Revolutionary Village

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Wrote the Duc du Lauzun, a commander of Rochambeau’s hussars, “Siberia alone can be compared to Lebanon. . . .”

In 1776 Williams was chosen to go to Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, where he served on the Council of Safety and signed the Declaration of Independence. Williams’s outspokenness is legendary. When Benjamin Huntington, a member of the Council of Safety, remarked, “I am in no danger of being hanged, for I have neither signed the Declaration nor written anything against the British government,” Williams barked, “Then, sir, you deserve to be hanged for not doing your duty!”

Williams did his duty for the colonial troops, frequently paying their wages out of his own pocket. To help his father-in-law, he sent his own beef and pork to Valley Forge at no charge, saying that “if independence should be established, I should get my pay; if not, the loss would be of no account to me.” Williams retired in 1804, died in 1811, and is buried in Lebanon beneath a marble tablet that reads, in part, “he had the inexpressible satisfaction to look back upon a long, honorable, and well-spent life.”

One more building just off the green deserves mention. This is the one-and-a-half-story Beaumont Homestead, the birthplace and early home of William Beaumont. Born in 1785 and schooled in Lebanon, Beaumont left the village at the age of twenty-one to teach school in upstate New York. After getting his medical training under a local doctor, he joined the Army, serving first in the War of 1812 and then at Fort Mackinac in Michigan. There on June 6, 1822, a young French-Canadian fur trapper, Alexis St. Martin, was accidentally wounded in a shotgun blast that left a gaping hole in his left side. Beaumont dressed the wound but gave the victim up as lost. Surprisingly, St. Martin pulled through, but his stomach remained open providing a “window” through which Beaumont began his study of the digestive process. Beaumont kept St. Martin under observation off and on for eleven years (with a modest annual stipend), using the “window” to conduct an innovative series of experiments. The result was his classic book Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (1833). It was published worldwide, later winning praise even from the great Canadian physician Sir William Osier, who called Beaumont “the first [American doctor] to make a contribution of enduring value. . . .”

 
 
In 1979 the Lebanon Green Historic District was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1970 members of the Beaumont Medical Club of Yale’s School of Medicine established the Beaumont Homestead Preservation Trust, and in 1973 it bought the doctor’s birthplace. It was then in a wooded area, distant from town, and, fearing vandalism, the club moved it to a site behind the Jonathan Trumbull House and furnished it with period furniture. A small rear room off the kitchen is outfitted as an early-nineteenth-century doctor’s office, complete with a bullet extractor, two bleeding cups, an empty bottle that once contained “Lawrence’s Carminative or Child’s Pain Killer,” and Dr. Beaumont’s own trunk, all of which serve to evoke his work.

In 1979 the Lebanon Green Historic District—consisting of about fifty buildings and 345 acres—was entered into the National Register of Historic Places: two structures, the Jonathan Trumbull House (John Trumbull Birthplace) and the William Williams House, have been declared National Historic Landmarks. Dozens of houses in town date to the colonial era (the oldest was built around 1700).

A stroll along the green, with stops at the many restored houses, makes one recall the dour senior Trumbull’s remark to his son John: “Connecticut is not Athens.” The old governor was then trying to discourage the young painter from a career in the arts. One is happy he was unsuccessful, just as one is happy at the accuracy of his observation. For if Lebanon assuredly isn’t Athens, it also assuredly has its own visual appeal and its own place in American history. Sheltered and shaded by ancient maples, Lebanon still looks much as it did two hundred years ago, when the town’s citizens began to fashion the American Republic.