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‘First real president of America’ remembered on his birthday

The 290th birthday of what some historians consider to be the true first leader of the fledgling United States of America was noted in a wreath-laying ceremony in Norwich.

History buffs, government officials and others gathered July 17 at the tomb of Samuel Huntington in the Colonial Norwichtown Burying Ground to recognize the notable accomplishments of the self-taught lawyer as the United States fought for independence from Great Britain and established its own government. The ceremony was presented by the Norwich Historical Society and the Norwich Area Veterans Council.

Huntington was born in Scotland, Connecticut, on July 16, 1731, later moving to Norwich, where he established his law practice. He served in the Second Continental Congress, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was President of the Continental Congress in 1781, when the Articles of Confederation — the predecessor to the U.S. Constitution — was enacted.

It’s this role that prompts many to believe Huntington was really the first Chief Executive to lead the United States.

Huntington later would serve as Connecticut’s governor for 10 consecutive years, before he died on Jan. 5, 1796. His former mansion on East Town Street is now the administrative headquarters of United Community and Family Services.

Area proponents of Huntington’s achievements now organize an annual wreath-laying ceremony at his tomb on his birthday, similar to what the federal government does for former U.S. presidents on their birthdays.

Giving Huntington and the other “Forgotten Founders” who served under the Articles of Confederation their due was a goal of the late Bill Stanley. The Norwich businessman and politician had pushed for the annual wreath-laying observance, as well as a museum to honor Huntington and the other colonial-era leaders.

Stanley’s son, Bill Jr., spoke at this year’s wreath-laying, and noted that his father would be so happy to see the great turn-out at the event.

“He was not afraid to be a champion of unpopular or unlikely causes, “ he said. “While the idea of Huntington being the real first leader of America didn’t gain much traction among many historians, it did raise the funds needed to restore Huntington’s tomb.”

The crumbling brick facade of the tomb was repaired in 2003, at a cost of $30,000. It meant the remains of Huntington and his wife had to be exhumed while the work took place.

Former State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni supervised the project, and related some stories about it during the wreath-laying.

“Huntington seemed to be a quite muscular man, which you don’t expect from a lawyer and diplomat,” he said. “Maybe working at his father’s farm in Scotland during his youth helped him develop strong muscles. He did seem to have a dislocated shoulder.”

Bellantoni said Huntington’s wife, Martha, suffered from a severe arthritic condition in her knees, and today, would’ve been a prime candidate for a knee replacement operation.

He added a couple of wrongs were corrected when Huntington and his wife’s remains were re-interred. Bellantoni says Huntington never received a 21-gun salute as was the custom when he was first buried in 1796, because the wife of the current governor was expecting a child and it was thought the gunfire would startle her. Also, when Huntington’s body was first entombed, his coffin was inappropriately placed head-first instead of feet-first. It prompted the Governor’s Foot Guard to make a 180-degree turn of the coffin inside the tight space of the tomb, which Bellantoni said “would have jostled Huntington’s body inside.”

Bellantoni joked he almost was trapped inside the tomb when the re-internment occurred. After the coffin was back inside, donors to the tomb renovation project were allowed to start bricking-up the opening.

“I began to hear crashing sounds, and I had to yell out that I was still inside,” he laughed. “I’m sure some people thought it was Huntington’s voice they were hearing!’”

Bellantoni said he got out okay, and added, “I consider myself to be the last person to come out of Huntington’s tomb alive.”

“It was a wonderful project to be a part of,” he said.

Other dignitaries at the ceremony paid their respects to Huntington.

State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-47th, a self-described student of history, said Huntington was “one of my true heroes.” He said the delegates to the 1776 convention in Philadelphia that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence suddenly faced the question of what type of government to set up to tie 13 very diverse states together.

“Who did they look to? Samuel Huntington,” said Dubitsky. “Huntington was the glue that kept the Articles of Confederation going, until it was signed. They all looked to this one man from Norwich. He was the nation’s first president.”

A new 35-foot flagpole was dedicated during the wreath-laying ceremony. It’s in memory of Robert Murphy, a local Vietnam veteran and member of the Norwich Area Veterans Council who died last October. Murphy was instrumental in getting the flag pole for Huntington’s tomb.

Veterans Council President Brian Hague says a 30-foot pole the group had was apparently stolen, so the Illinois-based Huntington Family Association stepped in and obtained the slightly higher pole. A U.S. flag that had flown above the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. was raised during the ceremony.

Veterans Council member and former Connecticut State Troubadour Tom Callinan performed several songs, including one he wrote about Samuel Huntington. Members of the Color Guard of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and Brown’s Artillery provided ceremonial cannon and musket fire during the ceremony. Famed General George Washington re-enactor John Koopman III appeared in period military garb.

Kevin Gorden lives in Norwich.

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