Archive for Saturday, March 31, 2001

Other Bartlett now a footnote

March 31, 2001


— A newspaper correspondent wrote that the countryside was "quiet and happy under President Bartlett." One of his colleagues called Josiah Bartlett "a man of integrity, firmness, economy." Most of the politicians of his time made loads of money. Bartlett actually lost money in politics.

Psst. There really was a President Josiah Bartlett.

Long before he lent his name to the president in the NBC drama "West Wing," Josiah Bartlett served as president of New Hampshire, a post known after 1793 as governor. He was one of the leading physicians of his time. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was chief justice of his state.

Today the real Josiah Bartlett is all but unknown, a footnote in American political life, while his namesake is one of the most popular (and most compelling) figures in American cultural life. But the two men one a figure firmly rooted in the 18th century, the other remarkably suited to the 21st century are not as different as they seem.

And therein lies a lesson from the 18th century for the 21st.

The real President Bartlett bore a remarkable resemblance, more in temperament than in appearance, to the character Martin Sheen plays on Wednesday nights. He was strong, ethical, visionary above all, calm. "Josiah Bartlett could not have been better suited to the task of restoring public faith to the institutions of government," wrote Jere Daniell in his classic 1970 study of early New Hampshire, "Experiment in Republicanism."

Bartlett was a reluctant politician, and in any case he was more public servant than politician. He was skeptical of political figures with national ambitions; several times he turned down chances to serve in the Senate. He wasn't impressed with politicians who talked a lot.

And he had a career that preceded his life in politics. The television president was an economist. The real Josiah Bartlett was a physician, based in Kingston, N.H., known for being among the first to use quinine to fight diphtheria and remembered for prescribing cool beverages (often cider) rather than hot regimens for those suffering from fever.

But Bartlett administered even more expertly and intuitively to the body politic.

"I'm very glad that Bartlett existed," says Daniell, who teaches Colonial and revolutionary history at Dartmouth College, not far from where the television politician hopes to locate his presidential library. "He provided a lot of stability to the state."

Bartlett played an important stabilizing role in the era as one of the leading proponents of the notion of using written constitutions to impose limits on government; indeed, the first constitution in America was written in New Hampshire.

Bartlett was known as a moderate, but, as his view on constitutional limits on government shows, he was capable of radical thought. A full month before the Declaration of Independence, he wrote his wife: "I hope the Americans will play the man for their Country & for their all, and that kind providence will give us success & victory that the wickedness and villainy of our enemies will fall on their own heads, and that America may be for ever separated from the tyranny of Britain."

The real Bartlett took his ideas of limited government seriously. In 1792 he told members of the legislature they had carried out their duties so well that he could not think of anything for them to do. They packed their bags and went home. That thought must have been channeled to another New Hampshire governor, John H. Sununu, who, two centuries later, sounded a similar theme while serving as President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff: "If Congress wants to come together, adjourn, and leave, it's all right with us."

Americans may disagree about limits to government the television president is a Democrat and a sometime liberal but they do not disagree about the appeal of the two men. This, too, is a time to restore faith in the institutions of government.

Bartlett lent his name to more than a television character. This village, nestled in the White Mountains, is a living monument to him for an actual statue of Bartlett, you must travel south to Amesbury, Mass. and for two centuries it has offered hospitality to visitors, adventurers, skiers and hikers drawn to Crawford Notch. One of the first, Yale president Timothy Dwight, noted that "the hoary cliffs rising with proud supremacy frowned awfully on the world below." Fortunately, neither President Bartlett nor his television namesake ever took such a stern view.

An aside for purists: You may note that the TV president spells his last name as a frugal New Englander would, sparing the typesetters the final "t" (Bartlet). President Bartlett of New Hampshire, alas, knew no such economies. No matter. President Andrew Jackson once said that he didn't have much respect for anyone who only knew one way to spell a name.

David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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