William Bradford (1729-1808), born in Plympton, Massachusetts, was the great-great-grandson and namesake of the famous governor of the Plymouth Colony. Bradford studied medicine in Hingham, Massachusetts, and then opened a practice in Warren a few years after that town’s transfer from Massachusetts to Rhode Island in 1747. In 1751, he married Mary LeBaron, the daughter of a Plymouth physician. After gaining a reputation for his skill as a surgeon, Bradford moved his practice to Bristol, the county seat, where he soon became active in town government.
Bradford’s name first appeared in the Bristol town records in 1758 and remained prominent therein for the next fifty years. In 1761, Dr. Bradford was elected a deputy (i.e., representative) from Bristol in the General Assembly, where he became House Speaker for the first of his eighteen nonconsecutive terms in 1765. In 1762, he was chosen for the first time to serve as Bristol’s town moderator without relinquishing his post in the General Assembly.
Bradford’s political success turned him away from medicine towards the practice of law. From 1767 onward, the public records list him as “Esquire” rather than “Dr.” He did not abandon his role as physician entirely, however. In May 1778, he treated Colonel William Barton when the latter was wounded, giving chase to British Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell and his Hessian band after the sack of Warren and Bristol. During the American Revolution, he was chairman of the legislative committee created to examine the qualifications of surgeons and surgeon’s mates.
In 1773, Bradford served as a member of Rhode Island’s Committee of Correspondence, and in 1775, he was chosen deputy governor by the General Assembly when Nicholas Cooke moved up to replace deposed Loyalist governor Joseph Wanton. Active in numerous civil and military capacities during the Revolution, Bradford most notably arranged a cease-fire in October 1775 when Captain James Wallace of the HMS Rose bombarded Bristol. Bradford performed this service only five days after the death of Mary, his first and only wife.
Bradford was a member of the Rhode Island Committee of Safety and the powerful Council of War, and he served on several committees to coordinate the war effort with neighboring states. In 1780, he chaired a convention of the New England states in Hartford called for the purpose of furnishing supplies to our French allies. He was elected a Rhode Island delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1776, but the British threat to Rhode Island prompted him to stay home where he was most needed.
In 1777, Deputy Governor Bradford was appointed to lease the estates of Loyalists whose property had been confiscated. In 1783, he purchased one of these estates himself–the home of Bristol’s Isaac Royall, built in 1745, now known as Mount Hope Farm.
Bradford continued to represent Bristol in the General Assembly during the 1780s, but from 1786 to 1790, he was relegated to minority status when the Antifederal Country Party seized the reins of state government. His strenuous effort to persuade the legislature to participate in the framing and adoption of the federal Constitution met with little success until he was able to cast his vote in favor of ratification on May 29, 1790, as one of Bristol’s two convention delegates.
Bradford’s influential support of the ratification of the Constitution and his long years of public service to his town and state were crowned by his election to the office of United States senator in 1792, replacing Antifederal leader Joseph Stanton Jr. of Charlestown. From July 6, 1797, until he resigned from the Senate in October 1797, Bradford held the prestigious post of the Senate’s president pro tem.
During his congressional tenure, Bradford surely met often with President Washington in Philadelphia as one of twenty or so Federalist senators. It was apparently one of those meetings that gave rise to the distorted reminiscence by Bradford’s daughter of their weeklong encounter with Washington at Mount Hope Farm. Washington, in fact, never slept there, a local legend to the contrary.
Senator Bradford represented Bristol in the Rhode Island General Assembly during the last decade of his eventful life, once again holding the office of Speaker. He died on July 6, 1808, at the age of seventy-eight. Bradford was originally buried in Bristol’s East Burying Ground, but his grave was later moved to the family plot in Juniper Hill Cemetery near the resting place of Benjamin Bourne. His meticulously preserved house and farm on Metacom Avenue in Bristol perpetuate his memory.
Senator William Bradford was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2007.
For additional information:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlements to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.