Samuel Ward (1725-1776) was born in Newport, one of fourteen children of Governor Richard Ward and Mary (Tillinghast) Ward. He was twice descended (in both paternal and maternal lines) from Roger Williams. His father, a prosperous merchant, served as governor of Rhode Island from 1740 to 1743. Young Sam was destined by his father to be a gentleman farmer and merchant. In 1745, he married Ann Ray of Block Island, who would bear him five sons and six daughters. Moving to the small port town of Westerly to live on land acquired from his father-in-law, he farmed, exported produce to Newport and Boston, and grew wealthy.
Ward’s election in 1756 as a deputy to the General Assembly from Westerly marked the beginning of his public service and the escalation of a political feud between Ward’s faction, led by Newport merchants and South County planters, and a faction centered in Providence and supported by other northern towns, led by Stephen Hopkins, Nicholas Cooke, and the Brown family, who were challenging the old Newport and South County elite. The principal goal of the two factions was to secure control of the legislature to obtain the host of public offices at the disposal of that powerful body. In these circumstances, the governor, as a symbol and party leader, acquired an informal influence far beyond his meager constitutional power. One of the principal architects of that party system, Ward would three times win election as governor–in 1762, 1765, and 1766.
Although he lacked legal training, in 1761, the General Assembly chose him as the colony’s chief justice. In this capacity, and to his discredit, he delivered a decision against the naturalization of those professing the Jewish faith. As a devout Sabbatarian Baptist, he became one of the original trustees of Rhode Island College (now Brown University) in 1764.
Defeated in 1767 for reelection as governor, despite his bold defiance of the Stamp Act–he was the only colonial governor who refused to take the oath to enforce it–Ward retired to Westerly, and by 1770, the Hopkins forces established their political dominance. To add to Ward’s discouragement, his wife Anna died in 1770.
After the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the passage by England of the so-called Intolerable Acts in early 1774, Ward again entered the public arena as an outspoken critic of British policy and as an advocate for establishing intercolonial committees of correspondence to mobilize unified resistance to the mother country. He put aside his differences with Hopkins as both departed for Philadelphia in 1774 to serve in the Continental Congress. During the second session of that revolutionary assembly, Ward was called by John Hancock to preside over the Congress when that body resolved itself into a committee of the whole for debate and voting. He was one of the delegates to propose and secure the appointment of George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
In March 1776, as the Second Continental Congress was moving towards a declaration of independence, Ward (who had refused inoculation) contracted smallpox and died. He would assuredly have joined Hopkins as a Rhode Island signer had he lived a few months longer. Instead, that duty fell to William Ellery of Newport, Ward’s ally and supporter. Ward’s remains lie in Newport’s Common Burial Ground, where he was reinterred from Philadelphia in 1860, not far from the grave of Ellery.
Among Ward’s many prominent descendants were his son, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ward II (1756-1832), a Revolutionary War hero and merchant; his grandson Samuel Ward III (1786-1839), a powerful New York banker; and a great-granddaughter, Julia Ward Howe, a women’s rights advocate, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a summer resident of Portsmouth.
Samuel Ward was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.