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This webpage reproduces an item in
The North Carolina Booklet

Vol. 4 No. 5 (May 1904), pp24‑36

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p25 Joseph Hewes


[image ALT: An engraving of a man in early middle age, with a long oval face and a benign but intelligent expression, balding on top but the hair on the sides of his head curled in the style of the mid‑18c. It is Joseph Hewes, one of the North Carolina signers of the American Declaration of Independence.]

By Walter Sikes, M. A., Ph. D.,
(Professor of Political Science, Wake Forest College)

"Particularly cultivate the notice of Mr. Hewes," wrote Henry E. McCulloch to his relative, young James Iredell, as he was about to leave his home in England to take up his abode at Edenton, N. C., in September, 1768. Young Iredell came to Edenton and wrote to his father afterwards that "I must say there is a gentleman in this town who is a very particular favorite of mine. His name is Hewes. He is a merchant here, and our member for the town: the patron and the greatest honor of it. About six or seven years ago he was in a few days of being married to one of Mr. Johnston's sisters (elder than the two young ladies now living), who died rather suddenly; and this unhappy circumstance for a long time imbittered every satisfaction in life to him. He has continued ever since unmarried, which I believe he will do. His connection with Mr. Johnston's family is just such as if he had really been a brother-in‑law, a circumstance that mutually does honor to them both." When young Iredell met this man, who was not yet forty, he became charmed with his society and his character.

Hewes' parents had fled from the Indian massacre in Connecticut in 1728 to New Jersey. While crossing the Housatonic river his mother was wounded in the neck by an Indian. The family came to Kingston, N. J., where Joseph was born p26in 1730. Though his home was not far from Princeton, he never attended college. However, he received such education as the schools in his vicinity offered. His family were Quakers, and at an early age he was sent to a counting-house in the Quaker city of Philadelphia. At manhood he entered the mercantile and commercial business. Most of his time was spent in Philadelphia, though he was often drawn to New York on business.

In 1763 he decided to move to Edenton, where he entered into partnership with Robert Smith, an attorney. This firm owned its own wharf and sent its ships down to the sea. It is very probable that his sister, Mrs. Allan, came with him. His nephew, Nathaniel Allan, was certainly with him. This young nephew Hewes treated as his own son and very probably made him his heir. This young man became the father of Senator Allan of Ohio and grandfather of Allen G. Thurman.

Edenton was a town of four hundred inhabitants probably when Joseph Hewes came to live there. It was a society scarcely surpassed in culture by any in America. In the vicinity lived Colonel Richard Buncombe, Sir Nat. Dukinfield, Colonel John Harvey, Samuel Johnston, Dr. Cathcart, Thomas Jones, Charles Johnston and Stephen Cabarrus. Hewes was at once admitted into this charming circle.

Hewes was possessed of those charms that attract gentle folks. He was very companionable and social. Very frequently in James Iredell's diary for 1772‑1774 such entries are found as "chatted with Hewes and others on his piazza"; p27"found Hewes at Horniblow's tavern"; "Hewes and I spent the evening at Mrs. Blair's"; "Dr. Cathcart, Mr. Johnston and I dined with Hewes"; "went to Hewes' to call on Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Harnett on their return from the north," and "they played cards all the evening at Mr. Hewes'." These and similar records show that he was a delightful companion and was a center of social life.

His Quaker training Hewes threw aside easily. Some writers say that he quitted the Quakers only when they refused in 1776 to join heartily in the war for independence, and that his Quaker beliefs easily opened the door of prosperity and honor for him among the Quakers of the Albemarle section. This can hardly be true. In 1770 he was present at the services of the Church of England at Edenton and read the responses. He certainly attended that church long before the Revolution. Also in the same year he was "playing backgammon at Horniblow's tavern." These things were not done by good Quakers. Hewes' associates — social and political — were not Quakers. He belonged to those conservatives whose leaders were Samuel Johnston and Thomas Jones.

Hewes' popularity, wealth and influence caused him to be chosen to represent the town of Edenton in the general assembly three years after his arrival. This position he held from 1766‑1776 till he was called to a field of wider usefulness. In these Assemblies he was very active, and at one time, he was on ten committees at least. This was an interesting period in the history of the colony. It was during this p28period that the Regulator troubles arose, the court controversy, the taxation problems, and the other difficulties that prepared North Carolina for the revolution that was to be very soon.

Before the meeting of the Provincial Congress to appoint delegates to the Continental Congress, Hewes was a member of the Committee of Correspondence. This was a wise choice. As a merchant his ships were known in other ports. This brought him into contact with the greatest commercial centers of the other colonies. In this way he was not unknown to the Adamses of Massachusetts. Hewes was chosen to attend the first Provincial Congress at New Bern, August, 1774. At this Congress he read many letters that his committee had received. Hewes, together with Richard Caswell and William Hooper, was appointed to attend the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. This North Carolina Congress pledged itself to abide by the acts of their representatives.

