William Jackson’s main claim to fame is the fact that he served as the secretary to the U.S. Constitutional Convention. He also served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and did so with distinction. Following the war, he was one of President George Washington’s personal secretaries.
Jackson was born on March 9, 1759, in the county of Cumberland in England and was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, following the death of his parents. He was reared by Owen Roberts, a family friend and prominent merchant. Roberts was also the commander of a militia battalion and joined the Patriot cause of liberty after the war broke out in 1775. Jackson was only a teenager, but he followed his benefactor. He probably benefitted from his relationship with Roberts because he became a cadet in the First South Carolina Regiment and was commissioned a second lieutenant in May 1776.
Lieutenant Jackson saw his first action near Charleston in June 1776 in a battle against British General Sir Henry Clinton’s attempted attack on Fort Sullivan. After fighting off the British, his regiment garrisoned Charleston for a long period of time; Charles Cotesworth Pinckney became the commander of the First South Carolina during this time. Jackson’s detachment had the unfortunate luck to be “part of the detachment that made an ill-conceived and worse conducted expedition against St. Augustine in British East Florida under Major-General Robert Howe. The expedition was a colossal failure, and the American force was struck down by disease. Jackson survived and returned to South Carolina in 1778.”
Sometime after Jackson returned to South Carolina, Major-General Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts assumed command of the Southern regiments. Pinckney convinced Lincoln (a Northerner) that Jackson could assist Lincoln in relating better with his Southern troops. Jackson was promoted to the rank of Major temporarily. As an aide to Lincoln, Jackson “saw action in the Battle of Stono Ferry and the Siege of Savannah in 1779. In 1780 General Lincoln surrendered his troops after the lengthy Siege of Charleston. As a captured officer, Jackson was shipped to Philadelphia to be held by the British. He was part of an exchange of prisoners and returned to the Continental Army after a few months.
Jackson was a “skilled staff officer” and was assigned to the staff of General Washington; as such, he served as secretary to John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens of South Carolina and aide to General Washington. Laurens took Jackson with him when he “was sent to France in 1781 to buy supplies with money loaned by the French Government. “Laurens returned to America after a short and undiplomatic stay in France;” upon his departure, Jackson took over the job. When he made “extensive purchases, beyond his budget” with money reserved to pay unpaid bills, Benjamin Franklin and Jackson had “a discussion.”
Upon Jackson’s return to America in February 1782, he became assistant secretary of war to Benjamin Lincoln. “The Confederation’s Department of War, like the British, was a financial liaison with the Army; Jackson helped settle the Pennsylvania Mutiny in 1783.” He resigned his office and commission in October 1783 and became an agent for Robert Morris in England for a year. After his return to America, he studied law with William Lewis, a lawyer in Philadelphia.
Even though he had little money, Jackson wrote to George Washington in 1787 to apply for the position of secretary to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Alexander Hamilton nominated Jackson to the position on May 25, 1787, the first business day of the Convention; the delegates chose Jackson over William Temple Franklin, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, who had served as secretary to his grandfather during the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris.
Jackson’s duties as secretary of the Convention included maintaining the secrecy of the proceedings of the Convention, keeping official minutes, and destroying many of the other records kept at the Convention. He signed the Constitution of the United States “Attest William Jackson Secretary” to “attest to the delegates’ signing” of the document. By doing so, Jackson became the fortieth signer of the document.
Following the Convention, Jackson was sent to the Congress of the Confederation, which was assembled in New York City; there he read the document to Congress “just days after the signing, on September 20, 1787.”
Jackson was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1788 but waited two years, according to the customs of the day, to practice before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He was also a volunteer with the Second Philadelphia Light Horse unit. He applied for the position of secretary to the U.S. Senate but was not selected; then he applied for the position of personal secretary to President George Washington. In his letter of application, he wrote that “he had unpaid expenses as a Continental officer, and that business was `not congenial to [his] temper.’”
Resigning as Washington’s secretary in 1791, Jackson restarted his law practice and became an agent for William Bingham and Henry Knox (then Secretary of War). Bingham and Knox “were selling off a large land grant in Maine.” “Jackson’s job was selling land on commission in England and France; among his potential customers was the Committee of Public Safety. They declined to invest their scanty funds in Maine land, but that did not keep Jackson from writing a very favorable report about them back to the United States.
Jackson returned to the United States in the summer of 1795 and married Elizabeth Willing, the sister of Mrs. Bingham, in November of that year. Elizabeth and Mrs. Bingham were the oldest daughters of Thomas Willing, who was a rich merchant in Philadelphia and related to the Shippens. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson attended the wedding. After his marriage, Jackson became “a leader of society" with “Charleston manners” and the wealth of his father-in-law.
Jackson was appointed as Collector for the Port of Philadelphia in January 1796, just months before Washington left office; he was dismissed by Jefferson in 1801 “for politicizing his office.” He started the Political and Commercial Register, a Federalist newspaper, in Philadelphia and continued to edit it until 1815. In 1799 he became president of the Society of the Cincinnati, a group of former Continental Army officers, and in 1816 led an “unsuccessful effort to lobby Congress to grant half-pay for life for all veteran Revolutionary officers.” In 1826, fifty years after our nation achieved independence, Congress passed a similar bill, but Jackson was not connected to it. Jackson “remained titular president of the Cincinnati until his death.”
The last public appearance of William Jackson was to welcome the Marquis de Lafayette to Philadelphia in 1824. He passed away on either the 17th or the 18th of December 1828 in Philadelphia at age 69.