This Day in History: Oliver Wolcott, signer of the Declaration, passes away

On this day in 1797, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. You might be surprised to hear that Oliver Wolcott did not actually vote “yea” or “nay” on the Declaration. He couldn’t! He wasn’t present for the official vote in Philadelphia. But perhaps he effectively voted in the affirmative with his actions, as he served with Washington’s army in New York.

Wolcott was born to a respected family in Connecticut. He graduated from Yale, but he went directly into military service after college. He served in King George’s War as a militia captain. He then studied medicine for a time, but eventually became sheriff of his county instead. He was a judge for a while, and he sat in the state’s legislature. As America began its break from England, he was a natural candidate for the Continental Congress.

Wolcott was not the most active member of Congress. He was torn between two duties: Not only was he a delegate to Congress, but he was also a military man. He was present for early debates on the Declaration during the summer of 1776, but he soon left Philadelphia because of illness. Once recovered, he did not return to Congress, but he was instead appointed to take several regiments to help defend New York. He was present at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776.

An interesting event occurred in New York that summer. When George Washington received the Declaration of Independence, he had it read to the troops assembled there. Much to General Washington’s chagrin, his troops responded by tearing down a statue of King George III.

Washington appreciated the “Zeal in the public cause,” but he regretted the “appearance of riot, and want of order, in the Army.”

Nevertheless, Wolcott ensured that the leaden statue was put to good use. He reportedly had pieces of the statue transferred to his home in Connecticut. Once there, his wife, children, and neighbors melted the statue down into thousands of bullets.

Following the war, Wolcott served in the state legislature. He negotiated treaties with Indian tribes. He was a member of the Connecticut ratifying convention that approved the Constitution. He was lieutenant governor, then governor, of his state.

He died during his term as governor, yet another Founder who had spent most of his adult life serving his state, his country and the Patriot cause.