Did you know… Josiah Bartlett?

Continuing series on Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Josiah Bartlett (December 2, 1729– May 19, 1795) was born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, fourth son of Deacon Stephen and Hannah(Emery) Bartlett from England. Stephen Bartlett was deacon of the First Church of Christ, a shoemaker and farmer. His mother was already thirty-two at his birth, and had lost one child. She went on to have thirteen children.

Stephen came from wealth, and assured that Josiah got the best local education possible. He learned Latin and Greek, but did not attend college. Instead, he apprenticed with a local physician, Dr. Ordway, learning the craft of healing at sixteen. Josiah had occasional dealings with his uncle Joseph. As time went on, he fell in love with his beautiful cousin, Hannah. With no laws in that time to prevent such a match, they married January 15, 1754.

Josiah Bartlett house, Kingston, NH

After five years apprenticing, he moved to Kingston, New Hampshire, which was then a rough frontier village, in 1760. He was the only doctor for miles around. Talk about no health insurance! Josiah was the people’s health insurance. Josiah bought a farm, and settled in to be a country doctor. He was loved in the community, and it was a sore trial when two years later, he came down with a virulent fever. With no other doctor to treat the patient, his condition grew steadily worse, until over the objections of his attendants, he got them to give him some cider. He continued this treatment for twenty-four hours, and the fever broke. He began to improve. Physician, heal thyself became a reality. This experience impacted his practice of medicine – he abandoned the tried and true and was willing to try new things based on experience and judgment. He pioneered the use of Peruvian bark in treatment of throat canker. The first person afflicted with it, was said to have contracted the disease from a hog, which he skinned and opened, and which had died of a distemper of the throat. Children began dying from the disease, and the town was desperate for a cure. Some are said to have expired while sitting at play handling their toys. At length Josiah’s own child contracted the sickness – nothing he could think of worked. In desperation, he tried the Peruvian bark, and saved his child’s life.

In 1765, the townspeople drafted him to serve in the New Hampshire legislature. Soon he became at odds with the Royal Governor, John Wentworth. Wentworth desired the prestige attached to Bartlett’s reputation, and in an attempt to appease him, appointed him a justice of the peace. He took the appointment, but did not budge in his opposition to British taxes and other excesses of the Crown. In 1774, the winds of discontent swept over the colonies, and many formed committees of correspondence, to coordinate opposition to the Crown among them. New Hampshire formed such a committee, and Josiah joined it. The Governor dissolved the legislature in response. Josiah was then appointed to the Continental Congress, representing New Hampshire.

Governor Wentworth was furious. He took away Josiah’s appointment to justice of the peace, and his commission in the colonial militia. Undeterred, Josiah continued to voice opposition to the policies of the Crown. Within a short time, Governor Wentworth retreated to the British man’o war Favey in Portsmouth, Harbor, fearing for his personal safety.

In September 1775, Josiah journeyed to Philadelphia, to take his seat at the First Continental Congress. As it happened, in the debates surrounding the momentous question of independence, New Hampshire was called upon first to give its vote, and Josiah cast the first vote in that body to sever ties with Britain and become independent. The strain of the delicate resolutions and the long hours took a toll on his health, but he persevered.

He was there to sign the document on August 2, thus placing his life, his property, and his family in jeopardy. When the British forced evacuation of Philadelphia in 1778, Josiah fled with the rest. On reaching a tavern there was some anxiety about a reputed group of robbers in the woodlands ahead. While debating his course, other members of the Congress arrived, and they formed a large armed party, which skirted through the woodlands unmolested.

When able to return to Philadelphia, Josiah records, “Congress,” he says, “was obliged to hold its sessions in the college hall, the state house having been left by the enemy in a condition which could scarcely be described. Many of the finest houses were converted into stables; parlous floors cut through, and the dung shoveled through into the cellars. Through the country north of the city, for many miles, the hand of desolation had marked its way. Houses had been consumed, fences carried off, gardens and orchards destroyed. Even the great roads were scarcely to be discovered, amidst the confusion and desolation which prevailed.”

In 1787, he was elected to attend the Federal Convention meeting in Philadelphia that drafted the Constitution, but did not attend due to the fact that the state did not provide travel funds. Had he gone to Philadelphia, he would most certainly have joined Roger Sherman of Connecticut as the only people to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. 

“In the early part of the year l779, in a letter to one of the delegates in Congress, Dr. Bartlett gives a deplorable account of the difficulties and sufferings of the people in New-Hampshire. The money of the country had become much depreciated, and provisions were scarce and high. Indian corn was sold at ten dollars a bushel. Other things were in the same proportion. The soldiers of the army could scarcely subsist on their pay, and the officers, at times, found it difficult to keep them together.”


Though not a lawyer by training, he was greatly respected and loved. In 1782, he was appointed by the new state legislature as chief justice of the court of appeals. In 1788, when the Constitution came to New Hampshire for ratification, Josiah Bartlett was a fervent and eloquent supporter. Elected to the United States Senate, he was forced to decline by reason of health.  In 1790 he was elected governor of New Hampshire for a one-year term and was re-elected three times.This eminent man, and distinguished patriot, closed his earthly career on the nineteenth day of May, 1795, in the sixty-sixth year of his age.

Josiah Bartlett grave