Merchants are not revolutionists. They want a government that will assure them the enjoyment of their labors. Hewes was a merchant, but he pledged his people to commercial non-intercourse with Great Britain, though this meant personal loss to the firm of Hewes & Smith. This measure was goring his own ox, but he gave it his loyal support. Says he, in a letter written at the close of the Congress, and before leaving Philadelphia: "Our friends are under apprehension that the administration will endeavor to lay hold of as many delegates as possible, and have them carried p29to England and tried as rebels; this induced Congress to enter into a resolve in such case to make a reprisal. I have no fears on that head, but should it be my lot, no man on earth could be better spared. Were I to suffer in the cause of American liberty, should I not be translated immediately to heaven as Enoch of old was?"

Hewes' health was always poor. To go to Philadelphia was not a pleasant journey, save that it permitted him to see his aged mother, who lived probably at the old home in New Jersey. Says Hewes, in a letter: "I had a very disagreeable time of it till I arrived here, since which I have had but little health or spirits." Hewes, Caswell and Hooper were not the only Carolinians present in Philadelphia at this meeting, for Hewes says he dined with Caswell and other Carolinians.

In December Hewes returned to Edenton and the next April found him and James Iredell in their gigs on their way to attend the General Assembly at New Bern, and also that second Provincial Congress which was to meet at the same time and place. Both bodies thanked their delegates for the faithful discharge of their duties. The aged, yet spirited, Harvey delivered the brief address for the bodies. This Provincial Congress re-elected Hewes, Caswell and Hooper.

Hewes and Caswell together proceeded at once to Philadelphia, where the Congress met on May 10. On Sunday evening they arrived in Petersburg, where they learned of the collision "between the Bostonians and the King's troops." Their passage through Virginia was attended with much pomp and military parade, "such as was due to general officers." p30They stopped a day in Baltimore, where "Colonel Washington, accompanied by the rest of the delegates, reviewed the troops."

Hewes was in Philadelphia, where, he said, the enthusiasm was great. He was very anxious for North Carolina to take an active part in affairs. He expressed himself as uneasy about the slowness of North Carolina. Though Hewes was sick and hardly able to write, he joined in an address to the people of North Carolina and wrote letters to his friends describing in detail the military preparations of Congress. Hewes was not an eager war man. Said he, in a letter to Samuel Johnston on July 8, 1775: "I consider myself now over head and ears in what the ministry call rebellion. I fell no compunction for the part I have taken nor for the number of our enemies lately slain at the battle of Bunker's Hill. I wish to be in the camp before Boston, tho' I fear I shall not be able to get there 'till next campaign." He prevailed upon Philadelphia clergymen to write letters to the "Presbyterians, Lutherans and Calvinists " in North Carolina.

Hewes was a member of the committee to fit out vessels for the beginning of the American navy. On this committee there was no more valuable member. There were not many merchants in Congress. Hewes' mercantile knowledge served Congress well. This is Hewes' chief contribution to the war of independence. He could not speak like Adams and Lee, nor write like Jefferson, but he knew where were the sinews of war. When not in Congress he was employed by it to p31fit out vessels. The firm of Hewes & Smith was its agent in North Carolina. Some vessels Hewes fitted out by advancing the money for the Congress.

Hewes was back in North Carolina in August, 1775, and represented Edenton at the third Provincial Congress at Hillsboro, where he was placed on the committee to secure arms for the State, to prepare an address for the inhabitants, and a form of government. Here he was again elected to the Continental Congress along with Caswell and Hooper.

He returned to Philadelphia at once and prevailed upon Congress to send two ministers to the western part of North Carolina. Though he was very sick, he urged the early increase of the army and its equipment. Hewes fully expected to go into the army; in him there was nothing of the Tory spirit. Said he, on February 11, 1776: "If we mean to defend our liberties, our dearest rights and privileges against the power of Britain to the last extremity, we ought to bring ourselves to such a temper of mind as to stand unmoved at the bursting of an earthquake. Although the storm thickens, I fell myself quite composed. I have furnished myself with a good musket and bayonet, and when I can no longer be useful in council I hope I shall be willing to take the field. I think I had rather fall than be carried off by a lingering illness. An obstinate ague and fever, or rather an intermittent fever, persecutes me continually. I have no way to remove it unless I retire from Congress and from public business; this I am determined not to do till North Carolina p32sends another delegate, provided I am able to crawl to the Congress chamber."

Hewes was elected to represent Edenton in the fourth Provincial Congress at Halifax in April, 1776, but did not leave Philadelphia. It was more important that he should remain there. He wrote that he was anxious to know the kind of constitution they had adopted, but more anxious to know how they were preparing to defend their country. In the Continental Congress he was on the committee to prepare the articles of the confederation also.

Hewes spent the year 1776 in Philadelphia. He did not visit North Carolina at all. Hooper and Penn probably did. Hewes was alone at the time the great debate was in progress on the wisdom of declaring independence. Says he, in a letter dated Philadelphia, July 8, 1776: "What has become of my friend Hooper? I expected to have seen him ere now. My friend Penn came time enough to give his vote for independence. I send you the Declaration of Independence enclosed. I had the weight of North Carolina on my shoulders within a day or two of three months. The service was too severe. I have sat some days from six in the morning till five or sometimes six in the afternoon, without eating or drinking. Some of my friends thought I should not be able to keep soul and body together to this time. Duty, inclination and self-preservation call on me now to make a little excursion into the country to see my mother. This is a duty which I have not allowed myself time to perform during the almost nine months I have been here."

p33 Here is a picture of devotion to duty not surpassed in the annals of any country.

