This Day in History: The pacifist who signed the Declaration
On this day in 1730, a signer of the Declaration of Independence is born in Princeton, New Jersey. Joseph Hewes was born in a Quaker family, which would have made him naturally reluctant to support the need for a war. Nevertheless, he came to the conclusion that a Revolution was inevitable, and he signed the Declaration during the summer of 1776.
His decision was no small act. The move not only separated him from his Quaker roots, but it also labeled him a traitor in the eyes of the King.
Information about Hewes’s younger years is limited. He attended Princeton College and was apprenticed to a merchant in Philadelphia. He worked hard and learned the shipping business from the ground up. When he struck out on his own, he did so in North Carolina. He was a respected member of the community and became engaged to the daughter of a prominent family. Unfortunately, his fiancée passed away before their marriage.
Perhaps he was heartbroken? He never married after that.
Hewes was soon elected to the colonial assembly, then the provincial legislature. In 1774, he was elected a member of the Continental Congress, where he served as Secretary of the Naval Affairs Committee. He was instrumental in obtaining a commission for John Paul Jones and even offered some of his own ships for use by the Continental Army. Economically, he made sacrifices, as when he supported the non-importation act, despite the fact that it would hurt his own business.
Hewes was slow to support violence, though. In July 1775, he wrote to a British contact: “We do not want to be independent, we want no revolution . . . ; we are loyal subjects to our present most gracious Sovereign, in support of whose crown and dignity we would sacrifice our lives.” Yet by March 1776, Hewes had changed his views. Not too long after the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, Hewes wrote to Samuel Johnston: “I see no prospects of reconciliation. Nothing is left but to fight it out.”
Hewes sometimes gets criticized as someone who did not really want to declare independence. The criticism is based upon a letter written by John Adams in 1813, in which Adams claimed that Hewes did not support independence until he was backed into a corner during the final debates. Given Hewes’s comments in early 1776, Adams’s recollection on this point seems mistaken.
Hewes signed the Declaration, but he soon returned home in an attempt to recover his health. At some point, Hewes had contracted a sickness (probably malaria), which had left him weakened. He later returned to his congressional work, but his health never really returned. He finally resigned on October 29, 1779, and he passed away less than two weeks later.
His obituary read: “His mind was constantly employed in the business of his exalted station until his health, much impaired by intense application, sunk beneath it.”
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (2d ed. 1832)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (William S. Powell ed.; 1988) (Vol. 3)
John Sanderson, Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (Robert Taylor Conrad ed. 1846)
Letter from Joseph Hewes to Samuel Johnston (Mar. 20, 1776)
R.D.W. Connor, History of North Carolina, Vol I: The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, 1584-1783 (1919)