Controversy surrounds the story of John Sullivan’s life. Yet he is among the representative Americans of his time—generous to a fault, jealous of his personal honor, optimistic, gregarious, ambitious, and “larger than life.”
John Sullivan (1740-1795), lawyer, entrepreneur, soldier, and political leader of New Hampshire during and after the American Revolution. Both a commercial and a military Federalist, who had learned in the Continental Congress and in the American army to loathe everything in state and national government that was “disorganized and diffuse.” A proud, fierce, and pompous man, driven (according to his modern biographer) by “an ambition that soared beyond his abilities”: a desire to be an even greater man than he was. Born in the town of Somersworth, New Hampshire, in the township of Rollinsford, just across the Salmon Falls River from Berwick, Maine. Son of John (Owen) Sullivan of County Limerick, Ireland, and of Margery Browne Sullivan of County Cork, who came to New England as redemptioners. As reported in family tradition, grandson of Major Philip O’Sullivan of Ardea, a Jacobite officer who died in the service of James II. Educated by his father, a schoolmaster, and in the chambers of Samuel Livermore. By 1760 married and established in Durham, New Hampshire. A great success, worth (according to John Adams) at least £10,000 by 1774, with six mills (for grist, batting, fulling, and grinding of scythes), a fine house, and a number of slaves to row his personal barge. But in the midst of a pattern of contention and abuse even in these early years, litigious and hated by many for his prosecutions for debt. Twice almost killed by mobs determined to take either his life or his papers. The target of a petition to the General Court of the colony which charged that he conducted his business “with a view of making his Fortune out of the Ruin of the poor harmless people….” Nevertheless, a respected, often popular figure, a leader of the New Hampshire bar and major in the colonial militia. Always a conservative, but a Whig—a violent Irish Protestant, with no inherited reverence for English authority. Elected by Durham to be a member of New Hampshire’s First Provincial Congress, which met at Exeter on July 21, 1774. Chosen by that body to be one of the two delegates from his commonwealth to the First Continental Congress, where he quickly aligned himself with John and Samuel Adams, the most prominent advocates of national independence. Propelled by these events to play a large role on the national stage—a role to which he gave himself without reservation.
John Sullivan, his eyes opened to the meaning of the rapidly unfolding conflict with England by his experience in the Congress, returned to New Hampshire and, upon receipt of a warning that British troops were on their way, led a raid on Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth harbor in December of 1774. Powder and guns were carried away for concealment in the countryside—and the authority of the royal governor, John Wentworth, forever destroyed. The Second Provincial Congress of New Hampshire returned John Sullivan to be their representative in the Continental Congress. They signed the Association recommended to them as the reflection of a new national will and were proud when the Second Continental Congress, on June 22, 1775, appointed their spokesman to be a brigadier-general in the newly organized American army besieging the British garrison in Boston.
Sullivan threw himself into his new military responsibilities as if he had been a soldier all of his life. After good service in a number of minor actions around Boston and brief duty in organizing the defenses of Portsmouth, he was dispatched to Canada, where, following the death of General John Thomas, he assumed command. Sullivan did a fine job in retiring before a stronger British force but was relieved by Horatio Gates in July, 1776. Here his disposition to be sensitive to slights and to take offense at criticism took over. He attempted to resign but was dissuaded by the leaders of the Congress and promoted to the rank of major-general. In the Long Island campaign of that summer, Sullivan’s command, on Washington’s left, was overrun, and the New Hampshire general captured; isolated in a cornfield by Hessians, brought to bay with a pistol in each hand.
Sullivan was treated with respect by his enemies and an exchange with a British officer was soon arranged. But first Lord Howe attempted to use his American prisoner to open negotiations with the Congress. After this brief venture in diplomacy, Sullivan returned to the field for the final stages of the New York campaign, participated in the retreat across New Jersey and then distinguished himself for valor and leadership under fire at Trenton and Princeton. In the opinion of contemporaries he seemed “brave almost to the extent of folly” but possessed by “a certain arrogant manner” which” led him to take on duties which tact would have left in other hands.” Hence, he was frequently involved in quarrels concerning rank and precedence and was a target of censure for those members of Congress who were uneasy at the prospect of military rule.