The months during which he labored so dutifully, and alone bore the burden of North Carolina on his shoulders, were the days when the great question of independence was discussed. In this discussion there was no inspiration. There was gathered together a band of brave men trying prayerfully to do the right. Clouds and uncertainty were thick about them. The measure had been discussed for months, but the majorities were constantly against it. John Adams, in a letter written March 28, 1813, says Mr. Hewes determined the vote for independence. "For many days the majority depended on Mr. Hewes of North Carolina. While a member one day was speaking, and reading documents from all the colonies, to prove that public opinion, the general sense of all, was in favor of the measure, when he came to North Carolina and produced letters and public proceedings which demonstrated that the majority in that colony were in favor of it, Mr. Hewes, who had hitherto constantly voted against it, started suddenly upright, and lifting both hands to heaven as if he had been in a trance, cried out: 'It is done! and I will abide by it.' I would give more for a perfect painting of the terror and horror upon the face of the old majority at that critical moment than for the best piece of Raphael. The question, however, was eluded by an immediate motion for adjournment."

In the fall Hewes returned to North Carolina in time to attend the Provincial Congress at Halifax in November, p341776. His admiring friends in Edenton again chose him to represent them as they had been doing for ten years. Here he took part in the making of the State Constitution, being on the committee. However, he was doubtless more interested in the preparation to defend the independence for which he had just voted. Hewes was again active on the important committees. This Provincial Congress made and adopted the first Constitution for North Carolina. What Hewes thought of it is not known, but many of his friends in Edenton did not like it. Samuel Johnston was open in his disapproval.

After the close of the Provincial Congress at Halifax, Hewes returned to Edenton, with his health injured by overwork in the Continental Congress. He had expected to return to Philadelphia in February, but the rheumatism would not permit him. He was not idle. He was in the secret committee of Congress for purchasing equipment. He and Morris were the merchant members of Congress, and had much of this work to do. April found him at home but expecting at any time to start north.

The first General Assembly under the new State Constitution met at New Bern in April, 1777. Hewes, for the first time in ten years, was not chosen to represent Edenton. John Green was the member in his place. This new republican Assembly contained many new men. There had been a clash in the making of this new Constitution. Samuel Johnston had led the conservatives and been defeated, while Willie Jones had led the radicals to victory. There was bitterness p35and strife. Johnston, and doubtless his followers, were partial to Hewes and Hooper, but they cared little for Penn. When the time came to elect representatives to the Continental Congress, Hooper, though no competitor appeared against him, lost a great many votes. He obtained seventy-six out of ninety. Hooper refused to accept. Hewes failed of election, securing only forty out of ninety. Samuel Johnston said: "Hewes was supplanted of his seat in Congress by the most insidious arts and glaring falsehoods." James Iredell said that the reason alleged for his defeat was that he had been at home so long and also that he was holding two offices under one government, being a member of Congress and also a member of its most important committee.

After Hooper's resignation, Hewes' friends felt that he could be elected unanimously, but thought also that it would be an indignity. Only Penn was returned and his majority was reduced. Whatever may have been the cause of this defeat, it looks like an example of a republic's ingratitude.

Nevertheless, this Assembly was willing to employ Hewes, and asked him to fit out two vessels — the "Pennsylvania Farmer" and "King Taminy," but he declined because he was already the agent of the Continental Congress.

During the remainder of 1778 he remained in Edenton, making at least one trip to Boston on business. In 1778 he was still interested in purchases for the conduct of the war. His health was in the meantime much improved. Hewes was probably returned to the Assembly by his old constituents p36of Edenton in 1778. Here he was, as usual, a member of many committees.

When this Assembly was called upon to elect delegates for the Continental Congress, Hewes was again chosen. James Iredell wrote his wife, who was an ardent admirer of Hewes, and looked upon him as a brother, since the death of her sister, Miss Johnston: "Hewes will be down soon * * * nothing now detains him but his goodness in settling accounts he has no business with, and which no other man is equal to."

On his return to Philadelphia in 1779 he worked hard, but his health was fast failing. He was never strong, and the trying times of 1776 had taxed his strength to the utmost. He sent his resignation to the General Assembly, which met in October at Halifax, but in November he died in Philadelphia at the post of duty, aged fifty. James Iredell wrote his wife: "The loss of such a man will long be severely felt, and his friends must ever remember him with the keenest sensibility." Hooper wrote to Iredell: "The death of Hewes still preys upon my feelings. I know and had probed the secret recesses of his soul and found it devoid of guilt and replete with benignity." His funeral was attended by Congress, the Pennsylvania Assembly, the Minister of France, and many citizens, while Congress resolved to wear crape for him.

Such was Joseph Hewes, the merchant member of Congress, an early Secretary of the Navy, a friend loved and trusted, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.


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