William Samuel Johnson was a successful lawyer from Stratford, Connecticut, and a Founding Father of the United States. He participated in many key events that shaped the nation, including the Stamp Act Congress, Confederation Congress, and Constitutional Convention. He signed the Constitution and played a key role in the development of the Judiciary Act of 1789. He is also one of the Founding Fathers of Connecticut.
- Johnson was born in Stratford, Connecticut on October 7, 1727.
- His father was Samuel Johnson and his mother was Charity Floyd Nicoll.
- His father was an Anglican clergyman and served as President of King’s College (Columbia).
- Johnson received his primary education at home, from his father.
- In 1744, he graduated from Yale.
- In 1747, he received a master’s degree from Yale.
- In 1747, he received an honorary degree from Harvard.
- In 1749, Johnson married Anne Beach. They had 11 children together, but most of them died at a young age.
- In 1800, he married Mary Brewster Beach.
- Johnson pursued a legal career, even though his father wanted him to enter the clergy.
- He learned the law on his own and was admitted to the bar.
- He built a successful business in Stratford and established connections with clients in Connecticut and surrounding colonies.
- From 1761 to 1765, Johnson served in the Lower House of the Connecticut legislature.
- In 1765, he represented Connecticut at the Stamp Act Congress.
- In 1766, he served in the Upper House of the Connecticut legislature.
- From 1767 to 1771, he served as Connecticut’s agent in London, working on behalf of the colony to settle its title to the lands occupied by the Native Tribes.
- In 1774, he was elected to the First Continental Congress but declined to attend.
- From 1785 to 1787, he attended the Confederation Congress.
- In 1787, he attended the Constitutional Convention.
- From 1771 to 1775, he served in the Upper House of the Connecticut legislature.
- From 1772 to 1774, he served as a member of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
- Johnson held a commission in the Connecticut Colonial Militia for over 20 years
- He achieved the rank of Colonel.
Delegate to the Stamp Act Congress
On March 22, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required a stamp to be placed on all legal documents and many printed materials in the colonies.
In May, news of the new law reached the colonies. There was immediate opposition, including riots in Boston, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Savannah, Georgia.
On June 8, 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly sent a circular letter to the legislatures of the other colonies, inviting them to send delegates to a congress in New York to discuss a unified response to the Stamp Act. The precedent for such a meeting had been set by the Albany Congress in 1754.
Nine of the 13 colonies, including Connecticut, chose to send delegates to the meeting, which was held in New York City. Johnson was elected as a delegate from Connecticut, along with Eliphalet Dyer and David Rowland.
The Stamp Act Congress convened on October 7, 1765. On October 19, the Stamp Act Congress issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Congress sent petitions to the King and both houses of Parliament and asked for the Stamp Act to be repealed.
Johnson voted in favor of the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, however, the delegates from Connecticut were not authorized to sign their names to the petitions that were sent to the King and Parliament.
On November 1, 1765, the Stamp Act took effect, but there were no stamp masters available to distribute the stamps. They had resigned or refused to perform their job due to violence and intimidation against them.
Johnson signed the official documents of the Stamp Act Congress.
On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, primarily due to protest from British merchants who believed it would damage their prospects of doing business in the colonies. However, on that same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which declared it had the “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”
- In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which Johnson opposed.
- He supported the nonimportation agreements to protest taxation without representation.
Ties with Britain
- Johnson found it difficult to commit to the Patriot cause, even though he was against most British policies, because of his professional and religious ties.
- He was a well-known scholar in the colonies and in Britain. He had many friends in the colonies that were Loyalists or affiliated with the British government, including Jared Ingersoll, Sr., who was in charge of administering the Stamp Act in Connecticut.
- He was associated with the Anglican Church in England and with the scholarly community at Oxford, which gave him an honorary degree in 1766.
- He tried to reach a common ground between Patriots and Loyalists and avoided extremism.
First Continental Congress
- In 1774, Johnson was elected to the First Continental Congress.
- He rejected the commission and was criticized by Patriots in Connecticut.
- The Patriots responded by removing him from his militia command.
Arrest for Communicating with the British
- In 1775, after the American Revolutionary War started, Connecticut sent a delegation to Boston to meet with General Thomas Gage. Johnson was one of the men that was sent.
- The purpose of the meeting was to see if peace could be negotiated, but the talks failed, and further damaged Johnson’s reputation with the Patriots.
- In 1779, he was arrested on charges of communicating with the enemy, but he was able to clear the charges and was released.
Land Dispute with Pennsylvania
- From 1779 to 1780, Johnson served as legal counsel for Connecticut in a land dispute with Pennsylvania.
President of the College of Philadelphia
- Johnson was nominated by Joseph Reed, President of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania), to succeed him as President.
Congress of the Confederation
- From 1785 to 1787, Johnson was elected to the Confederation Congress.
- He was influential, and Jeremiah Wadsworth wrote to a friend and said, “Johnson has, I believe, much more influence than either you or myself. The Southern Delegates are vastly fond of him.”
United States Constitutional Convention
- In 1787, Johnson participated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
- He supported a strong federal government to protect the rights of Connecticut and the other small states from encroachment from larger, more powerful states.
- He supported the New Jersey Plan, which called for equal representation of the states in the national legislature.
- He supported the Connecticut Compromise, a precursor to the Great Compromise that resulted in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- He served on the Committee of Style, which developed the final draft of the Constitution.
- He signed the Constitution.
Connecticut Ratification of the United States Constitution
- Johnson participated in Connecticut’s ratification process and emphasized the advantages the Constitution gave the small states.
United States Senator from Connecticut
- On March 4, 1789, Johnson was elected to the United States Senate.
- On March 4, 1791, he resigned as Senator.
Judiciary Act of 1789
- In 1789, Johnson helped develop the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established the details of the federal judicial system.
President of Columbia College
- In 1787, Johnson was selected as the first President of Columbia College.
- In 1791, he retired from public office in order to maintain his position at the school
- He served as President of the college until 1800.
- On November 14, 1819, Jonson died in Stratford, Connecticut.
- He is buried at Old Episcopal Cemetery in Stratford.
William Samuel Johnson is important because he is a Founding Father, and participated in so many key events that shaped the nation, including the Stamp Act Congress, Confederation Congress, and Constitutional Convention. He signed the Constitution and played a key role in the development of the Judiciary Act of 1789. He is also one of the Founding Fathers of Connecticut.
William Samuel Johnson is considered a Founding Father of the United States because he signed the Constitution.