One of the most unknown, yet substantial political leaders in the founding generation was a patriot named Hugh Williamson. In his life he surrounded himself with the most famous people in North America, and gradually became an instrumental leader who contributed to the cause of American independence. Serving the role of an intellectual erudite, military hero, and champion of republican government, Williamson became one of the most respectable southerners of his age.
Born in the Pennsylvania frontier, he was always an astute learner. Known for his renowned intelligence, Williamson became a multi-talented renaissance man. He was adept in the Spanish language at an early age, and taught official classes at Philadelphia Academy. Later, Williamson pursued religious studies and obtained a preacher’s license. After deciding not to become a minister, Williamson became a professor of mathematics at the College of Philadelphia (today’s University of Pennsylvania). Changing his career yet again, in 1764 he obtained a medical degree in the Dutch Republic. Williamson became widely known in the scientific community of Europe because of his many influential publications.
A chance encounter changed Williamson’s life, and his political activism was ignited simply because he was at the right place at the right time. While planning to set sail for England in 1773, Williamson made a stop in Boston. A twist of fate landed him squarely in the epicenter of Boston’s patriot fervor, and by chance he witnessed the famous Boston Tea Party.
When he actually arrived in London, he was summoned before British authorities to testify about the happenings in Boston. It was at this point that Williamson gave what has come to be recognized as his most famous quote – “repression will provoke rebellion.” He famously articulated what would become the cornerstone position of the American patriots, and strongly articulated the view that Americans were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen.
Without fully empathizing with those who destroyed the tea, he warned Parliament that the British response to the incident would fully shape the colonial response. Williamson stated:
“But if the measures were about to be pursued by Parliament against America, which out of doors were said to be intended, the time was not far distant, when his native country would be deluged with blood. This hand shall be guiltless of that blood.”
A provocative response, Williamson warned, would be treated with hostility. History validated Williamson’s position, and in 1776, British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North noted that Williamson was the first person that ever intimated the probability of a civil war in America. Williamson’s testimony also attracted the attention of Benjamin Franklin, and a series of subsequent relationships cemented Williamson’s popularity in the Whig cause.
Williamson made his home in the Netherlands again, where he published pamphlets that supported the cause of independence. It was there that he learned that the colonies had officially seceded from the British crown. Upon hearing this news, he travelled back to the states and immediately volunteered in the Continental Army as a medical physician.
While he was born in the north, Williamson found his true home in the south. He settled in Edenton, North Carolina, where he established a professional medical practice. His reputation garnered the attention of some of North Carolina’s most powerful political leaders, all of which came to respect Williamson.
After being informed about Williamson’s medical expertise, North Carolina Governor Richard Caswell named him as the state’s Surgeon General, a position that was held until the end of the war. Williamson’s service in this role was indispensable – since communicable diseases were a huge threat to the patriot cause for the entirety of the war, his knowledge was especially invaluable. When Charleston was captured by the British in 1780, Williamson demanded to be allowed to travel behind enemy lines to treat the wounded and captured. He successfully persuaded British General Charles Cornwallis to adopt his methodologies to avert smallpox and other diseases. In addition, Williamson’s innovations in the war led to significant medical discoveries, namely sanitation techniques and preventative medicine. Because of his actions, thousands of troops from the Continental Army and North Carolina’s militia were spared from the harsh outbreaks of diseases suffered by many others.
After the war, Williamson was named by his state to attend the Annapolis Convention of 1786, although he arrived too late for the proceedings. Selected again by North Carolina to represent the state in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, he participated in the entirety of the debates on the proposed Constitution. During this time he lodged with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and adopted relatively nationalist views. Still, Williamson was willing to compromise. His chief contribution to the debates was a prototype for the eventual Three-Fifths Compromise, which prevented many states, especially in the south, from becoming disenfranchised by the prospect of ratification. While most northern representatives did not believe that slaves should count toward apportioned representation at all, Williamson insisted that this compromise was necessary to prevent alienating the south. Without Williamson, there may have been any union to speak of.
North Carolina’s 1788 ratification convention Hillsborough culminated in a stalemate between political forces, and the proceedings ended without an endorsement of the Constitution. However, the state left the question of ratification open-ended, hoping the skepticism raised against the document would be allayed by additional clarification in the form of a bill of rights. In a pamphlet supporting ratification, Williamson wrote that the struggle would determine whether “a youthful empire is to be supported like the walls of a tottering ancient palace, by shores and temporary props, or by measures which may prove effectual and lasting – measure which may improve by use and strengthen by age.” According to Williamson, the Constitution’s success would dictate whether the states were to be a “system of patchwork and a series of expedients…or the most flourishing, independent, and happy nation on the face of the earth.” Williamson strongly defended the Constitution, but understood the apprehensions of his state.
Prior to North Carolina’s decision to ratify, and while North Carolina was an independent republic, Williamson served as North Carolina’s ambassador to the new United States government in Philadelphia. While he was there, Williamson actively encouraged the government to amend the Constitution so that it would be suitable to his own state’s interests. He made it known that the state remained fearful that an “energetic government” would trample upon the state’s sovereignty and the individual liberty of its inhabitants. While making this clear, the two republics established a cordial, well-mannered relationship.
During this time, the sovereignty of North Carolina was not threatened by the United States, and the two governments treated each other in good faith. Peace, friendship, and a mutual understanding helped pave the way for North Carolina’s eventual ratification.
By 1789, George Washington had been elected president. Additionally, the First Congress offered a series of amendments designed to make limitations upon the government’s rule explicit. While Williamson deftly served as a principled diplomat, North Carolina’s most prominent Federalists renewed the cause of ratification. Principally organized by James Iredell and William Davie, a new convention was set in Fayetteville. These two circumstances made ratification a desirable prospect in North Carolina, and the state endorsed the plan on November 21, 1789.
Williamson moved to New York City shortly after the new government formed, and spent the rest of his days publishing scientific and educational works. He remained obsessed with his studies, and ventured far beyond his expertise in medical sciences. He was well-versed in politics, history, and literature, and was known as a true intellectual.
Williamson passed away in 1819, but he remained astute, active, and aware in old age. David Hosack, the most prominent 19th century biographer of Williamson, noted that his “quickness of perception, his memory, his judgement, and his external senses, all manifested an uncommon activity to the very last days of his life.”
Hosack wrote the following of Williamson’s impact in 1820:
“Citizens of America, if piety, patriotism, talents, and learning, and these all devoted to his country’s good and the best interests of mankind, entitled their possessor to praise and gratitude, you will cherish and respect the memory of Hugh Williamson, whose name will be associated with those to whom we are most indebted for our country’s independence, and the successful administration of that happy constitution of government which we now enjoy.”
One will never hear Williamson’s name mentioned alongside southern political giants like Jefferson, Madison, or Rutledge. Still, the deeds he left behind were unforgettable bright spots in a tumultuous era. Williamson’s wholesome dedication was instrumental, most importantly, to the constitutional precept of the union as a voluntary association of states.