Connecticut

Samuel Huntington, First President…of the United States?

Samuel Huntington wasn’t as educated as John Adams or as brilliant a speaker Patrick Henry, but he was a hard worker with an unflappable manner. For those qualities the Continental Congress elected him president on Sept. 28, 1779.

Some historians call him the first president of the United States. He served as president of the Continental Congress when the Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781. That document created the new republic.

Samuel Huntington, portrait by Charles Wilson Peale. Courtesy Samuel Huntington Historical Trust.

The Continental Congress, later the United States in Congress Assembled, actually had 16 presidents. The first was Peyton Randolph, the last, Cyrus Griffin.

Modest Beginnings

Samuel Huntington was born July 16, 1731,  one of Nathaniel and Mehetabel Huntington’s 10 children, in what is now Scotland, Conn.

He didn’t receive much formal education. and at 16 he apprenticed to a cooper. But he continued to study on his own, borrowing books from his pastor and local lawyers. He was admitted to the bar in 1754 and moved to Norwich, Conn., to practice law. He married Martha Devotion in 1761.

They made an unpretentious couple. Though unable to have children of their own, they had a large circle of family and friends. They adopted a son, Samuel H. Huntington, elected governor of Ohio.

And by the time he reached 30, Samuel Huntington had distinguished himself as a lawyer.

Cautious, Reticent, Conservative

An early history of Norwich, Conn., recalls Mrs. Huntington. She wore “a white short gown and stuff petticoat, and clean muslin apron, with a nicely starched cap on her head. She “would take her knitting and go out by two o’clock in the afternoon, to take tea unceremoniously with some respectable neighbor, the butcher’s or blacksmith’s wife, perhaps.”

That, however, happened in earlier days, before her husband served as president of Congress or governor of Connecticut.

The Connecticut Society of the Sons of the Revolution described him as a man of “cautious, reticent and conservative temperament.” Nonetheless, he joined the Sons of Liberty in opposing the Stamp Act. He hesitated over further strong dissent until Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in 1774 to protest the Boston Tea Party.  That inspired many moderates, including Huntington, to take a more active role.

A depiction of the Second Continental Congress voting on the United States Declaration of Independence.

He served as president during a severe economic downturn and military defeats. Exactly two years after the Congress elected him president, the Siege of Yorktown began.

Samuel Huntington birthplace.

By then, he had already resigned due to ill health on July 9, 1781 and returned home to Connecticut. He was named chief justice of the state Superior Court in 1784.  Connecticut then elected him lieutenant governor in 1785 and governor from 1786-1796. He also built a mansion off the Norwichtown Green, now United and Community Family Services, Inc.

Samuel Huntington died Jan. 5, 1796. His birthplace, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, opens to the public in the summer.

This story was updated in 2021.

Image of Samuel Huntington birthplace: By Jerry Dougherty – http://public.fotki.com/GCDOUGHERTY/all-towns-and-cities/scotland_ct/scotland_huntington.html, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28945510.

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