Revolutionary Village

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Natives of eastern Connecticut like to say that except for Boston and Philadelphia, the village of Lebanon stands first in America in Revolutionary importance. While that may sound like typical small-town puffery, the remark contains a large measure of truth. Consider the following categories:

Politics? Lebanon produced Jonathan Trumbull, the only man in America so well regarded by his compatriots that he served as governor of a colony and of a state, a man whom George Washington nicknamed, with affectionate respect, Brother Jonathan.

Military? Most local historians deem Brother Jonathan vital to the war effort, for the aged governor turned Connecticut into a supply center for the patriot troops. Washington himself wrote, “But for Jonathan Trumbull, the war could not have been carried to a successful conclusion.”

 
What makes Lebanon remarkable is that it takes so little imagination to get a sense of history there.

The fine arts? John Trumbull, the youngest son of Brother Jonathan, is generally regarded as the preeminent painter of the Revolution. He was, moreover, an architect, among the very first to bring neoclassicism to the New World.

Medicine? William Beaumont, born in Lebanon in 1785, pioneered the study of physiology in the United States. His 1833 book Experiments and Observations on . . . Digestion is still viewed as a model of scientific research.

Even the landscape of the town is superlative. Its mile-long, hundred-acre green is the largest such swath in New England. What makes a visit to Lebanon, located about thirty miles southeast of Hartford and twenty miles north of New London, a remarkable experience is that it takes so little imagination to get a sense of history there. The various Trumbull houses still stand, and many are regularly open to the public, as are Dr. Beaumont’s birthplace, a brace of houses associated with William Williams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the only remaining building designed by John Trumbull. More surprising, little seems to have been added. The town still looks remarkably as it did in the eighteenth century, when it was a few frame houses hammered together against the wilderness.

Settlers began filtering into the hardwood forests and swamps that mark east-central Connecticut in the 1660s, and by 1705 Lebanon claimed ninety taxable citizens. One of those ninety was Capt. Joseph Trumbull, who had drifted into town the year before. Trumbull took advantage of Lebanon’s fertile ground to become the area’s leading farmer. Then, not satisfied with profits derived from the plow, he bought ships to carry his produce from New London to Europe and to bring back manufactured goods, which he sold at trading fairs on the green.

Trumbull also drove cattle to market in burgeoning Boston. On one such excursion he met Samuel Welles, Lebanon’s pastor and a man of no little self-esteem. Welles, according to legend, was none too pleased to be greeted by a man in the humble garb of a drover and shied off. Later, back home, he called on Captain Trumbull, who declined to shake hands with him, saying, “If you don’t know me in Boston, I don’t know you in Lebanon.”

By the time of Trumbull’s death in 1755 the town had thirty-three hundred residents, which is about as large as Lebanon ever got, at least in terms of population. As far as influence on the national scene is concerned, the town’s great period was just beginning. And for the prime mover and shaker, we must look, as Washington often remarked, to Brother Jonathan, Joseph Trumbull’s second son, born in Lebanon in 1710.

Jonathan received his early lessons in Lebanon and then entered Harvard in 1723. By 1730, having earned his bachelor’s and master of arts degrees, he returned to Lebanon to take up the ministry. That same year he also began a diary in which he casually slipped back and forth among English, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek.

In his diary he advised himself to become an “adventurer for another World,” which is precisely what happened. On December 29, 1731, his father’s brigantine Lebanon set sail carrying Jonathan’s older brother, Joseph, Jr., heir apparent to the Trumbull family businesses. Barbados was the destination, but neither the ship nor young Joseph was ever heard from again. Jonathan was plucked willy-nilly from the rarefied air of theology and dropped into the commercial tumult of Trumbull & Son.