General Sullivan, after an interlude in New Hampshire (where he influenced the formation of a viable state government), led an expedition against British posts on Staten Island. The results of this raid were indeterminate and a military inquiry into the conduct of its commander was demanded by political critics such as Thomas Burke of North Carolina. But before this investigation could be arranged, the American army had to face an invasion of Pennsylvania and major battles with Lord Howe at Brandywine and Germantown. Sullivan had an important part in both of these engagements. He was almost killed in the first when his division, caught while moving, collapsed around him and his horse was shot from under him while he rallied green troops. In the second he commanded the American spearhead in an eastward thrust against Howe’s camp outside Philadelphia. Fog disorganized the assault and Sullivan was forced to withdraw and regroup. But not before he had been at the center of more furious fighting for which he was commended by soldiers on both sides of the line. Exoneration before a military court followed Germantown. But the pressures of months of bickering with his critics had disoriented the excitable and mercurial soldier from New England. In the words of William Plumer, John Sullivan was as “greedy of flattery” as any man he had ever known. He was not only vain of his person, but also moody; and, when in distress, fond of the bottle. He required more praise and less censure. Therefore, in the spring and summer, fall and winter of 1777, Sullivan drank, suffered from his ulcer, and poured out his sorrows in letters of complaint to his commander. Washington replied, “No other officer of rank, in the whole army, has so often conceived himself to be neglected, slighted and ill-treated, as you have done, and none I am sure had had less cause than yourself to entertain such ideas.”
In the spring of 1778, General Sullivan was given an independent command in Rhode Island with orders to cooperate with a French expedition under the Comte d’Estaing in driving the British from the state. Because a storm damaged the French fleet, Sullivan was exposed near Newport but fought the British garrison of the island to a standstill while they attempted to take advantage of their numerical superiority. Frustrated, Sullivan then withdrew in good order. His reflections on the conduct of his allies produced another chapter in the turbulent history of his struggle against “disappointment and injustice.” But before this tension could develop into a drama of its own, John Sullivan was once again transferred, this time to fight the Iroquois and their Tory allies in Pennsylvania and Western New York. This independent campaign was a success. Sullivan’s troops defeated the Indians near what is now Elmira, burned all of their towns and their food supplies. However, once the campaign was over, there was the usual carping from Sullivan’s political enemies—talk of how he moved his troops as slowly as the “Duke de Sully,” and of the self-serving fustian of his reports to Congress. Moreover, the General made some attacks of his own, particularly on the Board of War, which was supposed to supply his legions in the field. Words flew back and forth. Sullivan fell ill. On November 9, 1779, he offered to resign. To his surprise, this time the offer was accepted. His military career had been honorable, but exasperating. It had also shaped his political thought.
Major-General John Sullivan returned to New Hampshire a military hero to his own people. His presence brought celebrations and an honorary M.A. from Harvard. Predictably, adulation drew him back to the public life. His original plan was to practice law and renovate his mills. But the elders of the commonwealth insisted that a figure of stature was needed to represent it in the controversy over Vermont. Sullivan played an influential role during his 1780-1781 tenure in the Continental Congress. He prevented the annexation of Vermont by New York, prevented action by Congress to judge claims of authority in the disputed territories and then moved the acceptance of the organized community west of the Connnecticut River as an independent state. Sullivan as a member of Congress made friends in the Vermont Grants—connections which sustained him in the rest of his career. And he also cooperated with the French minister, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, in preventing foolish innovations in American foreign policy. He even accepted a small loan from the French diplomat—a gratuity which greatly injured his reputation. Sullivan grew to be more and more contemptuous of his colleagues in the national government during this period of service. He called the Congress “a Body with power & the States the Several Component parts of a Monster with Thirteen Heads.” In this spirit, he was to support the Constitution of 1787 and foster its ratification in New Hampshire.
In 1782, Sullivan returned to his state to serve in its constitutional convention and to begin a four-year term as its Attorney General. In the latter office, he reconciled the western counties on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River to the authority of the state government by traveling through their communities. Sullivan represented his state in a jurisdictional dispute with admiralty courts established by the Congress. He commanded the state militia, attending musters throughout New Hampshire and displaying the very image of legitimate authority in his resplendent uniform (on the general theory that “if we mean to keep our neighbor’s sword in its scabbard, we must whet our own”). His law practice flourished. He stuffed a moose for Jefferson’s French friends. He promoted domestic manufactures. And he was chosen to be Speaker of the House and one of the five councilors to the chief magistrate of his state. But the climax of his career was yet to come—his three terms as President of New Hampshire: terms in office during which his state experienced a crisis in its political character and achieved stability within the Union.
New Hampshire politics in the years 1785-1790 was, at the top, a rivalry between General Sullivan and John Langdon, the state’s spokesman in the Great Convention. Their struggle was serious but factional, not philosophical. The most important issues of these years of economic distress were paper money and debt relief. On these issues Langdon and Sullivan were agreed—in the negative. The latter was first elected President in 1786, after a vigorous canvass of the state and a newspaper war. Langdon had been victorious in 1785 and won again in 1788. Sullivan was re-elected in 1787 and returned for a third term in 1789. In September of 1789, he was appointed United States District Judge for New Hampshire, a post in which he continued until his death. This appointment removed him from the arena of state politics. But not before he had put down a rebellion which threatened the future of his state and managed the campaign for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution by his people.
