John Sullivan was born in Somersworth, New Hampshire on February 17, 1740. He was the last of thee children born to the local schoolteacher, who made sure that his children were well educated. Sullivan learned law under Samuel Livermore, and in 1764 he bought land along the bank of the Oyster River in Durham, becoming the town's first lawyer.
Sullivan was soon hated by most of the residents of Durham. He would often sue his neighbors without provocation, and foreclose on his friends over very small debts. Sullivan was attacked by mobs of townspeople on more than one occasion. In 1766, a petition against "the oppressive extortive behavior of one Mr. John Sullivan" gathered 133 signatures. With the aid of a few of his friends in the courts, Sullivan was able to dismiss the petition, and then successfully sue the signers of the petition for libel. Over time, Sullivan increased his land holdings and improved his relationship with the townspeople. As he gained power, Sullivan became a favorite of Royal Governor John Wentworth, who appointed him Major in the New Hampshire militia.
It would appear that Sullivan, with his large land holdings and friends in the colonial government, would want to maintain the status quo. However, as conditions in the colonies worsened, Sullivan embraced the ideals of the revolutionaries. Sullivan participated in the First Provincial Congress of New Hampshire, which met in Exeter on July 21, 1774. There, Sullivan was elected to be one of New Hampshire's representatives in the first Continental Congress. In the Congress, he fought for the land claims on Hew Hampshire citizens in Vermont, and normally found himself aligning with the radical Massachusetts representatives on other issues.
On December 15 1774, Sullivan committed himself to the revolution when he organized a militia and attacked the British armory in Portsmith's harbor, capturing cannons and supplies. On his return to the Continental Congress the next year, Sullivan was appointed Brigadier General in the Continental Army under George Washington. This began a long and controversial military career for Sullivan.
Sullivan began the American Revolution in the Siege of Boston under Washington. When the British were finally removed from the city, Sullivan was dispatched to lead troops that had invaded Canada a few months before. On arriving in Montreal, Sullivan found the troops sick, under supplied, and not prepared for the inevitable counterattack by General Burgoyne. However, Sullivan felt confident in his ability to hold the ground for the rebels. In a letter to Washington, Sullivan wrote that he was "determin'd to hold" despite the hardships. When Burgoyne finally attacked, Sullivan had no choice but to retreat back into New York.
In Congress, Sullivan's enemies called his retreat incompetent, and called for an investigation into his inept leadership. Despite these critics, Sullivan was promoted to Major General, and was given command of troops on Long Island. His command was partially taken away by Washington a few days later, and split with General Israel Putnam, leaving the troops confused about who was leading them. This vagueness in command let to a disastrous defeat when the British attacked. Hessian troops captured Sullivan while he was charging at them with two pistols.
Sullivan was released in a prisoner exchange in 1776, and immediately headed to Philadelphia to hand in his resignation. Somehow, the congress convinced Sullivan to return to the front with General Washington. In 1776, he crossed the Delaware River with Washington and attacked the British garrison at Trenton. Sullivan commanded his troops to capture an important bridge across the Assanpink Creek, thus sealing the Hessians in Trenton. Finally, Sullivan had achieved a military victory, and it went directly to his head. After some time spent in New Hampshire pulling together resources, Sullivan returned to New York, where he failed in his assault on Staten Island, and led the right flank in the Battle of Bradywine, which also failed miserably.
Congress called for the removal of Sullivan while his actions at Staten Island and Brandywine were evaluated. But Washington would have none of it, and retained Sullivan despite criticism. Sullivan stayed with Washington at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778, and then led another failed assault, this time on Newport.
Sullivan was removed from direct action, but managed to retain a command, this time to head west to confront the Iroquios, who had sided with the British. In 1779, Sullivan brought troops through the Southern Tier of New York, searching out and destroying Iroquois settlements. During this campaign, Sullivan destroyed a very large Todarighroones settlement, called Coreorgonel, on what is now the southwest side of Ithaca. He pushed his troops so hard that their horses became unusable, and killed them on this campaign, creating the namesake for Horseheads, New York. When his campaign reached a conclusion in Elmira, Sullivan returned to his home in New Hampshire due to his weakening health.
His retirement was very short lived, as he was re-elected to the Continental Congress in 1779. When Sullivan took a loan from the Chevalier de la Luzerne, he was accused of being on the French government payroll. This controversy was the last in a long string of conflicts with the congress, as Sullivan resigned and returned to New Hampshire in 1880. He was still considered a hero in his home state, where he was elected to several terms in the New Hampshire legislature, and as President (Governor) of New Hampshire. He received honorary degrees from Harvard College in 1780 and Dartmouth College in 1789. In 1788, he headed the committee that ratified the United States Constitution, thus ratifying the constitution with 2/3 of all states. He was then appointed to the United States Supreme Court, a post that he would hold for the remainder of his years.
John Sullivan passed away in his home in Durham on January 23, 1795. He was buried in the family graveyard situated behind his house. Over the years, several monuments were created in his honor. Sullivan County, New Hampshire is named after him, as well as a bridge over the Piscataqua River. There is a large granite monument dedicated to Sullivan in Durham, as well as another monument in Ithaca. Sullivan also has a large brass marker next to his grave, placed there by the Freemason lodge which he helped establish.