Dr. Josiah Bartlett saved his own life in the same spirit he signed the Declaration of Independence: by questioning authority.
He was the first to vote for independence during the Continental Congress in 1775. He was the second to sign the Declaration of Independence. His fictional descendent starred as the fictional president of the television series, West Wing. He himself was briefly president – of New Hampshire.
Bartlett was a dedicated physician and a true citizen-legislator in the mold of Gen. John Stark. Both left their homes and affairs when their country needed them but returned as soon as they could.
Throughout his life, he depended on his own judgment rather than accepted wisdom.
“Just be wrong,” he wrote. “Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong, and get used to it.”
Bartlett from an early age wanted to be a doctor.
He was born Nov. 21, 1729, on a farm in Amesbury, Mass., to a strict Puritan family. According to his biographer, from his youth he questioned Puritan doctrine and believed in the ‘free agency and moral accountability’ of mankind.
Josiah apprenticed to a local doctor and by 21 moved to the frontier town of Kingston, N.H., where he set up his medical practice.
Two years later in 1753 he developed a high fever that would have killed him had he followed the medical wisdom of the day.
His doctor ordered a ‘warm and stimulating regimen,’ but as Bartlett got worse the doctor said he would die. But Bartlett asked two young men who watched him to pour a quart of cider and give it to him in small doses. They at first refused, afraid it would kill him, but Bartlett prevailed. Throughout the night, they gave him half-teacups full of cider. The cider caused him to sweat and broke the fever.
In 1754, an epidemic of throat distemper struck Kingston. It was a serious and often fatal disease among children. Bartlett experimented with different drugs. He discovered Peruvian bark, which contains quinine, relieved the symptoms long enough to allow recovery.
His practice flourished. He was friendly and smart and interested in political affairs.
Josiah Bartlett won election to the New Hampshire Legislature in 1765, but he quickly grew disillusioned with the greed of the royal governor, Benning Wentworth.
Wentworth granted a number of charters, reserving large tracts of land for himself and the Church of England. His nephew John Wentworth succeeded him as governor and continued the practice. Bartlett began to oppose Gov. John Wentworth’s policies.
Wentworth tried to coopt Bartlett by appointing him justice of the peace and a colonel in the militia. In 1775, Wentworth was run out of New Hampshire, but not before he fired Bartlett from his appointed posts.
Around then Bartlett lost his home to fire, presumably set by Tories. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775-76, the first to vote for independence. When the tally was counted, Bartlett ‘made the rafters echo with his approval.’
He signed the Declaration of Independence right after John Hancock; like the other signers he could have been hanged for it. He returned to New Hampshire, but when duty called he accompanied John Stark to the Battle of Bennington and tended to wounded soldiers. In 1778 he went back to the congress and worked on drafting the Articles of Confederation, but then begged off and went home.
Though Bartlett wasn’t a lawyer, he was appointed a judge and rose to chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. When New Hampshire ratified the U.S. Constitution he was elected U.S. senator, but he declined the post. Instead he became president of New Hampshire and then its first governor. Soon after retiring he died at home in Kingston, age 65.
“Unlike many others, he had no family, or party connections, to raise him to influence in society;” wrote the Rev. Charles Goodrich in 1829. “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.”
His home in Kingston, built in 1774, is still in the Bartlett family. His descendants used to give tours throughout the year, but in 2014 the house was put on the market.
The gastropub, J. Bartlett’s Public House, located inside of the Whole Foods Market grocery store in Nashua, is also named after him. So is the town of Bartlett, N.H.
This story was updated in 2023.