William Williams Biography
The family of William Williams is said to have been originally from Wales. A branch of it came to America in the year 1630, and settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts. His grandfather, who bore the same name, was the minister of Hatfield, Massachusetts; and his father, Solomon Williams, D.D. was the minister of a parish in Lebanon, where he was settled fifty-four years. Solomon Williams, the father, married a daughter of Colonel Porter, of Hadley, by whom he had five sons and three daughters. The sons were all liberally educated. Of these, Eliphalet was settled, as a minister of the gospel, in East-Hartford, where be continued to officiate for about half a century. Ezekiel was sheriff of the county of Hartford for more than thirty years; he died a few years since at Wethersfield, leaving behind him a character distinguished for energy and enterprise, liberality and benevolence.
William Williams, the subject of this memoir, was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, on the eighth of April, 1731. At the age of sixteen, he entered Harvard college. During his collegiate course, he was distinguished for a diligent attention, and, at the proper period, was honorably graduated. From the university he returned home, and, for a considerable time, devoted himself to theological studies, under the direction of his father.
In September, 1755, was fought, at the head of Lake George, a celebrated battle between the provincial troops, under command of major general, afterwards Sir William Johnson, aided by a body of Indians led by the celebrated Hendrick, and a body of French Canadians and Indians, cornmanded by Monsieur le Baron de Dieskau. At this time, Colonel Ephraim Williams commanded a regiment of provincial troops, raised by Massachusetts, with which he was engaged in the above battle. William Williams, the subject of our memoir, belonged to his staff.
Colonel Williams was an officer of great merit. He was much beloved by his soldiers, and highly respected by the people of Massachusetts, in the place where be resided. Williams' college owes its existence to him. As he was proceeding through Albany, to the head of Lake George, he made his will in that city. In this instrument, after giving certain legacies to his connections, he directed that the remainder of his land should be sold at the discretion of his executors, within five years after an established peace, and that the interest of the monies arising from the sale, together with some other property, should be applied to the support of a free school, in some township in the western part of Massachusetts. This was the origin of Williams' college. Both the college, and the town in which it is situated, were named after their distinguished benefactor.
Previous to the battle of Lake George, Colonel Williams was dispatched with a party of twelve hundred men, to observe the motions of the French and Indian army, under Baron Dieskau. He met the enemy at Rocky Brook, four miles from Lake George. A tremendous battle now ensued. The English soldiers fought with great courage, but at length they were overpowered, and obliged to retreat. During the contest, Colonel Williams was shot through the head by an Indian, and killed. The command of the detachment now devolved upon Colonel Whiting, of New-Haven, Who succeeded in joining Sir William Johnson, with the force which had escaped the power of the enemy. The issue of this day is well known. The French army was finally repulsed, and the Baron Dieskau was both wounded and taken prisoner.
Soon after the death of Colonel Williams, the subject of this memoir, returned to Lebanon, where be resolved to fix his permanent residence. 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, During the years last mentioned, he was a member of the national council; and in the deliberations of that body took a part, during the memorable period, when the charter of our independence received the final approbation of congress.
At an early period of the revolution, he embarked with great zeal in the cause of his country. During the campaign of 1755, while at the north, he had learned a lesson, which he did not forget. He was at that time disgusted with the, British commanders, on account of the haughtiness of their conduct, and the little attachment which they manifested for his native country. The impression was powerful and lasting. At that time he adopted the opinion, that America would see no days of prosperity and peace, so long as British officers should manage her affairs. On the arrival of the day, therefore, when the revolutionary struggle commenced, and a chance was presented of release from the British yoke, Mr. Williams was ready to engage with ardor, in bringing about this happy state of things. He had for several years been interested in mercantile pursuits. These he now relinquished, that he might devote himself to the cause of his country. He powerfully contributed to awaken public feeling, by several essays on political subjects and when an occasion called him to speak in public, his patriotic zeal and independent spirit were manifested, in a powerful and impressive eloquence.
Nor was Mr. Williams one of those patriots with whom words are all. He was ready to make sacrifices, whenever occasion required. An instance of his public spirit is recorded, in the early part of the revolution. At this time 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.
At the commencement of the war, it is well known, there was little provision made for the support of an army. There were no public stores, no arsenals filled with warlike instruments, and no clothing prepared for the soldiers. For many articles of the first necessity, resort was had to private contributions. The selectmen in many of the towns of Connecticut volunteered their services, to obtain articles for the necessary outfit of new recruits, for the maintenance of the families of indigent soldiers, and to furnish supplies even for the army itself.
Mr. Williams was, at this time, one of the selectmen of the town of Lebanon, an office which he continued to hold during the whole revolutionary war. No man was better, fitted for such a station, and none could have manifested more unwearied zeal than he did, in soliciting the benefactions of private families for the above objects. Such was his success, that he forwarded to the army more than one thousand blankets. In many instances, families parted with their last blanket, for the use of the soldiers in the camp; and bullets were made from the lead taken from the weights of clocks. Such was the patriotism of the fathers and mothers of the land, in those days of trial. There were no comforts, which they could not cheerfully forego, and no sacrifices which they did not joyfully make, that the blessings of freedom might be theirs, and might descend to their posterity.
In confirmation of the above evidence of the firmness and patriotism of Mr. Williams, the following anecdote may be added. Towards the close of the year 1776, the military affairs of the colonies wore a gloomy aspect, and strong fears began to prevail that the contest would go against them. In this dubious state of things, the council of safety for Connecticut was called to sit at Lebanon. Two of the members of this council, William Hillhouse and Benjamin Huntington, quartered with Mr. Williams.
One evening, the conversation turned upon the gloomy state of the country, and the probability that, after all, success would crown the British arms. "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."
At the age of 41, he became settled in domestic life, having connected himself with the daughter of Jonathan Trumbull, at that time governor of the state. His lady, it is believed, is still living . Three children were the offspring of this marriage. Of these children, Solomon, the eldest, died in New-York, in 1810, a man greatly beloved by all who had the pleasure to know him. The only daughter is respectably connected in Woodstock, and the remaining son resides in Lebanon.
The demise of his eldest son was a great affliction to the aged and infirm father. The intelligence produced a shock from which he never recovered. From this time, he gradually declined. Four days before his death, he lost the power of utterance, nor was it expected that he would again speak on this side the grave. A short time, however, previously to his death, he called aloud for his deceased son, and requested him to attend his dying parent. In a few moments he closed his life. This event occurred on the 2d day of August, 1811, in the 81st year of his age.
To this biographical sketch of Mr. Williams, we have only to add a word, respecting his character as a Christian. He made a profession of religion at an early age, and through the long course of his life, he was distinguished for a humble and consistent conduct and conversation, While yet almost a youth, be was elected to the office of deacon, in the congregational church to which he belonged, an office which he retained during the remainder of his life. His latter days were chiefly devoted to reading, meditation, and prayer. At length the hour arrived, when God would take him to himself. He gave up the ghost, in a good old age, and was gathered to his fathers.
SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich