William Floyd could have played it safe and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Long Island's sole delegate to the Continental Congress had much to lose: his 4,400-acre farm in present-day Mastic Beach, his prominent role in New York politics, and maybe even his life.
“That’s treason to the king of England. If he signed the Declaration of Independence, the British are going to come to get you," said MaryLaura Lamont, a National Park Service ranger at the William Floyd Estate. She has delivered an annual Independence Day talk, "He Dared to Sign," for at least the past 12 years and will do so again Thursday.
Floyd's fears came true after he signed the manifesto, Lamont said: The British seized and pillaged the estate, forcing his wife and children to flee to Connecticut. He left no known diaries or memoirs, leaving it to historians to guess his reasons for risking his prestige and power.
"Nobody knows why he dared to sign it, but we’re glad he did," said Lamont, a Riverhead resident who has worked at the estate since 1979. "He could have lost everything.”
During his lifetime, Floyd was among Long Island's most prominent residents — a farmer, Brookhaven Town trustee and Suffolk County militia colonel whose estate stretched from Moriches Bay to what is now Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, Lamont said. Today it occupies 613 acres. Floyd's legacy lives on in the school district and the parkway that bear his name.
Like some of his fellow members of the Continental Congress, Floyd owned slaves, a fact that Lamont said surprises many visitors.
“People are shocked to find out slavery was common in New York," she said. "That's a common misperception, that it was something in the South, and that’s not the case.”
New York power brokers chose Floyd to serve as part of the state's delegation to the Continental Congress, which in 1776 unanimously approved the document that gave birth to a new nation. Floyd's role — and that of the other New York delegates — was famously limited. The delegation abstained repeatedly, saying they were given no instructions by state leaders on how to vote on the question of independence.
"He was a pretty quiet congressional member," Lamont said of Floyd. "He didn’t take the floor a lot, at all.”
It wasn't until July 9, five days after the declaration was adopted, that New York's delegation was given permission to sign it, said Natalie Naylor, a retired Hofstra University professor and former director of the school's Long Island Studies Institute.
Floyd's name appears on the declaration, just to the right of John Hancock's famous signature, and above those of New York's other representatives: Francis Lewis of Queens, Philip Livingston of Brooklyn and Lewis Morris of the Bronx.
“There were only 56 signers, and when the declaration was signed, [Floyd] was the first one of the four from New York,” Naylor said.
Lamont's talk will be delivered at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, at the estate, 245 Park Dr. Admission is free. Space is limited to about 20 people, she said; reservations are not accepted. Call 631-399-2030 for more information.
Not just a parkway: The life and times of William Floyd
Born: Dec. 17, 1734, at his family's Mastic Beach estate.
Elected: 1774 to the Continental Congress.
Family: Three children with first wife, Hannah, who died in exile in Connecticut in 1781; two children with second wife, Joanna.
Second home: Floyd moved in 1803 to upstate Westernville, where he built a house almost identical to the Mastic Beach estate, which he left to his son. The estate was occupied by six generations of Floyd's descendants, who donated it in 1976 to the National Park Service. The Westernville house is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Died: Aug. 4, 1821, at age 86, in Westernville.