April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
The little town of Lebanon, Connecticut, played a larger role in the Revolution than Williamsburg, Virginia, did. And it’s all still there.
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.”
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.
Jonathan Trumbull became the principal merchant in the booming town, and in 1733 he was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly. Reelected in 1736, he would remain in public service the rest of his life. He flourished domestically as well: In 1735 he courted and married the seventeen-year-old Faith Robinson. She was a good catch, for as her son the painter John Trumbull wrote in his autobiography, she was a “great granddaughter of John Robinson, the father of the pilgrims, who led our Puritan ancestors . . . out of England.” Then, as now, being a Mayflower descendant carried weight in New England.
About 1755 the Trumbulls moved into the large two-story frame house that still fronts Lebanon’s green. The exterior sports elegant fluted pilasters beside the front door and pediments above the door and windows, flourishes almost certainly added to the original, simpler building, probably by the local builder Isaac Fitch. In 1785 Trumbull wrote the mayor of New London praising Fitch as “the best Architect within the compass of my acquaintance.” Fitch was born in Lebanon in 1734, and it is probably safe to assume he was self-taught, learning architecture, as was usual at the time, from books.
In 1758 Trumbull hired Fitch to work on the family office and shop next to the house. Trumbull’s ledgers reveal total payment to Fitch of sixty-three pounds, a figure so high one must assume Fitch either repaired virtually every nail and joist or else built a completely new structure. In either event, the shop, maintained by the Sons of the American Revolution and open to the public, still stands abutting the green. It was from here that Jonathan Trumbull directed Connecticut’s actions during the Revolution.
Named governor of the colony in 1769, Trumbull grew increasingly suspicious of the British and kept a keen eye out for any infringement of Connecticut’s traditional liberties. When he heard of the battles of Lexington and Concord, he turned the old shop into a provisions center—the War Office—for the American effort and personally set out to raise and equip the local army.
During the course of the conflict, Trumbull kept the patriot cause alive. He convened roughly eleven hundred sessions of the Council of Safety at the War Office, often attended by luminaries such as Franklin, Washington, Lafayette, and Rochambeau. That freezing February at Valley Forge, Washington appealed to all the colonies’ governors for food. Trumbull responded by organizing a cattle drive and sent three hundred head south to the starving troops, who devoured the lot in just five days. So thoroughly had the ravenous horde picked over the animals that the head drover remarked, “You might have made a knife out of every bone.”
Two years later, at Morristown, Trumbull and Lebanon again provided succor and salvation. And Governor Trumbull’s merchant-shipping background proved its worth when he organized the small but potent Connecticut navy. Following War Office orders, Connecticut’s sailors and ships captured more than forty British warships.
The comments of a contemporary give a sense of the man. The Marquis de Chastellux wrote that Trumbull had “all the . . . pedantry becoming the great magistrate of a small republic.” He noted that Trumbull, “a little, old man,” wore the “antique dress of the first settlers of this colony” but wisely concluded that “eccentricities must not imply ineptitude to govern: since it is through character that men govern, and through character also that men acquire eccentricities.”
Faith Robinson Trumbull comes across as a remarkable figure in her own right. Connecticut’s women were constantly raising money and clothes for the American cause. One Sunday at divine service the Lebanon pastor asked for still more donations, but they were slow in coming. Mrs. Trumbull, it is said, rose from her pew and strode to the altar, where she handed over a magnificent scarlet cloak that had been a gift to her from Rochambeau. “For our men,” she said softly, laying the garment over the rail. The other women in the congregation, greatly moved, immediately covered the cloak with rings, brooches, chains, greatcoats, caps, mittens, and boots. Mrs. Trumbull’s cloak was eventually cut into strips to serve as rank stripes on Continental Army uniforms.
When peace came in 1783, Trumbull retired. He died at home, on August 17, 1785, while resting on a daybed. That bed and many other original furnishings have been reassembled for the house by the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose members maintain the building, opening it to the public on a regular basis.
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.
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.”
