Jonathan Dayton, future signer of the United States Constitution, was born on October 16, 1760, in Elizabethtown (now known as Elizabeth), New Jersey. His father, Elias Dayton, was a merchant; he had been a militia officer in the French and Indian War and became prominent in local politics.
Jonathan attended and graduated from a local academy and was classmates with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He attended the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) but left in 1775 to fight in the revolution; he received an honorary degree in 1776.
While only 15 years old when the Revolutionary War begin in 1775, he served as an ensign under his father (Elias) in the Third New Jersey Regiment. He was commissioned a lieutenant on January 1, 1777, and served as paymaster. He saw action under General George Washington and fought in the battles of Brandywine Creek and Germantown. He was with Washington at Valley Forge and assisted in pushing the British Army from New Jersey to New York City. He and his uncle were captured in October 1780 by a loyalist and kept captive throughout the winter. After their release, they again served under Elias in the New Jersey Brigade.
Jonathan was 19 years old on March 30, 1780, when he was promoted to the rank of captain. He transferred to the Second New Jersey and took part in Battle of Yorktown. According to the Revolutionary War Pension files, he served as Aid-de-Camp to General Sullivan while fighting the Indians from May 1 to November 30, 1779.
After the War for Independence ended, Jonathan studied law and established a law practice; he then divided his time between land speculation, law, and politics. At age 26 he was the youngest member of the New Jersey delegation to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention. He was also the youngest person to sign the United States Constitution. He became a prominent Federalist legislator, a member of the New Jersey General Assembly (1786-1787, 1790) and served in the New Jersey Legislative Council (now the New Jersey Senate) in 1789.
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1789, Jonathan did not take his seat there until he was elected a second time in 1791. He served as Speaker for the Fourth and Fifth Congress and supported the fiscal policies of Alexander Hamilton. He assisted in organizing the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, supported the Louisiana Purchase, and opposed the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801. He later served in the U.S. Senate.
Investing heavily in Ohio, Jonathan became wealthy. He loaned money to Aaron Burr and thus became “involved by association” in Burr’s “conspiracy”. Burr was accused but never convicted of the intent to conquer parts of what is now the western United States. Jonathan was arrested in 1807 for treason in connection with Burr’s “conspiracy,” but he was never actually tried. Jonathan was exonerated, but his political career came to an end because of the “conspiracy
Jonathan married Susan Williamson, and the couple became the parents of two daughters. According to Susan’s Revolutionary War Pension Application W.6994, the marriage occurred on March 28, 1779. A supporting letter was written by Aaron Ogden, a Captain in the New Jersey Brigade, stating that he “was present at the marriage of the said Jonathan Dayton and Susan his wife; which marriage ceremony was performed by the Reverent Mr. Hoyt, a Presbyterian Clergyman… in the fore part of spring of the year seventeen hundred and seventy nine (1779) while the New Jersey Brigade lay at Elizabethtown in the Borough of Elizabeth & state of new Jersey.”
Jonathan died on October 9, 1824, in his hometown and was interred in an unmarked grave. His grave is currently under St. John’s Episcopal Church in Elizabeth, which replaced the original church in 1860. According to an obituary, Jonathan was visited shortly before his death by Lafayette: “In New Jersey, Hon. JONATHAN DAYTON, formerly Speaker of the House of Representatives of Congress, and a Hero of the Revolution. When the Nation’s Guest lately passed New Jersey, he passed the night with General Dayton, and such were the exertions of this aged and distinguished federalist, to honor the Guest, and gratify the wishes of his fellow citizens to see, that he sunk under them; and expired, without regret, a few days after (Columbian Centinel (Boston, MA), Oct 20, 1824, p. 2).”
Jonathan’s legacy includes having Dayton, Ohio, named after him although he “never set foot in the area.” When the city was established in 1796, he was in a partnership that owned 250,000 acres in the Great Miami River Basin. His legacy also includes the Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield Township, Union County, New Jersey; the Dayton neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey; and Dayton Street in Madison, Wisconsin.
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