Trumbull: A Revolutionary man

Two years ago on a bright blue October day, I headed for Trumbull Highway in Lebanon to attend a birthday party for a 300-year-old. The celebration, sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution, honored Jonathan Trumbull, Connecticut's governor when we broke from England.

The program included tours of Trumbull's home, depictions of cavalry life, a professional storyteller and a ceremonial cake-cutting. I think the whole town was there, from senior citizens on canes to adorable little children in period costumes romping on the grass.

Jonathan Trumbull thought the English had only themselves to blame for the mess in Boston. They'd bungled every situation, instituting draconian measures when a lighter touch might have prevented the collapse of British-American relations. After Lexington and Concord, General Gage sent Jonathan a message seeking his support in quelling the dissent. Jonathan considered the British presence in America evil and rebuffed Gage's overture, noting bluntly that the behavior of British troops in Boston would "disgrace even barbarians." Right after hearing "the shot heard round the world," he'd opened his store and personally handed out supplies to militiamen heading for Boston. These would be the hardest years of Jonathan's life, years that would turn a failed business man into an American hero.

Jonathan had studied for the ministry at Harvard, but his plans changed when his fmaily needed him to assume greater responsibility in the family business. Jonathan built an extensive trade but fell into debt by over-extending credit. His political career and social position (his wife was descended from New England aristocracy, John and Priscilla Alden) demanded an affluent-appearing lifestyle, but to keep his creditors at bay, Jonathan had to resort to evasions.

A better politician than businessman, Jonathan served in the General Assembly, was elected lieutenant governor in 1766, and became governor in 1769. As a leader he faced severe crises.

In 1778 George Washington wrote an urgent letter from Valley Forge, begging Jonathan to help supply his starving troops. Washington acknowledged that his request was beyond the governor's probable ability to fulfill, but asked him to do what he could. In response Jonathan spearheaded the effort to collect 300 head of cattle and have them driven from Hartford to Pennsylvania, the first of several cattle-drives. The desperate soldiers reduced that first herd to a pile of bones in just a few days.

In Morristown, Washington's quarters the next winter, starvation was a deadly enemy again. Jonathan supplied beef, flour, salt and rum, but this effort was much harder. The value of Continental currency had plummeted, and farmers were reluctant to sell their goods for increasingly worthless paper.

In 1780, two years after France formed an alliance with America, Jonathan was asked to help provision the French army who had landed in Newport. Supplying state militiamen and the Continental army was challenging enough; feeding foreign troops seemed impossible. But farmers welcomed the opportunity to be paid in French gold, and Jonathan came through again.

It's not right when brave people in dire situations are hit with personal tragedies; fate should have a better sense of fair play. During these hard years, Jonathan's daughter, wife and one of his sons died. Yet despite grief and an intractable burden of debt, Jonathan seems to have died contented.

When his son, John, expressed a desire to study art, Jonathan observed, like parents everywhere who hope against hope their child will do something practical with his life, "Connecticut isn't Athens." This didn't deter his son, who went on to become the artist of the revolution. Although John may now be better known, Jonathan is well remembered in his own right.

If you attend this year's birthday bash (Oct. 13), you'll be in the elite if ghostly company of some of the Who's Who of the Revolution. I doubt Jonathan was much of a party animal, but I think he'd have liked these celebrations. I picture him watching the happy crowds and being moved by the magnitude of his legacy.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.


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