Tarheel Founding Fathers: Joseph Hewes

Joseph Hewes was one of three NC Delegates featured in the first entry of this series eleven years ago, and I thought it fitting to give him his own diary to better explore the man. He was originally from New Jersey but moved to NC to start his own business:

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.

By the time he had begun to prosper in Edenton, his rejection of many aspects of Quakerism was already in action. After that first diary in 2008, I had some conversations with a few people who remarked about a Quaker getting involved in the War effort, and we speculated that abuses of the Crown drove him to it. I'm now leaning towards another (less noble) reason: His overbearing father probably drove him away from the faith. Whatever the case, Hewes was not only a capable businessman, but also a cunning tactician. From a letter in January 1776 to Samuel Johnston:

Some of the Zealous City politicians are alarmed at the Arival of a Lord Drummond who came to Town a few days ago. It seems he is on to the Earl of Perth, has lived several years in New York Government, is possessed of a landed Estate in New Jersey, went to England in Novemr 1774, came out to Boston in a Man of War in August last, from thence in the same conveyance soon after, to New York. Had he left the Title of Lord behind him he might have walked the Streets of this City a long time unnoticed, now the Eyes of all are upon him and consider him as a Suspicious Character. In private company I am told he says he was several months in London and frequently in company with Lord North, that the ministry are heartily tired of the controversy between Great Britain and the Colonies, but the pride of the people of England will not suffer them to relax. He thinks the matter might be easily setled. If America would consent to give a very small sum Annually so as to save appearances, England would repeal all the obnoxious acts and give up more than we ask. He says Lord North was astonished at the Union and Strength of the Colonies, declared he did not think it was possible for such things to be brought about, that he had no idea of such resistance. Some people think this Lord is employed to make Overtures to the Congress, others imagine he is only to sound some of the leading Members & indeavour to find out the whole scope, design and Views of the Congress. Certain it is he has had private conferences with several Characters of the first distinction Among us. I dont find he has yet Closeted any of the wise men of the East, however I am not certain of it, my indisposition has kept me from Congress for two days past in which time I have seen very few members.(2)

A report prevails this day in Town that by some late Advices received to the eastward from England the Ministry are determined to send a large Army to America early in the Spring and land it in this Province in order to subdue it at all events considering it the most Active in the present Rebellion. This like many other reports, the talk of a day, wants confirmation, tho all Accounts Agree (except what comes from the Lord above mentioned) that Administration will make one grand effort in the Spring- to subdue the Colonies, therefore it becomes Necessary for us to provide for the event. We have Fifty three Regiments raised and raising each to consist of 728 men officers included. (3) To this Strength you may add twice the number of Regiments of well regulated Militia. Some of our Regiments are in Canada and more must be sent there. I will trespass no longer upon your patience than to request you to present my Compliments to Mrs. Johnston and family.

In January 1776 they actually had about 36 regiments, which leads me to believe Hewes was floating some disinformation with this letter. Whether that was done in case the courier was captured, or whether it was because Hewes suspected Johnston's inner circle had been compromised, who knows. Here he is shortly after signing the Declaration of Independence:

My friend Penn came time enough to give his vote for independance. I send you the declaration inclosed. All the Colonies voted for it except New York, that Colony was prevented from Joining in it by an old Instruction, their Convention meets this day and it is expected they will follow the example of the other Colonies.

I had the weight of North Carolina on my Shoulders within a day or two of three months, the service was too severe. I have sat some days from Six in the morning till five, & sometimes Six in the afternoon without eating or drinking. My health was bad, such close attention made it worse, I nevertheless obstinately persisted in doing my duty to the best of my Judgment and abilities and attended Congress the whole time, one day only excepted. This I did contrary to the repeated solicitations of my friends, some of whom I believe thought I should not be able to keep Soul and body together 'till this time. Duty, inclination and self preservation call on me now to make a little excursion in the Country to see my Mother, this is a duty which I had not allowed my self time to perform during almost nine months that I have been here.

Speaking of New York, it was apparently a hotbed of Tory shenanigans:

A hellish plott has been lately discovered at New York to Murder Genl. Washington and some other officers of the first rank, blow up the Magazine & spike up the Cannon. The persons employed had it in charge & have actually inlisted a number of Men for the Kings Army. It was to have been put in execution on the first arrival of the Army from Halifax. One of Genl. Washingtons guards has been put to death for being concerned in it. The Mayer of the City & some others are Confined, I believe many of them are guilty. It is said the matter has been traced up to Govr. Tryon.

It's no big surprise Tryon was behind it. His mismanagement of North Carolina provoked an armed rebellion years before the Revolution began in earnest, in part because dirt-poor farmers found themselves paying for a "palace" they would never see.

If you take away nothing else from this diary, it should be this: The signing of the Declaration did not "begin" the War; we had been fighting brutal battles for more than a year prior to that. It also did not signal that we had reached a level of warmaking capacity to make such a bold declaration. This was our situation on July 8:

General Howe with his Army are in the Neighbourhood of New York, sometimes on Shore on Staten Island, and sometimes on board the Fleet. It is thought he has not more than Seven or eight thousd. Men with him. He is waiting for Lord Howe's Fleet to arive, when he expects to be Joined by twenty thousd. Men. All the Regiments on Continental pay that were raised in this Province are now at New York and on the lakes. Six thousand Militia from this province & three thousand four hundred from Maryland will march in a Few days towards New York. The Jersey Militia are all in Motion. I fear these Colonies will suffer greatly for want of Labourers to get in the harvest. Some people are of opinion that many fields of wheat will remain unreaped and be totaly lost.

Our Northern Army has left Canada and retreated to Ticonderoga and Crown Point. The small Pox has made great havock among them. Several Regiments had not well men enough to Row the Sick over the Lakes, men were draughted from other Regiments to do that Service. In short that Army has melted away in as little time as if the destroying Angel had been sent on purpose to demolish them as he did the Children of Israel. We are endeavouring to get the Lakes fortified in the best manner we can to prevent Burgoyne from passing them and entering the Colonies on that side.

A paper has been privately laid on the Congress Table importing that some dark designs were forming for our destruction, and advising us to take care of ourselves. Some were for examining the Cellars under the Room where we set. I was against it and urged that we ought to treat such information with Contempt and not show any marks of fear or Jealousy. I told some of them I had almost as soon be blown up as to discover to the world that I thought my self in danger. No notice has been taken of this piece of information which I think was right.

But in my opinion, knowing our vulnerabilities and still signing the Declaration in spite of that, could not be a better example of American courage and resolve.

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