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Josiah Bartlett, the first of the New-Hampshire delegation who signed the Declaration of Independence, was born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in 1729. He was the fourth son of Stephen Bartlett, whose ancestors came from England during the seventeenth century, and settled at Beverly.
The early education of young Bartlett appears to have been respectable, although he had not the advantages of a collegiate course. At the age of sixteen he began the study of medicine, for which he had a competent knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages.
On finishing his preliminary studies, which were superintended by Dr. Ordway, of Amesbury, and to which he devoted himself with indefatigable zeal for five years, he commenced the practice of his profession at Kingston, in the year 1760.
Two years from the above date, he was attacked by a fever, which for a time seriously threatened his life. From an injudicious application of medicines, and too close a confinement to his chamber, life appeared to be rapidly ebbing, and all hopes of his recovery were relinquished. In this situation, fine evening, he strongly solicited his attendants to give him some cider. At first they were strongly reluctant to comply with his wishes, under a just apprehension, that serious and even fatal consequences might ensue. The patient, however, would not be pacified, until his request was granted. At length they complied with his request, and of the cider thus given him, he continued to drink at intervals during the night. The effect of it proved highly beneficial. It mitigated the febrile symptoms, a copious perspiration ensued, and from this time he began to recover.
This experiment, if it may be called an experiment, was treasured up in the mind of Dr. Bartlett, and seems to have led him to abandon the rules of arbitrary system, for the more just principles of nature and experience. He became a skillful and distinguished Practitioner. To him is ascribed the first application of Peruvian bark in cases of canker, which before, was considered an inflammatory, instead of a Putrid disease, and as such had been unsuccessfully treated.
This disease, which was called the throat distemper, first appeared at Kingston, in the spring of 1735. 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. The disease which was supposed thus to have originated, soon after spread abroad through the town, and to children under ten years of age it proved exceedingly fatal. Like the plague, it swept its victims to the grave, almost without warning, and some are said to have expired while sitting at play handling their toys. At this time, medical skill was baffled; every method of treatment pursued, proved ineffectual. It ceased its ravages only where victims were no longer to be found.
In the year 1754, Kingston was again visited with this malignant disease. Doctor Bartlett was at this time a physician of the town. At first he treated it as an inflammatory disease; but at length, satisfied that this was not its character, he administered Peruvian bark to a child of his own who was afflicted with the disease, and with entire success. From this time the use of it became general, as a remedy in diseases of the same type.
A man of the distinguished powers of Doctor Bartlett, and of his decision and integrity, was not likely long to remain unnoticed, in times which tried men's souls. The public attention was soon directed to him, as a gentleman in whom confidence might be reposed, and whose duties, whatever they might be, would be discharged with promptness and fidelity.
In the year 1765, Doctor Bartlett was elected to the legislature of the province of New-Hampshire, from the town of Kingston. In his legislative capacity, he; soon found occasion to oppose the mercenary views of the royal governor. He would not become subservient to the will of a man whose object, next to the display of his own authority, was the subjection of the people to the authority of the British administration.
The controversy between Great Britain and her colonies, was now beginning to assume a serious aspect. At this time, John Wentworth was the royal governor, a man of no ordinary sagacity. Aware of the importance of attaching the distinguished men of the colony to the royal cause, among other magistrates, he appointed Dr. Bartlett to the office of justice of the peace. This was indeed an inconsiderable honour; but as an evidence of the governor's respect for his talents and influence, was a point of some importance. Executive patronage, however, was not a bait by which such a man as Dr. Bartlett would be seduced. He accepted the appointment, but was as firm in his opposition to the royal governor as he had been before.
The opposition which was now abroad in America against the British government, and which continued to gather strength until the year 1774, had made equal progress in the province of New-Hampshire. At this time, a committee of correspondence, agreeably to the recommendation and example of other colonies, was appointed by the house of representatives. For this act, the governor dissolved the assembly. But the committee of correspondence soon after re-assembled the representatives, by whom circulars were addressed to the several towns, to send delegates to a convention, to be held at Exeter, for the purpose of selecting deputies to the Continental Congress, which was to meet at Philadelphia in the ensuing September.
In this convention, Dr. Bartlett, and John Pickering, a lawyer, of Portsmouth, were appointed delegates to Congress. The former of these having a little previously lost his house by fire, was under the necessity of declining the honour. The latter gentleman wishing also to be excused, other gentlemen were elected in their stead.
Dr. Bartlett, however, retained his seat in the house of representatives of the province. Here, as in other colonies, the collisions between the royal governor and the people continued to increase. The former was more arbitrary in his proceedings; the latter better understood their rights, and were more independent. The conspicuous part which Dr. Bartlett took on the patriotic side, the firmness with which he resisted the royal exactions, rendered him highly obnoxious to the governor, by whom he was deprived of his commission as justice of the peace, and laconically dismissed from his command in the militia.
From this time, the political difficulties in New-Hampshire greatly increased. At length, Governor Wentworth found it necessary for his personal safety to retire on board the Favey man of war, then lying in the harbour of Portsmouth. From this he went to Boston, and thence to the Isle of Shoals, where he issued his proclamation, adjourning the assembly till the following April. This act, however, terminated the royal government in the province of New-Hampshire. A provincial congress, of which Matthew Thornton was president, was soon called, by which a temporary government was organized, and an oath of allegiance was framed, which every individual was obliged to take. Thus, after subsisting for a period of ninety years, the British government was forever annihilated in New-Hampshire.
