For those of us who spent our formative years in the suburbs of Long Island, including the Village of Setauket where I grew up, the name William Floyd is familiar, though I would venture a guess that very few are likely to know the story behind the name. As families travelled around those areas, or perhaps to the beach, including the famous Fire Island, the children would hear the familiar words, the “William Floyd Parkway.” I vaguely remember being aware of a historic home named for William Floyd as well, but I have no recollection of being taught who the man was, or what he did to earn such recognition. I may have been taught something in passing, but there is no doubt that as a young boy I was unlikely to pay much attention to such things. Our collective ignorance of Mr. Floyd’s life, however, does not detract from the distinction of it. It is only a shame, as there in our little village of Setauket we lived on ground trampled by history, a history in which William Floyd was a central character. It is also a shame that during those formative years, more effort was not made to teach us of the momentous events that took place where we lived and played. Perhaps, with some more effort and respect for the past, we all would have grown up more grateful and more respectful of our nation and its founders.
Even to those of us who traveled the road named for him, and lived in the town that his family founded, William Floyd did not achieve the lasting fame of George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, or many others of the Founders and Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Yet together with them, he worked to bring about a new nation, conceived in liberty. He struggled and sacrificed, and did his duty, and his service to the future. He took the same pledge to risk his life, his (significant) fortune, and his sacred honor. Few know, however, of his life, and in that way, he was a man much like most of us. A man whose name, while respected during his time, will fade into history, and his years of service will go unappreciated by those who follow. He is one of the millions of American souls whose contributions comprise the fabric that has weaved itself into the tapestry of our nation.
Floyd was born in 1734 to a wealthy landowning family who had emigrated from Wales. His grandfather, Richard Floyd, founded the village of Setauket, where I grew up. The land was purchased by white settlers from the Setalcott tribe, one of the 13 native tribes of Long Island, which had its central location in that area at the time. William Floyd inherited significant lands from his father and, foregoing the educational opportunities available to a man of his wealth, he took to running those estates at only 21 years of age. He married Hannah Jones and they settled in to raise a family, steeped in the privileges of the landowning class. Floyd was a man of his times, which is a euphemistic way of saying that he owned slaves who worked his fields and tended to his operations. Slavery was then still a common practice around the world, but the concept behind it, especially the degradation of other humans before the law, had already begun to fall from favor. While this debate was prominent among the founders, Floyd, as far as history can tell us, was not an active supporter of abolition, and unlike many signers and political thinkers of those days, did not appear see a contradiction in the quest for liberty and the rights of man, and the slavery that supported his lifestyle. The census of 1820, a year before his death, still listed Floyd as a slaveholder (slavery did not end in New York until July 4, 1827).
Despite this glaring failing, Floyd was what we would call a reliable volunteer today. He was the person that the town turned to when they needed someone to run the committee, chair the meeting, represent the people at an event somewhere far away. Certainly, his wealth and status as a landowner must have first thrust him into positions of leadership, but it must have been his steadfast service and trustworthiness that kept him in positions of responsibility year after year, as the idea of a free and independent nation germinated across the colonies. Floyd was not a rabble-rouser, not a vocal rebel calling for revolution. He was a businessman, extremely wealthy, who sought independence from the abuses of England against his free enterprise. Respected by his community, he was appointed as a Colonel in the militia just as the Revolutionary War exploded across the Colonies. He would eventually achieve the rank of Major General, but his service was more organizational than combative. He was also selected to serve as a New York representative to the First Continental Congress beginning in September of 1774, and attended sessions in Philadelphia between then and 1776, when, along with the other original signers, he risked everything he had, and put his name to the Declaration of Independence. It was a risk that he took on freely, and one that he and his family would pay dearly for.
Many today are aware of the battles that took place on Long Island due to the popular television show “Turn,” a dramatic depiction of the events surrounding the capture, occupation, and eventually abandonment of Long Island by British forces. Many of these dramatized events take place in the Village of Setauket, and history records the Battle of Setauket as a major event in the war. As a boy I do remember being shown the bullet marks that are still visible in the old church and on the rock memorial that sits in the middle of the town. Floyd was in Philadelphia as a Delegate during this time, and when he returned to Long Island after the British left in 1777, he found his estate ransacked, his property stolen, and his lands plundered. His family had evacuated during the occupation, and the strain of the ordeal brought despair and sickness to his wife, who died in 1781.
Despair and loss, however, did not deter Floyd from his duties. Following his service in the Continental Congress, including multiple terms until 1789, Floyd was elected to the first United States Congress in 1789, serving one term. He ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of New York against the (still famous) John Jay. He was later elected as a Delegate to the New York Constitutional Convention in 1801 and to the State Senate in 1804. Having reestablished his estate, Floyd lived a long life, remarrying to Joanna Strong in 1784, and adding two additional children to the three that he had with Hannah Jones. He died in August 1821 at the age of 86. The William Floyd estate still stands on Long Island (although Floyd moved to Westernville, New York, in 1803), and is owned by the National Park Service as part of Fire Island National Seashore.
It was a life well lived, in times of struggle and change. Records from the time do not make much mention of Floyd. He was not a visible presence or vocal voice in the Congress. Records from the proceedings mention his presence, but his impression on other delegates might well be summarized in a contemporary’s letter to John Jay, that named William Floyd as one of the “good men, [who] never quit their chairs” (Grossman, 2014, p. 397). We should all be grateful to those, who like Floyd, never quit their chairs, and ensured the founding of our nation through their service and sacrifice.
Jay McConville is a military veteran, management professional, and active civic volunteer currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University. Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, he held multiple key technology and management positions within the Aerospace and Defense industry, including twice as President and CEO. He served in the U.S. Army as an Intelligence Officer, and has also been active in civic and industry volunteer associations, including running for elected office, serving as a political party chairman, and serving multiple terms as President of both his industry association’s Washington DC Chapter and his local youth sports association. Today he serves on the Operating Board of Directors of Constituting America. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Government from George Mason University, and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College. Jay lives in Richmond with his wife Susan Ulsamer McConville. They have three children and two grandchildren.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
Bayles, Richard (n.d.), Long Island Indians and The Early Settlers http://longislandgenealogy.com/indians.html
Grossman, M. (2015). Encyclopedia of the continental congresses. Grey House Publishing. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/lib/vcu/reader.action?docID=3299586
Landy, Craig A. (n.d.), Legal history matters; When did slavery end in New York, Historical Society of the New York Courts, https://history.nycourts.gov/when-did-slavery-end-in-new-york/
National Park Service (2020). William Floyd Estate, Fire Island National Seashore, https://www.nps.gov/fiis/planyourvisit/williamfloydestate.htm
Revolutionary War (2020). William Floyd, Revolutionary War, https://www.revolutionary-war.net/william-floyd/
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