- Historic Sites
The little town of Lebanon, Connecticut, played a larger role in the Revolution than Williamsburg, Virginia, did. And it’s all still there.
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
As was the case with so many Revolutionary leaders, Trumbull died deep in debt, his thanks for his nearly fifty years of public service. He had picked up the tab for many of the provisions he sent the troops, and his work left him little time to worry about personal affairs. If he had left little cash, however, he did leave descendants no less remarkable than himself.
There was, for example, the Trumbulls’ second son, Jonathan, Jr., born in Lebanon on March 26, 1740. He entered Harvard in 1755, ranked first in his class. That placement is important: in those days Harvard arranged its entering students according to social standing. When Jonathan, Sr., entered, he was number twenty-eight out of thirty-seven; the improved status of Jonathan, Jr., is directly attributable to the early business successes of his father.
The younger Trumbull graduated in 1759 and returned to Lebanon to begin the career of a merchant. He thrived. He also, like his father, was drawn to politics and was chosen to serve as the first comptroller of the U.S. Treasury in 1778. Then, in June 1781, George Washington made him his private secretary and aide-de-camp. He served in Congress from 1789 to 1796. Connecticut’s voters elected him governor in 1798, and he held that office until his death in 1809.
All of John Trumbull’s architecture has been lost, with the glorious exception of his Lebanon Meeting House.
Young Jonathan married in 1767 and had a new home built for himself and his bride soon after. Like his father’s house, it still fronts the green; also like the father’s house, it seems to be the product of a series of remodelings. Young Jonathan’s estate inventory records that a “likeness of his Excellency, Governor Trumbull the Elder and his Lady” hung in the entry, while a “Likeness of the Deceased and his Lady” decorated the North Chamber. Both were valued at forty dollars, and both were by the “Deceased’s” youngest son, John Trumbull.
John was born in the old Trumbull homestead on June 6, 1756. He attended the local Lebanon primary school, proudly calling it “the best school in New England” in his autobiography. Presided over by Nathan Tisdale, “the school was distant from my father’s house not more than three minutes’ walk, across a beautiful Green. . . .” John Trumbull was unquestionably one of the greatest artists of his time, and his fame will endure as long as the Republic, but while he operated on a national scale, he pointedly remained John Trumbull of Lebanon. Love for the town of his birth shines through on every page of the autobiography: “after my return to Lebanon”; “at Lebanon I resumed the pencil”; “I gave up my studies in Boston, and returned to my father’s house in Lebanon. . . .” Even after he achieved world renown, he seems to have felt that being a Trumbull from Lebanon was honor enough for any man. Arrested as a spy in London during the Revolution and treated “in a style so offensive to my feelings,” he cried out: “‘I will put an end to all this insolent folly, by telling you frankly who and what I am. . . . My name is Trumbull; I am a son of him whom you call the rebel governor of Connecticut’ . . . [and] I was immediately, and ever after, treated with marked civility, and even respect.”
Later he met a crusty French general who “asked bluntly, ‘Who are you?—an Englishman?’
“‘No, general, I am an American, of the United States.’
“‘Ah! Do you know Connecticut?’
“‘Yes, sir, it is my native state.’
“‘You know then the good Governor Trumbull.’
“‘Yes, general, he is my father.’
“‘Oh! mon Dieu! que je suis charmé; I am delighted to see a son of Governor Trumbull; entrez; entrez; you shall have supper, bed, everything in the house . . .’
“The old general kept me up almost all night, inquiring of every body and every thing in America, especially of the people in Lebanon. . . .”
In 1780 John wrote his father, “I shall go on to Paris in two days; this is, when I become a Frenchman. . . .” He did go to Paris and did copy the manners of that glittering city, but he stayed a true Yankee through and through. Lebanon and the Connecticut countryside remained for him, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “the constant measure of permanent values” and provided forever his frame of reference: “The country from Epernay is mountainous, much resembling the county of Litchfield”; “We here crossed the river Rhine, which is at this place twice the width of Hartford ferry.” Similar citations could go on and on, all coming to a head in 1784, when he wrote his father from London, “All that pomp with which I am surrounded sinks into contempt when compared with the rational manner at Lebanon.”