Once upon a time, in the town of Norwich, a baby was born who, in the future, would command the most important victory in the history of America.
It was 1741 that this little fellow came into the world, and 36 years later, he would command the victory at Saratoga that would literally save America on the battlefield, defeat the greatest power on earth, and by that victory bring the French into the American Revolution, which guaranteed victory.
He was a Norwich boy. His parents are buried in the Colonial Cemetery in Norwichtown. In fact, he fought three battles, any one of which, had he lost, would have spelled defeat for the American cause.
Would you believe this man from Norwich also commanded the first naval battle in American history? He was instructed by the Continental Congress and by George Washington to build a fleet, recruit a navy and 30 marines, and engage the British troops who were invading from the north.
The battle occurred Oct. 11, 1776, around Valcour Island on Lake Champlain. This man from Norwich knew he couldn’t defeat the massive British fleet and the 11,000 troops they carried, so his plan was to delay them. But he actually convinced the British fleet it should return to Canada.
He conducted the first naval battle fought by the United States Navy, and while the outcome of the battle was a destruction of most of the American ships, the campaign was a success because it delayed the British invasion for a full year.
If the British had not been engaged at Valcour Island, they would have captured Fort Ticonderoga, and the next year those troops would have arrived at Valley Forge and defeated America’s small rag-tag army.
So now, looking back at history, the man from Norwich literally saved America twice, and he would do it again one more time.
The British plan was to divide America. Burgoyne’s army from the north, and St. Leger’s British troops, were to invade from the Great Lakes through Albany. But this man from Norwich, known and respected by the Mohawk Indians, convinced the various tribes to turn on the British, and the tribes of the Mohawk Valley not only defeated, but virtually annihilated St. Leger’s army.
Act of Treason
Why is it that Norwich doesn’t lay claim to this man? The reason is simple. His last act was treasonous. He was Benedict Arnold — George Washington’s greatest field general, and his treason was important because he was such a bright, shining sword in the fight for freedom.
Arnold left Norwich in 1761, and, as it would happen, a man, born in what is now Scotland, Conn., who was self-taught, moved his law offices from Willimantic to Norwich in the same year. That man was Samuel Huntington, who was one of only 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, who served as president of the Continental Congress, governor of Connecticut and chief justice. But even more important, Samuel Huntington, under America’s first constitution known as the Articles of Confederation, was the first president of the United States.
True, the presidency then was but a shadow of what it is today, and he lacked authority that today’s presidents have, but under the Articles of Confederation, America became a nation for the first time when all 13 states ratified the Constitution known as the Articles of Confederation.
There are those who say the first Constitution doesn’t count. Yet, years later, when Abe Lincoln was president and the southern states began to secede, there is nothing in today’s Constitution that forbids states leaving, so Lincoln referred back to the first Constitution, The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which clearly stated that once you became part of the United States of America you could not leave, and so the Civil War was fought by the authority of the Articles of Confederation.
I hope in this recitation I am not too dull, but it is undeniably true that the first Constitution said whoever is president of the Congress Assembled shall also serve as president of the United States.
Birth of a Nation
We became a nation for the very first time March 1, 1781, when Maryland became the 13th state to ratify the Articles of Confederation. It was then that we became a nation — no longer the United Colonies of America, but the United States of America.
When we became a nation under the first Constitution, the president of the Congress became president of the United States. Samuel Huntington is that man, and his remains will be honored today at 3 p.m. at Norwich’s Colonial Cemetery.
It is called symbolic wreath-laying, because it is the hope of a new historic organization established in Norwich, The Forgotten Founders, that we continue this symbolic wreath-laying until the United States government recognizes that there were 10 men who served as president before Washington.
Washington was the greatest American who ever lived. He was the first president and is still the only president to receive 100 percent of the electoral college votes. He got us through a war that for anyone else would have been impossible to win. But, on a technical basis, under the first Constitution, the man from Connecticut, born in Scotland, resident of Norwich, was the first president of the United States.
This past Friday, July 10, I celebrated my 80th birthday. I have lived in Norwich all my life, and I love this town and her people. But, I must confess in my old age, that I will never understand why, when we have so many giants of history, and when men from Norwich played such an important role in establishing this great country and winning the impossible war against the British Empire, why does Norwich make so little of her greatness?
Today you are invited to celebrate Norwich’s greatness by honoring Samuel Huntington at the Old Colonial Cemetery in Norwichtown. The Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard, with their fife and drum musical unit, will, with Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, present the ceremonial wreath. It will be done with all honors. Also present, as they are every year, the Unity Drum of Nations of the Mohegan Tribe, and Norwich’s own Tom Callinan, who is Connecticut’s first official troubadour, to sing about our “Uncle Sam” — that is, Samuel Huntington.
It would be so wonderful to bring the children. The program will be brief. It will, of course, be respectful, and it will continue a practice started several years ago. Every president, on the anniversary of their birthday, is presented by the U.S. Marine Corps a presidential wreath. We hope our symbolic effort here in Norwich will one day win the recognition of the nation, and those men who served as president during the Revolution, will be honored with a wreath by the Marines on their birthday.
Bill Stanley’s latest book, the prize-winning “The 9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence & Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, Magazines & More, all branches of the Dime Savings Bank, Chelsea Groton, Eastern Federal, People’s Bank, Johnson’s Flowers and Gift Shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam, or credit card by calling 1-800-950-0331