Did you know… William Williams (April 8, 1731-1811) ?
Continuing series on signers of the Declaration of Independence
William was born in Lebanon, Ct. to Rev. Solomon Williams and Mary Porter Williams. Lebanon was named for its elevation and cedar trees, and was home to John Trumbull, the only British Crown Governor to side with the rebels in the revolution. In time William married Mary Trumbull, the Governor’s daughter, who was fifteen years younger.
William came from Welsh stock, and by the time of his birth, his family had already been in the colonies for a century. Both father and grandfather were clergy, so it seemed natural for William to follow in their footsteps. Harvard, in 1747, was still a prime source for new ministers, having been founded for the purpose of training clergy. The motto in those early years was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, meaning “Truth for Christ and the Church”. Candidates for the bachelor’s degree had to demonstrate being able to read original texts of the Old and New Testament from the Bible, and translate them to Latin. William did well at Harvard, and remained a devout Christian all his life, ministering in the Congregational Church. In the early days of Massachusetts, each town had a Congregational Church, which was supported by taxes until 1833.
William graduated with distinction from Harvard, and returned home to continue theological studies under the direction of his father. In the early 1750s, he joined the local militia under his brother, Colonel Eliphalet Williams, and fought at the September 8, 1755 Battle of Lake George. The colonial troops and their two hundred Mohawk allies were ambushed and defeated by the French. This was prior to the official declaration of war opening the French and Indian War. The commander of the colonial troops was killed (Ephriam Williams). The colonials were betrayed, and warning of their advance given to the French. The French commander, Baron Dieskau, was wounded and taken prisoner.
“In 1756, at the age of twenty-five years, he was chosen clerk of the town of Lebanon, an office which he continued to hold for the space of forty-five years. About the same time, he was appointed to represent the town in the general assembly of Connecticut. In this latter capacity, he served a long succession of years, during which he ,was often chosen clerk of the house, and not infrequently filled, and always with dignity and reputation, the speaker’s chair. In 1780, he was transferred to the upper house, being elected an assistant; an office to which he was annually re-elected for twenty-four years. It was recorded of him, what can probably be recorded of few, and perhaps of no other man, that for more than ninety sessions, he was scarcely absent from his seat in the legislature, excepting when he was a member of the Continental Congress, in 1776 and 1777” -colonialhall.com
In 1771, at the age of 40, he married Mary Trumbull, age 25. “She was twenty-five years old at the time of her marriage and was a handsome, educated, and accomplished young woman of excellent family.” Mary was in the thick of the Revolution. Her father was an intimate of Sam Adams and an advisor to George Washington. While it is difficult to attribute specific advice or events from her to the revolutionary effort, it is certain she was a close observer, and with her education, she likely contributed her opinions, at least privately, to her husband and father.
In his capacity representing Connecticut in the Continental Congress, William enthusiastically signed the Declaration. His time in the British army gave him personal experience the contempt the officers of the Crown displayed for the rights of the colonials, and their abilities. The advancing encroachment of the Crown on the church in America gave him just cause for alarm, and made him a confirmed advocate of independence.
Two short incidents display his devotion. First, in the early days of the revolution, “the paper money of the country was of so little value, that military services could not be procured for it. Mr. Williams, with great liberality, exchanged more than two thousand dollars in specie, for this paper, for the benefit of his country. In the issue, he lost the whole sum.
A similar spirit of liberality marked his dealings, in the settlement of his affairs, on the eve and during the course of the revolution. He was peculiarly kind to debtors impoverished by the war; and from the widow and the fatherless, made so by the struggle for freedom, he seldom made any exactions, even though he himself suffered by his kindness.”
In another incident, related by Mary, they entertained a fellow patriot at their home, but William took issue with his luke warm approach to independence: ” “Well,” said Mr. Williams, with great calmness, “if they succeed, it is 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. Hillhouse expressed his hope, that America would yet be successful, and his confidence that this would be her happy fortune. Mr. Huntington observed, that in case of ill success, he should be exempt from the gallows, as his signature was not attached to the Declaration of Independence, nor had he written any thing against the British government. To this Mr. Williams replied, his eye kindling as he spoke, “Then, sir, you deserve to be hanged, for not having done your duty.”
When, in 1781, Benedict Arnold, the traitor, made an attack upon New London, Williams, who held the office of colonel of militia, hearing of the event, mounted his horse and rode twenty-three miles in three hours, but arrived only in time to see the town wrapped in flames.
In 1804, Colonel Williams declined a re-election to the Connecticut Assembly, and withdrew entirely from public life. His life and fortune were both devoted to his country, and he went into domestic retirement with the love and veneration of his countrymen attending him.
Mary and William had four children. On October 10, 1810 their son Solomon, namesake of his grandfather, died unexpectedly in New York City. William never recovered from the sorrow of this blow. His health steadily deteriorated, and he went into a coma. After having lain silent for four days, he suddenly recovered enough to cry out for Solomon to attend him in the world of spirits, and died.
Mary lived another twenty years, dying in Lebanon in 1831.
Sources:( Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 174 – 179, Wives of the Signers: The Women Behind the Declaration of Independence, by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1997, colonialhall.com, adherents.com)