If he hadn’t died from smallpox three months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he would have been one of our nation’s founding fathers. This cruel twist of fate left the story of his legacy incomplete and the man almost forgotten. He was Samuel Ward and his farm house stood where the Langworthy Bed and Breakfast is today.
He was a co-founder of America’s first party system, one of the founders of Brown University, the two-time governor of Rhode Island, Chief Justice of Rhode Island, twice elected to the Continental Congress, and a Revolutionary War leader.
Samuel Ward was born in 1725 in Newport. He was the son of the earlier Rhode Island Governor, Richard Ward, and the ninth of fourteen children. He was 25-years-old when he married Anna Ray of Block Island and Anna Ray’s father left her a dowry which consisted of 600 acres of farmland in Westerly.
He entered politics in 1756 when he was elected one of Westerly’s two deputies to the Rhode Island General Assembly. He soon took sides in the hard-money vs. paper-money controversy, favoring hard money. His primary rival over the money issue was Providence politician Stephen Hopkins and the two men became bitter rivals, alternating as governors of the colony for several terms. Later both men would become friends and represent Rhode Island as delegates to the Continental Congress.
Ward was first elected governor in 1762. The most contentious issue he faced during his three years as governor involved the Stamp Act, which had been passed by the British Parliament. The Stamp Act placed a tax on all official documents and newspapers infuriating the American colonists by being done without their consent. Representatives of the colonies met to discuss the act but when it came time for the colonial governors to take a position, Ward was the only one who stood firm against the act, threatening his political position but bringing him recognition as a great patriot.
After his final term as governor, Ward retired to his estate in Westerly. He became active again in 1774 when the freemen of Providence formally proposed a Continental Congress for the union of the colonies; thus Rhode Island became the first colony to do so. The General Assembly met the following month in Newport and they elected Samuel Ward and Stephen Hopkins as delegates to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Both were elected again in 1775 to the second Continental Congress. At the Continental, Ward served on several important committees including the Committee on Secrets and was frequently selected as chairman presiding over the Congress. He devoted all of his energy to the Continental Congress until his untimely death from smallpox.
Ward died a little more than three months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. He was originally buried in Philadelphia but in 1860 was reinterred in the Common Burying Ground in Newport, Rhode Island. Yale president Ezra Stiles listed the men “of greatest abilities and influence in the Continental Congress” in order of importance, and he thought Samuel Ward was third after Samuel and John Adams.
Ward was a visionary and knew the consequences of the Revolutionary War but thought that independence was worth any sacrifice. He wrote;
“When I first entered this contest with Great Britain, I extended my view through the various scenes which my judgment or imagination pointed out to me. I saw clearly that the last act of this cruel tragedy would close in fields of blood.
I have traced the progress of this unnatural war through burning towns, devastation of the country and every subsequent evil. I have realized with regard to myself, the bullet, the bayonet, and the halter; and, compared with the immense object I have in view, they are all less than nothing…. Heaven save my country is my first, my last, and almost my only prayer.”
After Ward’s death, William Ellery of Newport, an attorney, and later U.S. Customs House Collector, was selected by Rhode Island to serve as a stand-in for Ward at the Congress. Ellery, along with Stephen Hopkins, signed the Declaration of Independence. In John Trubull’s famous 1819 painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Hopkins is standing in the back row with a hat, Ellery is just to his right. This would have been Samuel Ward’s place.
In 1937, the Town of Westerly honored Governor Ward’s memory by dedicating its new high school to him but later changed the name to Westerly High School. Now only the high school’s main auditorium honors the former governor’s name with a large brass plaque. At one time Winnapaug Pond was named Ward Pond but that name was also later changed.
The road that formerly fronted the main building of the current high school campus is still named Ward Avenue. That, at least, has not been changed. There is also a bronze plaque erected in 1904 at the site of the Ward Farm on Shore Road but it honors his son, Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Ward, not Samuel Ward Sr. It seems the honorable Samuel Ward Sr. can’t get any respect around here.
For a man who did so much for his state and country to be so little recognized in the town and state where he lived seems a shame. Every Fourth of July in Newport’s Common Burial Ground, as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Ellery’s grave is honored by the Newport Artillery with the Sons of the American Revolution standing in attendance. Nearby lays the almost entirely forgotten grave of Samuel Ward, remembered only by a few.
Ward’s death in Philadelphia in March, 1776, just weeks before he would have signed his name to the Declaration of Independence seems, in this light, almost a tragedy in the classic sense.