Religious Convictions of America's Founders: Joseph Hewes
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Joseph Hewes was a Quaker who, when it became clear that he would advocate for war against Great Britain, became an Episcopalian.
Before Joseph was born, his parents Aaron and Providence were forced out of Connecticut due to Indian massacres occurring within their community as well as intolerance of Quakers by Puritans. Aaron and Providence’s resettlement to New Jersey was not without great personal risk. Ms. Hewes was wounded in the neck by ball shot from the gun of an Indian. The couple settled in “Maybury Hill,” an estate on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. On January 23, 1730, Joseph was born there. Maybury Hill was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971.
Joseph received a strict religious upbringing in the Quaker family as well as a public education . He graduated from Princeton College and worked in a counting house, to be educated as a merchant. Joseph eventually went into the mercantile business for himself and, through hard work and thrift, he did well. In 1760, at the age of 30, he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina and established a prosperous shipping and mercantile business. A few years later, he moved to Edenton, North Carolina, where, through a partnership with Robert Smith, a lawyer, his business expanded. Their firm owned a wharf and ships. He named his first ship “Providence” after his mother.
Hewes became engaged to Isabella Johnston, sister of Samuel Johnston, who once served as North Carolina’s governor. Isabella died before their wedding. Joseph never married, but he continued his steadfast friendship with the Johnston family.
The Character of John Hewes
Joseph Hewes has been described as a man of honor, inspiring confidence and esteem among those who knew him. He was a man of worth, integrity, and firmness. He was to become an ardent patriot. He was so highly regarded that he was elected to membership in the Assembly called to represent Edenton in the Colonial Legislature of the province.
When delegates from the colonies met for the first time September 5, to October 26, 1774, they had differing opinions regarding their objectives. Most weren’t seeking separation; rather, they wanted to “restore harmony between themselves and Great Britain, to obtain redress of grievances which the colonies suffered, and to secure to them the peaceful enjoyment of their unalienable rights, as British subjects.” It was agreeable to all that the King and Parliament must be made to understand the grievances of the colonies and that the body must do everything possible to communicate the same to the population of America, and to the rest of the world.
Congress voted to meet again the following year if these grievances were not attended to by England. Several days later, on the 20th, came The Association, which was patterned after the Virginia Association and others that followed. This was a pact for nonimportation of English goods, to establish mechanisms throughout the colonies to enforce and regulate the resistance to Great Britain, and to keep the channels of communication open. It was to become effective on December 1, 1774 unless parliament should rescind the Intolerable Acts. See also Proceedings of the First Continental Congress.
Although a merchant, and one who had been engaged in commercial transactions with England for the space of twenty years, when he became involved in the activities leading up to the Revolutionary War, Joseph Hewes readily supported a policy of ceasing commercial relationships with Britain. He assisted in forming the plan of Non-Importation.
“Few measures adopted by any session of congress during the revolutionary struggle, were more remarkable than that of the congress of 1774, which recommended the system of non-importation. It was a measure dictated by the highest patriotism, and proceeded upon the acknowledged fact, that the same exalted patriotism which existed among them, existed, also, among the American people. The efficiency of the measure, it was obvious, must lie in the union of the people to support it. They must adopt and persevere in a system of privation. A willingness to do this generally prevailed throughout the colonies; and to the government of Great Britain was presented the spectacle of thirteen colonies adopting a measure, novel, perhaps, in the history of the world, and supporting it at the sacrifice of a great portion of those comforts which they had been accustomed to enjoy."
In 1776, Hewes was a member of the secret committee, of the committee on claims, and was virtually the first secretary of the Navy. With General Washington, Hewes conceived the plan of operations for the ensuing campaign, and voted in favor of the immediate adoption of the declaration. North Carolina was the first of all the colonies to declare in favor of throwing off all connection with Great Britain. Hewes was also on the committee to prepare the Articles of Confederation.
As a side note, Joseph Hewes was a friend and benefactor of John Paul Jones, who was to become the most honored Naval hero of the Revolution. Jones never forgot his patron and sponsor. In one of many letters to Hewes, he wrote:
“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.” (John Paul Jones)
Joseph Hewes died in Philadelphia on November 10, 1779 before he could return to his home in Edenton, North Carolina. He was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who died at the seat of government.
Like many other Founders of America, Joseph Hewes was an educated man who was very familiar with the Bible. “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).