In September, 1775, Dr. Bartlett, who had been elected to the Continental Congress, took his seat in that body. In this new situation, he acted with his accustomed energy, and rendered important services to his country. At this time, congress met at nine in the morning, and continued its session until four o'clock in the afternoon. The state of the country required this incessant application of the members. But anxiety and fatigue they could endure without repining. The lives and fortunes of themselves and families, and fellow citizens, were in jeopardy. Liberty, too, was in jeopardy. Like faithful sentinels, therefore, they sustained witty cheerfulness their laborious task; and, when occasion required, could dispense with the repose of nights. In this unwearied devotion to business, Dr. Bartlett largely participated; in consequence of which, his health and spirits were for a time considerably affected.
In a second election, in the early part of the year 1776, Dr. Bartlett was again chosen a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was present on the memorable occasion of taking the vote on the question of a declaration of independence. On putting the question, it was agreed to begin with the northernmost colony. Dr. Bartlett, therefore, had the honour of being called upon for an expression of his opinion, and of first giving his vote in favour of the resolution.
On the evacuation of Philadelphia, by the British, in 1778, Congress, which had for some time held its sessions at Yorktown, adjourned to meet at the former place, within three days, that is, on the second day of July. The delegates now left Yorktown, and in different companies proceeded to the place of adjournment. Dr. Bartlett, however, was attended only by a single servant. They were under the necessity of passing through a forest of considerable extent; it was re-ported to be the lurking place of a band of robbers, by whom several persons had been waylaid, and plundered of their effects. On arriving at an inn, at the entrance of the wood, Dr. Bartlett was informed of the existence of this band of desperadoes, and cautioned against proceeding, until other travelers should arrive. While the doctor lingered for the purpose of refreshing himself and horses, the landlord, to corroborate the statement which he had made, and to heighten still more the apprehension of the travelers, related the following anecdote. "A paymaster of the array, with a large quantity of paper money, designed for General Washington, had attempted the passage of the wood, a few weeks before. On arriving at the skirts of the wood, he was apprised of his danger, but as it was necessary for him to proceed, he laid aside his military garb, purchased a worn out horse, and a saddle and bridle, and a farmer's saddlebags of corresponding appearance: in the latter, he deposited his money, and with a careless manner proceeded on his way. At some distance from the skirt of the wood, he was met by two of the gang, who demanded his money. Others were skulking at no great distance in the wood, and waiting the issue of the interview. To the demand for money, he replied, that he had a small sum, which they were at liberty to take, if they believed they had a better right to it than himself and family; taking from his pocket a few small pieces of money, he offered them to them; at the same time, in the style and simplicity of a quaker, he spoke to them of the duties of religion. Deceived by the air of honesty which he assumed, they suffered him to pass, without further molestation, the one observing to the other, that so poor a quaker was not worth the robbing. Without any further interruption, the poor quaker reached the other side of the wood, and at length delivered the contents of his saddlebags to General Washington."
During the relation of this anecdote, several other members of Congress arrived, when, having prepared their arms, they proceeded on their journey, and in safety passed over the infested territory.
On the evacuation of Philadelphia, it was obvious from the condition of the city, that an enemy had been there. In a letter to a friend, Dr. Bartlett describes the alterations and ravages which had been made. "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 August, 1778, a new election took place in New-Hampshire, when Dr. Bartlett was again chosen a delegate to Congress; he continued, however at Philadelphia, but an inconsiderable part of the session, his domestic concerns requiring his attention. During the remainder of his life, he resided in New-Hampshire, filling up the measure of his usefulness in a zealous devotion to the interests of the state.
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.
During the same year, Dr. Bartlett was appointed chief justice of the court of common pleas. In 1782, he became an associate justice of the supreme court, and in 1788, he was advanced to the head of the bench. In the course of this latter year, the present Constitution was presented to the several states, for their consideration. Of the convention in New-Hampshire, which adopted it, Dr. Bartlett was a member, and by his zeal was accessory to its ratification. In 1789, he was elected a senator to Congress; but the infirmities of age induced him to decline the office. In 1793, he was elected first governor of the state, which office he filled, with his accustomed fidelity, until the infirm state of his health obliged him to resign the chief magistracy, and to retire wholly from public business. In January, 1794, he expressed his determination to close his public career in the following letter to the legislature:
"Gentlemen of the Legislature -- After having served the public for a number of years, to the best of my abilities, in various offices to which I have had the honour to be appointed I think it proper, before your adjournment, to signify to you, and through you to my fellow citizens at large, that I now find myself so far advanced in age, that it will be expedient for me, at the close of the session, to retire from the cares and fatigues of public business, to the repose of a private life, with a grateful sense of the repeated marks of trust and confidence that my fellow citizens have reposed in me, and with my best wishes for the future peace and prosperity of the state."
The repose of private life however, which must have become eminently desirable to a man whose life had been past an the toils and troubles of the revolution, was destined to be of short duration. 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.
To the sketches of the life of this distinguished man, little need be added, respecting his character. His patriotism was of a singularly elevated character, and the sacrifices which he made for the good of his country were such as few men are willing to make. He possessed a quick and penetrating mind, and, at the same time, he was distinguished for a sound and accurate judgment. A scrupulous justice marked his dealings with all men, and he exhibited great fidelity in his engagements. Of his religious views we are unable to speak with confidence, although there is some reason to believe that his principles were less strict, than pertained to the puritans of the day. He rose to office, and was recommended to the confidence of his fellow citizens, not less by the general probity of his character, than the force of his genius. Unlike many others, he had no family, or party connections, to raise him to influence in society; but standing on his own merits, he passed through a succession of offices which he sustained with uncommon honour to himself, and the duties of which he discharged not only to the satisfaction of his fellow citizens. but with the highest benefit to his country.
Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 131-138. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)
See also:The biography of Mary Bartlett, Josiah Bartlett's wife
Designed and Edited by John Vinci
Last modified January 5, 2004