him, Floyd volunteered to serve in the local militia. Eventually, he rose to the rank of Major General and successful defend Long Island from the British at Gardiner’s Bay, causing the king’s men to retreat to their ships and making him a local hero. When it came to politics, however, Floyd was no fire-breathing Son of Liberty. He was moderate. He did serve in the First Continental Congress, in 1774, and signed the Articles of Association—an early agreement as to how the colonies would carry out boycotts against British goods. And after his military victory the good people of New York decided to send him back to Congress. But Floyd was cautious about coming to independence too quickly.
While serving in the Second Continental Congress, Floyd rarely spoke, but he volunteered for several committees and worked hard. A trait that gained him many admirers among fellow delegates. He was steady and reliable. Yet, like his fellow New Yorkers, he couldn’t be relied upon to vote for independence. Not that he hadn’t come to the conclusion, finally, that any hopes of reconciliation with Great Britain was futile, but because his delegation simply hadn’t received instructions from the New York Assembly. So July 2, 1776, passed with New York abstaining from the critical vote. A week later, on July 9, the colony assented to the vote and accepted the Declaration of Independence as affirming their sentiments. Floyd, along with most of the signers, put quill to parchment on August 2, 1776. For the New York delegation he probably signed first, since his name appears at the top of the colony’s four delegates.
Floyd wouldn’t come out of the revelation unharmed. After Washington and his army were defeated in New York, particularly the disastrous battle of Long Island, Floyd’s family was forced to flee their home. Hannah and the children made it safely across Long Island Sound, with the help of local fishermen, and moved in with friends in Connecticut. Hannah, sadly, died a few years later, in 1781. The Floyd home was turned into a British calvary stable.
After the war, Floyd gathered his children from Connecticut, and discovered all his livestock had been taken and his lands destroyed. He was, however, able to renovate the house, replace his stock, and replant his crops. And eventually, he remarried.
After the ratification of the Constitution, Floyd served as a Representatives in the First Congress. He would serve as an elector on the 1800 Electoral College. But politics no longer attracted his attention (if it ever had, really). He was now interesting in real estate, particularly real estate in western New York, and in traveling. When he was sixty-nine, he deeded the Long Island estate to a son and moved to the frontier of upstate New York, in what is now Oneida County, to work a new farm. He died there, in obscurity, almost twenty years later. He was eighty-six.
“Decision was a leading feature in his character,” an early biography said of William Floyd. “And trifling obstacles never thwarted his purposes when his opinion and determination were fixed. And let it be remembered that this noble characteristic, decision, was a prominent one with all of that sacred band who signed the charter of our emancipation, and that without this, men cannot be truly great, or eminently useful.”
William Floyd was a great and useful man, though he was not a famous man. Yet one of his own, a distant descendent, would become one of the greatest, useful, and most famous men in America. And a man of unwavering decision. This man? Abraham Lincoln.