The only Founding Father who in 1776 was not in favor of independence, William Johnson (1727-1819) grew into a strong supporter of the new nation. He helped draft the Constitution, signed it, and stoutly defended it at the Connecticut Ratification Convention.
Although he attended the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and served as a special agent for Connecticut in England, Johnson during these years was firmly convinced that the colonies and Great Britain would settle their differences. His stay in London, where he associated with Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great critic and lexicographer, and other notables, undoubtedly strengthened his ties with England, although in London he worked closely with Benjamin Franklin, then agent for Pennsylvania and other colonies, in representing colonial interests. And he supported the American policy of non-importation of British goods as a protest against the Townshend Acts. After returning, Johnson was elected to serve in the first Continental Congress, but since he was against the idea of independence, he declined the position. Still devoted to the idea of a peaceful settlement, in 1775 he visited the British commander, General Thomas Gage, in Boston—sent by the Connecticut legislature. His mission was unsuccessful, and he was for a time held by patriots there. He resigned from the Connecticut legislature, and from 1777 to 1779 his refusal to support independence cost him his law practice—which the State permitted him to resume after he swore allegiance to Connecticut.
Despite his tardy adoption of the cause of independence, Johnson was an influential member of the Congress of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention Johnson, a soft-spoken but effective speaker, helped defend and explain the “Connecticut Compromise,” the proposal for representing the States in the Senate and the people in the House of Representatives that was finally adopted—to settle the dispute between the large and small States.
The scholarly Johnson, who was one of the colonies’ leading classicists and who was then serving as president of Columbia College, was chairman of the committee on style that produced the final version of the Constitution—though Gouverneur Morris wrote most of it. He eloquently defended the Constitution at the Connecticut Ratification Convention, and, after ratification, his state selected him to serve as one of the men to sit in the newly formed Senate on this day in 1791.