William Shakespeare said, “Some men were born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” It seems that Oliver Wolcott certainly had greatness thrust upon him in the events leading up to American independence, but also achieved greatness by his own stellar leadership throughout this crucial period in our national history.
Oliver Wolcott was born in Windsor, Connecticut on November 20, 1726. Often the case, we didn’t know then that a regular fellow from a small New England town would achieve such prominence as an American patriot. Not only did he eventually sign the United States Declaration of Independence, but also the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Connecticut. He served as the nineteenth
Governor of Connecticut and as a major general for the Connecticut Militia in the Revolutionary War under George Washington.
As the youngest of 14 children by colonial governor Roger Wolcott and Sarah Drake Wolcott, Oliver began showing his potential at an early age. He graduated from Yale College in 1747 at the top of his class. Shortly thereafter, military duties called – he led a militia company as a Captain in the French and Indian Wars, defending our northern border against French incursions. Returning to Goshen, Connecticut after the war ended, he practiced medicine with his brother, Alexander. On January 21, 1755, Oliver Wolcott married Laura Collins. They had five children together. Oliver then became a merchant and was subsequently elected as sheriff of Litchfield County, Connecticut, a role he sustained for the next twenty years. By 1774, Oliver was known as a wise and good leader especially in difficult situations. For these qualities and demonstrated leadership, he was appointed the town’s Counselor, a role he served in for twelve years. While he was fulfilling these duties, Oliver also took a position as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas.
From the beginning of his service to Connecticut, and as a principal delegate to the Continental Congress, he took a strong stand and position against the wrongs that Great Britain had been perpetuating on the colonists. He became well known for these positions, vehemently supporting independence and freedom against tyranny. In February 1776, he stated: “Our difference with Great Britain has become very great. What matters will issue in, I cannot say, but perhaps in a total disseverance from Great Britain.”
Willing to fight for these strong beliefs of freedom and self-determination, Wolcott led Connecticut’s Seventeenth Regiment of militia to New York, joining George Washington’s army. At that moment, then Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull appointed Wolcott as a Brigadier General, commanding all the state’s militia regiments in New York, later being promoted to Major General. Oliver never wavered in his fierce opposition to Great Britain, describing the British in his memoirs as “a foe who have not only insulted every principle which governs civilized nations but by their barbarities offered the grossest indignities to human nature.”
Wolcott was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, serving as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Because he possessed such diplomatic skills, he was able to persuade the Indians to remain neutral in the Revolutionary War. It was this same set of skills that steered him into post-war pursuit of public service. He was elected as Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut in 1786, then Governor, succeeding Samuel Huntington, holding that position until his death in 1796.
His legacy can be characterized by the extraordinary amount and diverse nature of public service to his state and nation. In fact, historian Ellsworth Grant remembers Wolcott’s Revolutionary war efforts in stating that, “It is doubtful if any other official in Connecticut during this period carried so many public duties on his shoulders.” He was also remembered for his love of poetry and family.
Charles Goodrich had this to say about Oliver Wolcott in his book, Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence:
Mr. Wolcott never pursued any of the learned professions, yet his reading was various and extensive. He cultivated an acquaintance with the sciences, through the works of some of the most learned men of Europe, and was intimately acquainted with history, both ancient and modern. He has the reputation, and it is believed justly, of having been an accomplished scholar. Mr. Wolcott was also distinguished for his love of order and religion. In his last sickness he expressed, according to Dr. Backus, who preached his funeral sermon, a deep sense of his personal unworthiness and guilt. For several days before his departure, every breath seemed, to bring with it a prayer. At length, he fell asleep. He was an old man, and full of years, and went to his grave distinguished for a long series of services rendered both to his state and nation. The memory of his personal worth, of his patriotism, his integrity, his Christian walk and conversation, will go down to generations yet unborn.
He did not sign the Declaration of Independence until later because of personal illness, becoming the penultimate signer, just before Matthew Thornton.
Robert Brescia, Ed.D., serves as a Board Director, Past Chairman, at Basin PBS Television. He has served in top leadership roles in education, corporate business, nonprofit, and defense with twenty-seven years of public service as an Airborne Ranger Cavalry Soldier, NCO, and Commissioned Officer in the U.S. Army. Mr. Brescia was appointed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to the State Board for Educator Certification.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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