Biography of Hugh Williamson : North Carolina Signer of US Constitution

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Biography of Hugh Williamson

Hugh Williamson
Hugh Williamson.jpg

Hugh Williamson
December 5, 1735 - May 22, 1819

The versatile Williamson was born of Scotch-Irish descent at West Nottingham, PA., in 1735. He was the eldest son in a large family, whose head was a clothier. Hoping he would become a Presbyterian minister, his parents oriented his education toward that calling. After attending preparatory schools at New London Cross Roads, DE, and Newark, DE, he entered the first class of the College of Philadelphia (later part of the University of Pennsylvania) and took his degree in 1757.

The next 2 years, at Shippensburg, PA, Williamson spent settling his father's estate. Then training in Connecticut for the ministry, he soon became a licensed Presbyterian preacher but was never ordained. Around this time, he also took a position as professor of mathematics at his alma mater.

In 1764, Williamson abandoned these pursuits and studied medicine at Edinburgh, London, and Utrecht, eventually obtaining a degree from the University of Utrecht. Returning to Philadelphia, he began to practice but found it to be emotionally exhausting. His pursuit of scientific interests continued, and, in 1768, he became a member of the American Philosophical Society. The next year, he served on a commission that observed the transits of Venus and Mercury. In 1771, he wrote An Essay on Comets, in which he advanced several original ideas. As a result, the University of Leyden awarded him an LL.D. degree.

In 1773, to raise money for an academy in Newark, DE., Williamson made a trip to the West Indies and then to Europe. Sailing from Boston, he saw the Tea Party and carried news of it to London. When the British Privy Council called on him to testify as to what he had seen, he warned the councilors that the colonies would rebel if the British did not change their policies. While in England, he struck up a close friendship with fellow-scientist Benjamin Franklin, and they cooperated in electrical experiments. Moreover, Williamson furnished to Franklin the letters of Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson to his lieutenant governor that created a sensation and tended to further alienate the mother country and colonies.

In 1775 a pamphlet Williamson had written while in England, called The Plea of the Colonies, was published. It solicited the support of the English Whigs for the American cause. When the United States proclaimed their independence the next year, Williamson was in the Netherlands. He soon sailed back to the United States, settling first in Charleston, SC, and then in Edenton, NC. There, he prospered in a mercantile business that traded with the French West Indies and once again took up the practice of medicine.

Williamson applied for a medical post with the patriot forces, but found all such positions filled. The governor of North Carolina, however, soon called on his specialized skills, and he became surgeon-general of state troops. After the Battle of Camden, SC, he frequently crossed British lines to tend to the wounded. He also prevented sickness among the troops by paying close attention to food, clothing, shelter, and hygiene.

After the war, Williamson began his political career. In 1782, he was elected to the lower house of the state legislature and to the Continental Congress. Three years later, he left Congress and returned to his legislative seat. In 1786, he was chosen to represent his state at the Annapolis Convention but arrived too late to take part. The next year, he again served in Congress (1787-89) and was chosen as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Attending faithfully and demonstrating keen debating skill, he served on five committees, notably on the Committee on Postponed Matters, and played a significant part in the proceedings, particularly the major compromise on representation.

After the convention, Williamson worked for ratification of the Constitution in North Carolina. In 1788, he was chosen to settle outstanding accounts between the state and the federal government. The next year, he was elected to the first U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms. In 1789, he married Maria Apthorpe, who bore at least two sons.

In 1793, Williamson moved to New York City to facilitate his literary and philanthropic pursuits. Over the years, he published many political, educational, economic, historical, and scientific works, but the last earned him the most praise. The University of Leyden awarded him an honorary degree. In addition, he was an original trustee of the University of North Carolina and later held trusteeships at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the University of the State of New York. He was also a founder of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York and a prominent member of the New-York Historical Society.

In 1819, at the age of 83, Williamson died in New York City and was buried at Trinity Church.

Sources: National Archives and Library of Congress.

Recommended Reading: Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Hardcover: 1328 pages) (The University of North Carolina Press). Description: The first single-volume reference to the events, institutions, and cultural forces that have defined the state, the Encyclopedia of North Carolina is a landmark publication that will serve those who love and live in North Carolina for generations to come. Editor William S. Powell, whom the Raleigh News & Observer described as a "living repository of information on all things North Carolinian," spent fifteen years developing this volume. With contributions by more than 550 volunteer writers—including scholars, librarians, journalists, and many others—it is a true "people's encyclopedia" of North Carolina. Continued below...