It is, therefore, fitting that this place-proud man gave Lebanon its Meeting House, the village’s finest work of art. While Trumbull was in London in 1784, Edmund Burke advised him to study architecture because “a young nation” would “soon want public buildings; these must be erected before the decorations of painting and sculpture will be required.” The next year he spent about five weeks living with Thomas Jefferson in Paris, acting, in the words of Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone, as Jefferson’s artistic “guide and mentor.” The two often traveled together to look at French architecture and Roman ruins, doubtless discussing what sorts of buildings would be appropriate to the new nation.
By 1790 Trumbull was in Philadelphia, painting portraits for his historical series. The elders of the city’s First Presbyterian Church approached him about a new building, and Trumbull drew up designs for the first classical structure in Philadelphia. That building, with its elegant Corinthian facade, was demolished in 1821.
In fact, the same harsh fate has befallen all of Trumbull’s architecture, with the single glorious exception of his 1804 Lebanon Meeting House. This building shows that Trumbull had absorbed much on his European trips. He made the main facade into a giant triumphal arch with four whitewashed Doric brick pilasters, a form very much in vogue in Europe at the time and all but unknown in America.
For a generation or two all went well with the Lebanon Meeting House. But in 1871 a new generation Victorianized Trumbull’s pristine interior, bricking over the Palladian window and dividing the once-airy space into two dark stories. In September 1938 a fierce hurricane tore through New England, knocking the steeple backward onto the body of the building and destroying the interior, “almost,” went one account, “as if expressing Providential displeasure with the tampering that had altered Trumbull’s beautiful church.” Gov. Wilbur Cross immediately picked a committee to restore Trumbull’s masterpiece to its former glory, and by 1950 the interior had been entirely reconstructed. The restored church, dedicated on November 28, 1954, today dominates the town, just as intended.
While John Trumbull was traveling across Europe learning the ways of the world, back in Lebanon Isaac Fitch was busy too. Perhaps Fitch’s best work, certainly his most elaborate, was Redwood, a house designed and built for the middle Trumbull brother, David. This son, born in 1751, skipped college to go straight into business, doing his best to keep the firm Trumbull & Son solvent while his father and brothers devoted themselves to politics and fine arts. By 1778 he was sufficiently well-off to marry and build a new house. Curiously, David turned not to his brilliant brother John to build his showplace but to the local artisan Fitch.
Fitch must have been pleased with this commission for an entire building, and it is easy to imagine him thumbing through his English pattern books, by then a generation out of date, marking whatever struck his fancy. He gave Redwood a hipped roof (rare in the state at the time) and a locally unprecedented pent roof between the first and second stories. Inside, Fitch designed a majestic salon flanked by matching double parlorlike spaces to create a plan almost certainly drawn from a plate in one of the books of architecture by James Gibbs, a plan Gibbs would have taken from Palladio.
Furnishing Redwood in wartime was surprisingly simple. John Trumbull wrote his brother David in June 1778 that American privateers had recently captured two British merchant ships and that their cargo was about to be sold in Boston: “there are Goods of the best Quality for the West Indian Market on board [and] you may probably furnish yourself with Curtains, etc., etc., etc. Whatever you wish send me a list.” It is pleasant to think of David Trumbull purchasing goods captured by his father’s privateers.
Redwood was finished by the winter of 1780-81. At the time, Lebanon was playing more or less willing host to a legion of Rochambeau’s hussars under the command of the Duc de Lauzun. Regular troops either camped on the green or stayed in local houses; the duke and his officers had their digs in Redwood. Inexplicably, the duke wasn’t overly pleased with the village, writing, “Siberia alone can be compared to Lebanon, which is composed only of some cottages scattered in the midst of a vast forest.”
Unlike the other Trumbull houses, Redwood has always remained in private ownership, as has the two-story clapboard William Williams House, which faces David Trumbull’s mansion across the southern end of the green. Williams was born in 1731 in Lebanon, the son of Rev. Solomon Williams, an early pastor of the First Congregational Church of Lebanon. The younger Williams graduated from Harvard in 1751 and then set out to earn his living in commerce. In 1771 he married Mary Trumbull, one of the old governor’s two daughters. Like his in-laws, he was drawn into politics: he served as town clerk of Lebanon for forty-four years and represented the town in the General Assembly in Hartford.
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 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 TrumbuH’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.