Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Hugh (Hu) Williamson

                    Hugh Williamson as an American politician and a scholar of international renown; however, he is best known for representing North Carolina at the Constitutional Convention where he signed the United States Constitution.

                    Williamson was born on December 5, 1735, in West Nottingham, Chester County, Pennsylvania.  He was of Scotch-Irish descent and was the eldest son in a large family.  His father was a clothier.  Due to his fragile health, Hugh would have a difficult time with a career in the family's clothier business; therefore, his parents hoped that he would become a Presbyterian minister.  He attended preparatory schools at New London Cross Roads, Delaware, and Newark, Delaware, before entering the first class of the College of Philadelphia (later part of the University of Pennsylvania) and graduating on May 17, 1757 - five days before the death of his father. 

                    Hugh spent some time settling his father's estate and teaching Spanish in Philadelphia Academy; then he moved to Connecticut where he obtained his license to preach.  He abandoned his career in the ministry due to his own ill health and disputes among the clergy.  He completed a bachelor's degree at Penn in 1760 and joined the faculty of his alma mater as a professor of mathematics.

He changed his career four years later when he began a study of medicine.  Upon his graduation from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, he returned to Philadelphia where he opened his private practice.  During the same period of time he worked on numerous independent scientific and educational projects; his work in these areas led to his membership in the American Philosophical Society and to acclaim in the intellectual circles of Europe.

                    Williamson's interest in science and education led him indirectly to politics and the Patriot cause of liberty.  He was traveling to England in 1773 to raise funds for a local educational project when he stopped en route at Boston.  While he was there, he witnessed Patriots dressed as American Indians destroying a cargo of tea by throwing it in the harbor.  The Boston Tea Party was a protest by the Americans over a newly enforced Parliamentary tax on imported commodities.  When Williamson reached England, he was summoned before the Privy Council to testify about this act of protest as well as affairs in America in general.

                    While being questioned by Council members trying to determine how to punish Massachusetts, he warned them that repression would provoke rebellion.  He told the Council that Americans were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, including representation in the decisions made by the British government.  Other Americans in London noticed Williamson, particularly Benjamin Franklin.  Their mutual interest in scientific matters created a solid working relationship between Franklin and Williamson; the two men joined with others in appealing for support among Englishmen who sympathized with the claims of Americans.

                    Williamson continued to the Netherlands where he was able to organize the publication of pamphlets and other papers in support of the Patriot cause.  After learning that the colonies had declared their independence, he traveled back to Philadelphia in early 1777 and volunteered to serve in the Medical Department of the Continental Army.  Since there was no opening in the Department at that time, he teamed up with a younger brother to import medicines and other scarce items from the West Indies through the British blockade.  Wanting to use his contacts and reputation to serve the Patriot cause, he moved to North Carolina and established a medical practice where he served the planters and merchants of the region.  When the British threatened to invade the area, the legislature voted to raise a force of 4,000 men to assist South Carolina.  Governor Richard Caswell - with the rank of major general - led this military force and appointed Williamson to serve as the state's Physician and Surgeon General, a post Williamson held until the end of the war.

                    The British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780 in a stunning defeat for the colonials.  Williamson witnessed the defeat of Horatio Gates and his command near Camden, South Carolina and volunteered to go behind enemy lines to care for the wounded Americans.  He spent two months in the prison camp and was able to use his scientific reputation to convince Cornwallis and other British officers of the proper method to combat the smallpox in the camp and keep it from becoming an epidemic.

                    Williamson returned to the field in the fall of 1780 and was attached to a force under Brigadier General Isaac Gregory whose mission was to limited British activity in eastern North Carolina.  Gregory established his base in the Dismal Swamp in order to pin the British down without compromising his small numbers.  Williamson was instrumental in keeping the forces healthy and free of disease for the six months they spent in the swamp because he stressed the importance of sanitation and diet.

                    After the war was over Williamson was elected to the lower house of the North Carolina legislature where he served for several terms.  He sat on numerous committees, particularly those formed to regulate veterans' rights; he also wrote the state's copyright law.  He was chosen by the legislators to serve in the Continental Congress in 1782.  Williamson was becoming a champion of federalism whose military experience convinced him of the military need for a strong national government.  His interest in a strong national government increased when he realized there were economic benefits for binding the states together.

                    Williamson attended the Annapolis Convention in 1786 in an effort to settle economic problems in the Middle Atlantic States, but he arrived too late to take part in the proceedings in Maryland.  He was however well prepared to discuss interstate issues the next year when North Carolina sent him to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

                    Lodging with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Williamson attended the Convention sessions faithfully.  He was propelled into a leadership role in the North Carolina delegation due to his intellectual stature and international background.  He also had a capacity for hard work and good humor which was invaluable to reaching consensus on the Constitution.  Williamson proposed the three fifths compromise on July 11, 1787; it did not pass, but a similar motion passed two days later.

                    Thomas Jefferson described Williamson's role at the Philadelphia Convention:  "he was a useful member, of an acute mind, attentive to business, and of an high degree of erudition."

                    Before the Convention came to a close, Williamson wrote several public letters defending a strong federal government.  His "Letters of Sylvius" concerned many of the practical concerns of the people in North Carolina.  Williamson explained the "dual dangers of inflationary finances and of taxes that would stunt the growth of domestic manufacture.  He exhorted North Carolinians to support the Constitution as the basis for their future prosperity.  The ratification process, he explained, would decide whether the United States would remain a `system of patchwork and a series of expedients' or become `the most flourishing, independent, and happy nation on the face of the earth."

                    When he left Philadelphia, Williamson returned to the closing sessions of the Continental Congress in New York where he acted as an agent to settle North Carolina's accounts with the Congress.  He missed the Hillsboro Convention where North Carolina rejected the Constitution, but he was a major player at a second convention meeting in Fayetteville in 1789 and successfully rallied support for the Constitution.

                    Williamson was elected as a member of the first federal Congress where he served two terms before retiring and settling in New York City.  There he continued to pursue a wide range of scholarly interests and wrote extensively about his research; he also joined numerous learned societies and contributed to many charities.  He was one of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina.

                    Hugh Williamson married Maria Apthorpe in January 1789.  The couple had two sons, the older died in 1811 at age 22 and the younger soon afterwards.  Williamson was stabbed to death in New York City on May 22, 1819.  He was buried at Trinity Church Cemetery.  He was honored by having Williamson County, Illinois, and Williamson County, Tennessee, named after him.

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