In Sullivan’s first term as President, during the summer of 1786, petitions from the towns poured down upon the General Court. Conventions were assembled, demanding (in whole or in part) “paper money…equal distribution of property…the annihilation of debts, freedom from taxes, the abolition of lawyers, the destruction of the Inferior Courts [and repeal of the law] authorizing the return of the [Tory] Refugees.” Plumer’s summary of the temper of the mob of hundreds which brought this message to an Exeter meeting of the legislature on September 20, 1786, was that they were “against law and government.” Sullivan endured the armed siege of the Meeting House where the General Court was assembled and, once outside the hall, called up the militia, arrested, and tried the miscreants under military circumstances and then paraded through the state asserting legitimate authority. With New Hampshire headed toward its own version of Shays’ Rebellion and its experiment in self-rule almost at an end, its warrior patriot dealt summarily with the insurrection. In the words of a contemporary who undervalued the service of John Sullivan in this crisis, “we could not have had a better military governor.” Unfortunately, a military governor was what his state needed at the time. There would be no mutiny under John Sullivan’s flamboyant hand. And no breaking of the ranks. Neither would levelers be condoned where he was of the company.
In the spirit of such a commitment against whatever seemed “disorganized or diffuse,” President Sullivan presided over the first session of New Hampshire’s ratification convention at Exeter, February 13-February 22, 1788, and supported his successor, John Langdon, in the second session at Concord, June 18-June 21 of the same year. The Constitution was a check upon anarchy and popular excess—deserving of energetic support, even of a “popular” variety. Sullivan urged approval upon his neighbors. The Constitution was the best that could be devised. He answered Joshua Atherton on the provision for judicial authority in Article III, Section 2, that Congress had the power necessary to limit the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court. He supported the move for adjournment when (in February) it was clear that the Federalists were in a minority. Moreover, his reputation in Western New Hampshire helped sway some delegates from that region to consider voting to ratify, calmed in them the fear of remote authority which the Revolution had engendered in all Americans. Finally, in Concord in the second session, Sullivan is credited with arranging alcoholic civilities which kept a few Antifederalists away from the hall. And with other political arts that gathered a vote here and a vote there. That New Hampshire (with a recommendation of subsequent amendments) accepted the Constitution was due chiefly to the exertions of John Sullivan, Samuel Livermore, Josiah Bartlett, John Langdon and the brothers, John Taylor, and Nicholas Gilman. The explanation of their actions lies chiefly in New Hampshire state politics, not in broad theories concerning the national destiny.
In his last term as President of New Hampshire, John Sullivan had the pleasure of entertaining the President of the United States, George Washington, in a great ball at Portsmouth. He was honored with a Doctor of Laws degree from Dartmouth. Thereafter, decline came swiftly. The General’s mills burned. He fell under a burden of debt, was forced to sell his property, and had to endure undeserved calumny from the children of former friends. In 1795, he rapidly deteriorated into senility brought on by a “nervous disease.” To the end his enemies pursued him, even to the brink of his grave, as General Cilley with a brace of pistols had to protect his burial from interference by creditors. To this day controversy surrounds the story of his life. Yet he is among the representative Americans of his time—generous to a fault, jealous of his personal honor, optimistic, gregarious, a gifted politician, ambitious, venturesome and (though never so often as he would have liked) “larger than life.”
Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1981).
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See Charles P. Whittemore, A General of the Revolution: John Sullivan of New Hampshire [N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1961]; Jere R. Daniell, Experiment in Republicanism: New Hampshire Politics and the American Revolution, 1741-1794 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970]; Otis G. Hammond, ed., The Letters and the Papers of Major General John Sullivan, 3 vols. [Concord: New Hampshire Historical Society Collections, XIII-XV, 1930-1939]; Thomas C. Amory, The Military Services and Public Life of Major-General John Sullivan of the American Revolutionary Army [Boston: Wiggin and Lunt, 1868]; Everett S. Stackpole, History of New Hampshire, 2 vols. [New York: The American Historical Soci ety, 1916]; Thomas C. Amory, General Sullivan Not a Pensioner of Luzerne [Boston: A. Williams and Co., 1875]; William Plumer, “John Sullivan,” pp. 818-826, Early State Papers of New Hampshire, XXI, ed. Albert S. Batchellor [Concord, N.H.: Ira C. Evans, 1892]; Clifford K. Shipton, “John Sullivan,” Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, XIV: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes of 1756-1760 [Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1968], pp. 318-338; Nathaniel Joseph Eiseman, “The Ratification of the Federal Constitution by the State of New Hampshire,” M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1937; Nancy Elaine Briggs Oliver, “Keystone of the Federal Arch: New Hampshire’s Ratification of the United States Constitution,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1972.
The featured image of Major General John Sullivan is provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.