WilliamSamuel Johnson was an early American statesman who is remembered most for his signing of the United States Constitution. He also served as a Connecticut Senator in the United States Senate and as president of Columbia University.
William was born on October 7, 1726, in Stratford, Connecticut; he was the son of Samuel Johnson, a noted Anglican clergyman and later president of King’s College (Columbia University). William was educated at home and then attended Yale. He graduated from Yale College in 1744 and received a Master’s Degree in 1747 from Yale as well. He also received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1747.
Samuel Johnson wanted his son to enter the clergy, but William was more interested in a legal career. He educated himself in the law; “he quickly developed an important clientele and established business connections extending beyond the boundaries of his native colony. William served as a commissioned officer in the Connecticut colonial militia for over 20 years, rising to the rank of colonel. He also served in the Connecticut Legislature for a number of years: lower house (1761 and 1765) and the upper house (1766 and 1771-75). In addition, he was also a member of the colony’s Supreme Court (1772-74).
William became a part of the Patriot cause because he and his associates thought that the British Parliament was interfering too much in the government of the colonies. “He attended the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and served on the committee that drafted an address to the King arguing the right of the colonies to decide tax policies for themselves. He opposed the Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767 to pay for the French and Indian War and supported the non-importation agreements devised by the colonies to protest taxation without representation.”
As an agent for Connecticut, William spent four years (1767 to 1771) in London attempting to settle Connecticut’s title to Indian lands and soon had divided feelings about American independence. Even though many Patriots alleged that the British policies were from “sinister designs of a wicked government”, William was convinced that the policies were “shaped more by ignorance of American conditions. As Americans increased their demands for independence, William could not commit fully to the cause. He believed the British policy was “unwise”, but he did not want to break his ties with England.
William was an internationally known scholar and had many friends in Britain as well as among the Loyalists in America. He was also tied to England with his religious and professional contacts. “He enjoyed close associations with the Anglican Church in England and with the scholarly community at Oxford, which awarded him an honorary degree in 1766.”
“Fearing the consequences of independence for both the colonies and the mother country, Johnson sought to void extremism and to reach a compromise on the outstanding political differences between the protagonists. He rejected his election to the First Continental Congress, a move strongly criticized by the Patriots, who removed him from his militia command. He was also strongly criticized when, seeking an end to the fighting after Lexington and Concord, he personally visited the British commander, General Thomas Gage. The incident led to his arrest for communicating with the enemy, but the charges were eventually dropped. He felt that the American Revolution was not necessary and that independence would be bad for everyone concerned.”
After independence was achieved, Johnson served in the Congress of the Confederation (1785-87) where his influence was recognized by his contemporaries. Jeremiah Wadsworth wrote of him to a friend, “Dr. Johnson has, I believe, much more influence than either you or myself. The Southern Delegates are vastly fond of him.”
The Vermont Republic gave William a town in 1785 to show its gratitude “for representing the interests of Vermont before the Continental Congress.” William has the honor of having a town (Johnson, Vermont), a small university (Johnson State College), and a street (Johnson Street in Madison, Wisconsin) bear his name.
William was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 where he “played a major role.” He gave “eloquent speeches on the subject of representation” which “carried great weight during the debate. He wanted a strong central government to “protect the rights” of the small states (including Connecticut) from “encroachment” from the larger states. This is the reason he supported the New Jersey Plan calling for equal representation from the states in Congress.
William generally favored “extension of federal authority” and “argued that the judicial power `ought to extend to equity as well as law’ … or, in other words, that the inflexibility of the law had to be tempered by fairness. His motion to include the words “in law and equity” was adopted. He believed the sovereignty was “in the Union” and “opposed prohibition of an ex post facto law, one which made an act a criminal offense retroactively, because such prohibition implied `an improper suspicion of the National Legislature.’”
The influence of Johnson continued to the final stages of the framing of the Constitution. “He gave his fullest support to the Connecticut Compromise, which foreshadowed the final Great Compromise.” The Great Compromise took place when the Framers made the decision to have equal representation in the Senate and representation based on population in the House of Representatives. He was chairman of the five-member Committee of Style, charged with the responsibility of framing the final document. Catherine Drinker Bowen in Miracle at Philadelphia called William “the perfect man to preside over these four masters of argument and political strategy. [The other four members of the committee included Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, and Rufus King.] … His presence on the committee must have been reassuring; the doctor’s quiet manner disarmed.” (Bowen, p. 235 of the 1986 edition)
William served in the U.S. Senate and contributed to the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789. When the government moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1791, he resigned from the Senate to devote all his energies to being president of Columbia College (1787-1800) in New York City. There he “established the school on a firm basis and recruited a fine faculty.”
William was married to Anne Beach. A few years after her death, he retired from the college in 1800 and married Mary Brewster Beach, one of Anne’s relatives, the same year. They lived in Stratford where he died on November 14, 1819, in Stratford, Connecticut, at age 92. He was interred in the Old EpiscopalCemetery.