Continuing series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence
Joseph Hewes(July 9, 1730 – November 10, 1779) was born in Princeton, N.J., but represented North Carolina at the Continental Congress. His parents, Aaron Hews and Providence Worth were Quakers. They moved to New Jersey from Connecticut due to persecution of the Quakers’ ways and mode of dress, and due to the frequent attacks of Native Americans. The colony of Massachusetts increased the bounty for Native American scalps to one hundred pounds, and this fueled hostilities on both sides. En route to New Jersey, Providence suffered a wound when a musket ball grazed her neck during a Native American attack.
Once in New Jersey, they built a home and had seven children. The original house burned in 1735 but was rebuilt. Little is known of Joseph’s early life – he probably attended local schools and entered Princeton when a teenager. However, there is no record that he ever graduated. Instead, he was apprenticed to a merchant and learned that trade very well. He made shrewd deals, but with scrupulous honesty. He became disenchanted with the Quaker rules ( he loved to dance) but continued to be a man of faith. His mother was a Quaker minister, and he
In 1760, at thirty years old, he struck out on his own, moving to Edenton, North Carolina. He started his own very successful trading business, and made a small fortune. He purchased slaves. Joseph formed a partnership with Robert Smith, and before long, owned a wharf and several ships. He named his first ship after his mother, Providence.
His reputation was spotless, and he moved in the circles of the rich. Joseph met the sister of the governor – Isabella Johnston. As the couple spent more time with each other, Joseph fell passionately in love with her, and they were engaged. Isabella fell ill and died a few days before they were to marry. Joseph was heartbroken. In his diary at the end of his life, he records that he was a broken and lonely man. He never married or had children.
In 1773, North Carolina elected Joseph to the Continental Congress, along with John Penn and William Hooper. Most North Carolinians favored independence, as did Joseph, but he hesitated on occasion. In one instance, at the height of the debate, he arose and loudly proclaimed that he saw now clearly the necessity of separation. Joseph served on several important committees, including the Committee of Correspondence, which formulated the rights of states under the proposed new government.
In May 1775, Joseph was re-elected to the Continental Congress. When Congress voted to outfit four vessels as the basis of an American navy, he took a keen interest. Congress appointed him Secretary of the Naval Affairs Committee, effectively the first Secretary of the Navy. John Adams often said that Hewes “laid the foundation, the cornerstone of the American Navy.
Joseph Hewes was a friend and benefactor of John Paul (alias Jones). John Paul was ship-boy on a merchantman from Scotland, and at twenty-one was a master of a Brigantine. He arrived in America in 1773. and became a friend of Joseph Hewes. When the time came to appoint the Nation’s first Naval captains, Hewes and John Adams clashed for one of the positions. Hewes nominated his friend John Paul Jones. John Adams maintained that all the captaincies should be filled by New Englanders, and stubbornly protested. New England had yielded to the South in the selection of a commander in chief of the Continental Army and Adams had fostered the selection of the able Virginian George Washington, so he was not now about to make a concession on the Navy. Hewes, sensing the futility of argument, reluctantly submitted. John Paul Jones, was to become the most honored Naval hero of the Revolution, but he received only a Lieutenant’s commission. Jones never forgot his patron and sponsor and many letters are extant telling of the great gratitude he felt for Hewes’ interest in him. The following is an excerpt from one of the letters:
John Paul Jones
“You are the angel of my happiness; since to your friendship, I owe my present enjoyments, as well as my future prospects. You more than any other person have labored to place the instruments of success in my hands.”
He signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776, and voted for independence, to the consternation of the Tory element. He even went so far as to make proposals, extreme for a merchant, to avoid importing any British goods. He ably served his colony through 1779 in the Congress, at which time he retired to private life. In October, he fell ill, and eventually died a month later. He left most of his fortune to various Quaker enterprises.
“Were I to suffer in the cause of American liberty, should I not be translated immediately to heaven as Enoch was of old?”letter to James Iredell, October 31, 1774