William Samuel Johnson was one of the best educated of the Founding Fathers. His knowledge of the law led him to oppose taxation without representation as a violation of the colonists’ rights as Englishmen, but his strong ties with Great Britain made renunciation of the King personally reprehensible. Torn by conflicting loyalties, he remained neutral during the Revolution, speaking out only against extremism on both sides. Once George III accepted American independence, however, Johnson felt released from his allegiance and readily committed his considerable intellectual abilities to the strengthening of the new nation. Fellow delegate William Pierce said of him, “Johnson possesses the manners of a Gentleman and engages the Hearts of Men by the sweetness of his temper, and that affectionate style of address with which he accosts his acquaintance …. eloquent and clear, always abounding with information and instruction, . . . [He is] one of the first classics in America.”
Johnson was already a prominent figure before the Revolution. The son of a well-known Anglican clergyman and later president of King’s (Columbia) College, Johnson received his primary education at home. He then graduated from Yale College in 1744, going on to receive a master’s degree from his alma mater in 1747 (as well as an honorary degree from Harvard the same year). Although his father urged him to enter the clergy, Johnson decided instead to pursue a legal career. Self-educated in the law, he quickly developed an important clientele and established business connections extending beyond the boundaries of his native colony. He also held a commission in the Connecticut colonial militia for over 20 years, rising to the rank of colonel, and he served in the lower house of the Connecticut legislature (1761 and 1765) and in the upper house (1766 and 1771-75). He was a member as well of the colony’s supreme court (1772-74).
Johnson was first attracted to the Patriot cause by what he and his associates considered Parliament’s unwarranted interference in the government of the colonies. He attended the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and served on the committee that drafted an address to the King arguing the right of the colonies to decide tax policies for themselves. He opposed the Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767 to pay for the French and Indian War and supported the non-importation agreements devised by the colonies to protest taxation without representation.
As the Patriots became more radical in their demands for independence, Johnson found it difficult to commit himself wholeheartedly to the cause. Although he believed British policy unwise, he found it difficult to break his own connections with the mother country. A scholar of international renown, he had many friends in Britain and among the American Loyalists. As the famous English author, Samuel Johnson, said of him, “Of all those whom the various accidents of life have brought within my notice, there is scarce anyone whose acquaintance I have more desired to cultivate than yours.” He was also bound to Britain by religious and professional ties. He enjoyed close associations with the Anglican Church in England and with the scholarly community at Oxford, which awarded him an honorary degree in 1766. He lived in London from 1767 to 1771, serving as Connecticut’s agent in its attempt to settle the colony’s title to Indian lands.
Fearing the consequences of independence for both the colonies and the mother country, Johnson sought to avoid extremism and to reach a compromise on the outstanding political differences between the protagonists. He rejected his election to the First Continental Congress, a move strongly criticized by the Patriots, who removed him from his militia command. He was also strongly criticized when, seeking an end to the fighting after Lexington and Concord, he personally visited the British commander, General Thomas Gage. The incident led to his arrest for communicating with the enemy, but the charges were eventually dropped.
Johnson’s pro-peace activities apparently never seriously damaged his prestige. He served as a legal counsel for Connecticut in its dispute with Pennsylvania over western lands (1779-80) and was nominated by Joseph Reed, president of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania), to succeed him as head of the college.
Once independence was achieved, Johnson felt free to participate in the government of the new nation, serving in the Continental Congress (1785-87). His influence as a delegate was recognized by his contemporaries. Jeremiah Wadsworth wrote of him to a friend, “Dr. Johnson has, I believe, much more influence than either you or myself. The Southern Delegates are vastly fond of him.”
Johnson played a major role as one of the Convention’s most important and respected delegates. His eloquent speeches on the subject of representation carried great weight during the debate. He looked to a strong federal government to protect the rights of Connecticut and the other small states from encroachment by their more powerful neighbors. To that end he supported the so-called New Jersey Plan, which called for equal representation of the states in the national legislature.
In general, he favored extension of federal authority. He argued that the judicial power “ought to extend to equity as well as law” (the words “in law and equity” were adopted at his motion) or, in other words, that the inflexibility of the law had to be tempered by fairness. He denied that there could be treason against a separate state since sovereignty was “in the Union;” and he opposed prohibition of any ex post facto law, one which made an act a criminal offense retroactively, because such prohibition implied “an improper suspicion of the National Legislature.”
Johnson was influential even in the final stages of framing the Constitution. He gave his fullest support to the Connecticut Compromise, which foreshadowed the final Great Compromise that devised a national legislature with a Senate that provided equal representation for all states and a House of Representatives based on population. He also served on the Committee of Style, which framed the final form of the document.
Johnson played an active role in Connecticut’s ratification process, emphasizing the advantages that would accrue to the small states under the Constitution. He was especially proud of the document’s legal clauses, in which “the force, which is to be employed, is the energy of Law; and this force is to operate only on individuals, who fail in their duty to their country.”
As one of Connecticut’s first senators (1789-91), Johnson took an active part in shaping the Judiciary Act of 1789, a critical law that established the details of the federal judiciary system. He also supported Hamiltonian measures that sought to strengthen the role of the executive in the federal government, but voted against giving the President the power to remove cabinet officers without senatorial approval. Johnson had become president of Columbia College in 1787, and when the federal government moved from New York to Philadelphia at the end of the First Congress, he retired from public office to retain his position at the school.
As president of Columbia to 1800, Johnson recruited faculty members and established the school on a firm financial basis. While maintaining the school’s strongly religious spirit, he did much to improve its prestige and reputation for scholarship. As a prominent Anglican layman, he also helped reorganize the church under a new, American episcopate.
He was born on 7 October 1727, in Stratford, Connecticut and passed on 14 November 1819, in Stratford, Connecticut. He is buried in the Old Episcopal Cemetery in Stratford, Connecticut.