Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The real-life namesake of Martin Sheen's 'West Wing' president

May 19, 2016 by NCC Staff


Did you know that Martin Sheen’s character on The West Wing was named after a Founding Father who played a key role in the Declaration of Independence and  passed away on this day in 1795?

bartlettThe original Josiah Bartlett was one of the first to speak up to approve the break from Great Britain in 1776 in Philadelphia. Sheen’s character, the modern-day Josiah Bartlet (with one T), was said to be a descendant of the Declaration’s second signer.

The Founding Father version had a life worthy of his own movie, with parallel careers as a doctor and a patriot. Josiah Bartlett had an important role in the founding of New Hampshire, and he held most of the important offices in the state until his death on May 19, 1795, at the age of 65.

Today, aside from the connection to the TV show, Bartlett is best known as the second person to sign the Declaration, after John Hancock.

As the representative from New Hampshire, the most northern of the states represented at the meeting, Bartlett was the first to cast a vote approving independence at the Continental Congress.

His path to Philadelphia started in Massachusetts, where he was born in 1729. Bartlett moved to New Hampshire, studied medicine and opened his practice at the age of 21.

Bartlett also became involved in public service and politics, serving as a justice, militia leader, and legislator.

In 1774, Bartlett was elected to the Continental Congress, but a mysterious fire destroyed his home (possibly started by Loyalists). Bartlett built a new house on the same site and then headed to Philadelphia.

He worked behind the scenes in Philadelphia by serving on most committees as a delegate from New Hampshire. Bartlett also played a role on drafting the Articles of Confederation before he left Congress to return home to New Hampshire in 1778 to manage his farm and maintain his medical practice.

For the rest of his career, Bartlett served on New Hampshire’s Supreme Court; became that court’s chief justice; helped to ratify the Constitution in New Hampshire; declined an appointment to the U.S. Senate; and became the state’s governor.

Bartlett also practiced medicine for 45 years and founded the New Hampshire Medical Society in 1790.

Recent Stories on Constitution Daily

Philly’s convention history: When Republicans ruledPlessy’s place in the list of worst Supreme Court decisionsOn this day, Abraham Lincoln is GOP nominee in an upset

Sign up for our email newsletter