The volume includes more than 2,000 entries, presented alphabetically, consisting of longer essays on major subjects, briefer entries, and short summaries and definitions. Most entries include suggestions for further reading. Centered on history and the humanities, topics covered include agriculture; arts and architecture; business and industry; the Civil War; culture and customs; education; geography; geology, mining, and archaeology; government, politics, and law; media; medicine, science, and technology; military history; natural environment; organizations, clubs, and foundations; people, languages, and immigration; places and historic preservation; precolonial and colonial history; recreation and tourism; religion; and transportation. An informative and engaging compendium, the Encyclopedia of North Carolina is abundantly illustrated with 400 photographs and maps. It is both a celebration and a gift—from the citizens of North Carolina, to the citizens of North Carolina. "Truly an exhaustive and exciting view of every aspect of the Old North State!”

Recommended Reading: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Hardcover). Description: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina constitutes the most comprehensive and inclusive single-volume chronicle of the state’s storied past to date, culminating with an attentive look at recent events that have transformed North Carolina into a southern megastate. Integrating tales of famous pioneers, statesmen, soldiers, farmers, captains of industry, activists, and community leaders with more marginalized voices, including those of Native Americans, African Americans, and women, Milton Ready gives readers a view of North Carolina that encompasses perspectives and personalities from the coast, "tobacco road," the Piedmont, and the mountains in this sweeping history of the Tar Heel State. The first such volume in more than two decades, Ready’s work offers a distinctive view of the state’s history built from myriad stories and episodes. The Tar Heel State is enhanced by one hundred and ninety illustrations and five maps. Continued below...

Ready begins with a study of the state’s geography and then invites readers to revisit dramatic struggles of the American Revolution and Civil War, the early history of Cherokees, the impact of slavery as an institution, the rise of industrial mills, and the changes wrought by modern information-based technologies since 1970. Mixing spirited anecdotes and illustrative statistics, Ready describes the rich Native American culture found by John White in 1585, the chartered chaos of North Carolina’s proprietary settlement, and the chronic distrust of government that grew out of settlement patterns and the colony’s early political economy. He challenges the perception of relaxed intellectualism attributed to the "Rip van Winkle" state, the notion that slavery was a relatively benign institution in North Carolina, and the commonly accepted interpretation of Reconstruction in the state. Ready also discusses how the woman suffrage movement pushed North Carolina into a hesitant twentieth-century progressivism. In perhaps his most significant contribution to North Carolina’s historical record, Ready continues his narrative past the benchmark of World War II and into the twenty-first century. From the civil rights struggle to the building of research triangles, triads, and parks, Ready recounts the events that have fueled North Carolina’s accelerated development in recent years and the many challenges that have accompanied such rapid growth, especially those of population change and environmental degradation.

 

Recommended Reading: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Review: In retrospect, it seems as if the American Revolution was inevitable. But was it? In Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis reveals that many of those truths we hold to be self-evident were actually fiercely contested in the early days of the republic. Ellis focuses on six crucial moments in the life of the new nation, including a secret dinner at which the seat of the nation's capital was determined--in exchange for support of Hamilton's financial plan; Washington's precedent-setting Farewell Address; and the Hamilton and Burr duel. Most interesting, perhaps, is the debate (still dividing scholars today) over the meaning of the Revolution. Continued below...

In a fascinating chapter on the renewed friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at the end of their lives, Ellis points out the fundamental differences between the Republicans, who saw the Revolution as a liberating act and hold the Declaration of Independence most sacred, and the Federalists, who saw the revolution as a step in the building of American nationhood and hold the Constitution most dear. Throughout the text, Ellis explains the personal, face-to-face nature of early American politics--and notes that the members of the revolutionary generation were conscious of the fact that they were establishing precedents on which future generations would rely. In Founding Brothers, Ellis (whose American Sphinx won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1997) has written an elegant and engaging narrative, sure to become a classic. Highly recommended.

 

Recommended Reading: Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, by Cokie Roberts (Hardcover). Review: In Founding Mothers, Cokie Roberts paid homage to the heroic women whose patriotism and sacrifice helped create a new nation. Now the number one New York Times bestselling author and renowned political commentator—praised in USA Today as a "custodian of time-honored values"—continues the story of early America's influential women with Ladies of Liberty. In her "delightfully intimate and confiding" style (Publishers Weekly), Roberts presents a colorful blend of biographical portraits and behind-the-scenes vignettes chronicling women's public roles and private responsibilities. Comtinued below... 

