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Biographical Sketches

North Carolina
Joseph Hewes
Joseph Hewes

Even in an age and land of such unlimited opportunities as 18th-century America, few men attained such success as merchant Joseph Hewes. He was rarely thwarted in his ambitions and enjoyed wealth and social prestige, reflected in political conservatism.

Born in 1730 at Maybury Hill, an estate on the outskirts of Princeton, N.J., Hewes was the son of a pious and well-to-do Quaker farmer. He received a strict religious upbringing, and studied at a local school. After learning trade from a Philadelphia merchant, he entered business for himself. About 1760, anxious to expand his modest fortune, he moved to the thriving seaport town of Edenton, N.C. There, where he was to reside for the rest of his life, he founded a profitable mercantile and shipping firm and gained prominence. Only one fateful event marred his life. A few days before his intended wedding date, his fiancee suddenly died. Hewes remained a bachelor for the rest of his life.

As a member of the North Carolina assembly (1766-75), the committee of correspondence (1773), and the provincial assemblies (1774-75), Hewes helped the Whigs overthrow the royal government. Elected to the Continental Congress in 1774, he vigorously supported nonimportation measures even though it meant personal financial loss. By the time of the outbreak of the War for Independence, the next year, anathema to the pacifistic Quakers, he had rejected the faith altogether—culminating a trend that had been evolving because of his love of dancing and other social pleasures, as well as his Revolutionary activities.

Joseph Hewes
Joseph Hewes sponsored the American career of his friend John Paul Jones, who became the most famous naval officer of the Revolution. (Engraving by James B. Longacre, after Charles Willson Peale, from James Herring and James B. Longacre, The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, 1836, Library of Congress.)

Hewes was one of those who originally opposed separation from Great Britain. Thus it was a disagreeable task for him, in May 1776, to present the Halifax Resolves to the Continental Congress. Enacted the month before by the provincial assembly, they instructed the North Carolina Delegates to vote for independence should it be proposed. Hewes, who considered the resolves premature, ignored his State's commitment and at first opposed Richard Henry Lee's June 7 independence resolution. According to John Adams, however, at one point during debate a transformation came over Hewes. "He started suddenly upright," reported Adams, "and lifting up both his hands to Heaven, as if he had been in a trance, cried out, 'It is done! and I will abide by it.'"

One episode involving Hewes illustrates the recurring problem of sectional rivalries among the Delegates. As key members of the marine committee, Hewes and John Adams were instrumental in establishing the Continental Navy. When the time came to appoint the Nation's first naval captains, the two men clashed. For one of the positions, Hewes nominated his friend John Paul Jones, an experienced seaman who had recently emigrated to Virginia from Scotland. Adams, maintaining that all the captaincies should be filled by New Englanders, stubbornly protested. New England had yielded to the South in the selection of a commander in chief of the Continental Army and Adams had fostered the selection of the able Virginian George Washington, so he was not now about to make a concession on the Navy. Hewes, sensing the futility of argument, reluctantly submitted. Jones, who was to become the most honored naval hero of the Revolution, received only a lieutenant's commission.

In 1777 Hewes lost his bid for reelection to Congress, one of the few failures in his life, and in 1778-79 he found solace in the State legislature. In the latter year, despite health problems, he accepted reelection to the Continental Congress. A few months after arriving back in Philadelphia and not long before his 50th birthday, over worked and fatigued, he died. His grave is in Christ Church Burial Ground there.

Drawing: Oil, before 1893, by an unknown artist, after Charles Willson Peale, Independence National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004