Recounted with the insight and humor of an expert storyteller and drawing on personal correspondence, private journals, and other primary sources—many of them previously unpublished—Roberts brings to life the extraordinary accomplishments of women who laid the groundwork for a better society. Almost every quotation here is written by a woman, to a woman, or about a woman. From first ladies to freethinkers, educators to explorers, this exceptional group includes Abigail Adams, Margaret Bayard Smith, Martha Jefferson, Dolley Madison, Elizabeth Monroe, Louisa Catherine Adams, Eliza Hamilton, Theodosia Burr, Rebecca Gratz, Louisa Livingston, Rosalie Calvert, Sacajawea, and others. In a much-needed addition to the shelves of Founding Father literature, Roberts sheds new light on the generation of heroines, reformers, and visionaries who helped shape our nation, giving these ladies of liberty the recognition they so greatly deserve. About the Author: Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. From 1996 to 2002, she and Sam Donaldson coanchored the weekly ABC interview program, This Week. In addition to broadcasting, Roberts, along with her husband, Steven V. Roberts, writes a weekly column syndicated in newspapers around the country by United Media. Both are also contributing editors to USA Weekend, and together they wrote From This Day Forward, an account of their now more than forty-year marriage and other marriages in American history. The book immediately went onto the New York Times bestseller list, following a six-month run on the list by Roberts's first book on women in American history, We Are Our Mothers' Daughters. Roberts is also the author of the bestselling Founding Mothers, the companion volume to Ladies of Liberty. A mother of two and grandmother of six, she lives with her husband in Bethesda, Maryland.

 

Recommended Viewing: Founding Brothers (A&E) (200 minutes). Description: The political wrangles of a fledgling country may sound dull compared to the drama of a war, but the early history of the United States only gets more fascinating as the Revolutionary War is left behind. Founding Brothers, a documentary from the History Channel, examines the struggle to not only establish democracy, but to give it the economic strength and governmental structure that will allow it to survive and thrive. George Washington grappled not only with politics, but with questions of style and propriety--how should a president, as opposed to a king, behave? Understanding the conflicts between Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson will illuminate ideas that have shaped the government of the U.S. ever since. Continued below…

Founding Brothers provides a wealth of portraits and illustrations from the time, as well as discreet dramatizations, that bring the rise of party politics to life, humanizing these historical figures with tales of the scandals and squabbles they faced as well as their political achievements. An excellent introduction to the roots of the American experiment, and a bracing illustration of what Jefferson meant when he said of the presidency, "No man will bring out of that office the reputation which carried him into it."

 

Recommended Reading: 1776, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster). Description: Esteemed historian David McCullough covers the military side of the momentous year of 1776 with characteristic insight and a gripping narrative, adding new scholarship and a fresh perspective to the beginning of the American Revolution. It was a turbulent and confusing time. As British and American politicians struggled to reach a compromise, events on the ground escalated until war was inevitable. McCullough writes vividly about the dismal conditions that troops on both sides had to endure, including an unusually harsh winter, and the role that luck and the whims of the weather played in helping the colonial forces hold off the world's greatest army. Continued below...

He also effectively explores the importance of motivation and troop morale--a tie was as good as a win to the Americans, while anything short of overwhelming victory was disheartening to the British, who expected a swift end to the war. The redcoat retreat from Boston, for example, was particularly humiliating for the British, while the minor American victory at Trenton was magnified despite its limited strategic importance. Some of the strongest passages in 1776 are the revealing and well-rounded portraits of the Georges on both sides of the Atlantic. King George III, so often portrayed as a bumbling, arrogant fool, is given a more thoughtful treatment by McCullough, who shows that the king considered the colonists to be petulant subjects without legitimate grievances--an attitude that led him to underestimate the will and capabilities of the Americans. At times he seems shocked that war was even necessary. The great Washington lives up to his considerable reputation in these pages, and McCullough relies on private correspondence to balance the man and the myth, revealing how deeply concerned Washington was about the Americans' chances for victory, despite his public optimism. Perhaps more than any other man, he realized how fortunate they were to merely survive the year, and he willingly lays the responsibility for their good fortune in the hands of God rather than his own. Enthralling and superbly written, 1776 is the work of a master historian.

 

Recommended Viewing: The American Revolution (History Channel) (482 minutes). Description: Revisit the birth of a nation in this truly definitive look at America's fight for independence and its world-changing rise to glory. The American Revolution features ten powerful documentaries--more than eight hours of essential programming by THE HISTORY CHANNEL® and A&E on DVD for the first time. From the Declaration of Independence to the Treaty of Paris, these are the stories and events surrounding the remarkable achievements of heroic individuals seized by the epic forces of history. Hear the words of the founding fathers and other key figures, as read by leading actors such as Kelsey Grammar (TV’s Frasier) and Michael Learned (TV’s The Waltons). Continued below...

Thrilling re-enactments of great battles, compelling period images, rare archival material, and commentary by leading historians bring the past vividly alive. Between Bunker Hill and Yorktown, from Ben Franklin's masterful diplomacy to Benedict Arnold's deceit and tragedy, The American Revolution presents a sweeping canvas of historical programming at its comprehensive best.

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