As a signer of the Declaration of Independence Joseph Hewes, with
more than twenty years experience as a sailing merchant dealing with Britain, made some outstanding contributions to the founding of the Nation. This has been somewhat ignored in history because he had no direct line descendants.
Joseph Hewes was born January 23, 1730 at Maybury Hill, an estate on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. He was the son of Aaron Hewes and Providence Worth. His parents were Quaker by faith and successful farmers in one of the Settlements of the Connecticut Colony. The original Hewes line emigrated to Pennsylvania from England, about 1635.
Aaron and Providence were married in Connecticut in 1728. Indian massacres and the religious intolerance of Quakers still remaining among the Puritans of New England forced them to move to New Jersey to find a more peaceful and secure environment. They settled in an estate named “Maybury Hill” and occupied it from 1730 to 1755. The original house was a small, two-story stone structure with gable roof. A short distance away, at the northeast corner, stood a detached kitchen building. When Joseph Hewes was five years old (1735) the main house burned, but was rebuilt. Other major additions were made in 1753. The house now provides a fine example of Georgian architecture. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971. In1993-94 the building was restored and a frame wing was added to the North side. It is located in Mercer County, 346 Snowden Lane, Princeton.
Little is known of Joseph’s early life, except that he, like most Quaker children, helped with the farm work. He received a strict religious upbringing in the Quaker family and also had a public education . At a proper age he became a member of Princeton College and after graduation was placed in the counting house of a gentleman at Philadelphia, to be educated as a merchant. When his term of apprenticeship ended, he decided to go into the mercantile business on his own. It was not long before he had made a small fortune.
At the age of thirty Hewes moved to North Carolina. Before this move, he had been residing at New York and Philadelphia alternately, with visits to his friends in New Jersey. He moved to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1760 and established a prosperous shipping and mercantile business. He later moved to Edenton, North Carolina in 1763, where his business interest continued to prosper. In Edenton his shipping business was located on the corner of Main and King Streets. He formed a partnership there with Robert Smith, a lawyer, and the firm soon owned a wharf and their own ships. His first ship was named “Providence” after his mother.
He became engaged to Isabella Johnston. She was a sister of Samuel Johnston who served as one of North Carolina’s governors. Unfortunately, she died shortly before the date of their wedding. He never married and remained a bachelor the rest of his life. After her death, Hewes continued to be a steadfast friend of the Johnston family.
Joseph Hewes sustained a reputation as a man of honor. He acquired the confidence and esteem of the people among whom he lived. Within three years after his arrival in Edenton, Hewes was so highly regarded that he was elected to membership in the Assembly called to represent them in the Colonial Legislature of the province. He served from 1766 until that body ceased meeting in 1775.
In 1774, Hewes was elected to represent North Carolina in the Continental Congress that was assembling in Philadelphia. He was a member of the committee to “state the rights of the colonies.” In this, He assisted in preparing the North Carolina’s celebrated report known later as the “Halifax Resolves,” which like the Declaration of Independence, carefully delineated grievances against the mother country by highlighting misdeeds that justified severing the relationship between themselves and Great Britain.
Because of his shipping interests with England for over twenty years, Hewes was well known outside North Carolina. Though it meant personal loss, when he became involved in activities leading up to the Revolutionary War, Hewes supported a policy of ceasing commercial relationships with Britain. He cheerfully assisted in forming a plan for Non-Importation,
In the beginning of 1775, the Society of Friends (the Quakers), to which he and his family belonged, held a general convention denouncing the proceedings of Congress. Hewes, being a true Patriot, came to feel that a revolution in the Colonies was inevitable. He severed his connection with the Society and became a promoter of war against Britain. He threw off other restraints also imposed by the Quakers. He went to dances whenever possible, and it is said that he appreciated the company of the ladies.
On the advice of the committee appointed October 5, 1775, Congress voted to fit out four vessels, A committee of seven was formed by Congress for the defense of the United Colonies. By this vote, Congress was fully committed to the policy of maintaining a naval armament. This committee was the first executive body for the management of naval affairs. It was known as the “Naval Committee” and the members were John Langdon of New Hampshire, John Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Silas Deane of Connecticut, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, Joseph Hewes of North Carolina and Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. Hewes chaired the committee that was responsible for fitting out the first American Warships. He also put his entire fleet at the disposal of the Continental Armed Forces. The disbursements of the Naval Committee were under his special charge, and eight armed vessels were fitted out with the Funds placed at his disposal.
North Carolina, on April 12, 1776, authorized their delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. This was the first official action by a Colony calling for independence. The 83 delegates present in Halifax at the Forth Provincial Congress unanimously adopted the “Halifax Resolves”. The Resolves were important not only because they were the first official action calling for independence, but also because they were not unilateral recommendations. They were instead recommendations directed to all the colonies and their delegates assembled at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
In May, 1776, Hewes presented the Halifax Resolves to the Continental Congress. The last Line of the document reads;
“Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be empowered to concur with the other delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming foreign alliances, resolving to this Colony the sole, and exclusive right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony and appointing delegates from time to time (under the direction of a general Representation thereof) to meet the delegates of the other Colonies for such purposes as shall be hereafter pointed out”.
Hewes, who considered the resolves premature, ignored his State’s commitment and at first opposed Richard Henry Lee’s June seventh independence resolution. According to John Adams, however at one point during debate a transformation came over Hewes. “He started suddenly upright,” reported Adams, “and lifting up both his hands to Heaven, as if he had been in a trance, cried out, “It is done! and I will abide by it”.
In a letter to his friend James Iredell on June 28. 1776, Hewes expressed his confidence in the forthcoming debate on independence, “On Monday the great question of independence and Total Separation from all political intercourse with Great Britain will come on, it will be carried I expect by a great Majority and then I suppose we shall take upon us a New Name”.
Joseph Hewes was a friend and benefactor of John Paul (alias Jones). John Paul was a ship boy on a merchantman from Scotland, and at twenty one was 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:
“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)
In 1776, Hewes was a member of the secret committee, of the committee on claims, and was virtually the first secretary of the Navy. John Adams, would often boast that he and Hewes “laid the foundation, the cornerstone of the American 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 being the first of all the colonies to declare in favor of throwing off all connection with Great Britain. He was also on the committee to prepare the Articles of Confederation.
Hewes was not selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1777.
Despite this, the Assembly employed Hewes to fit out two vessels. He declined, however, because he was already an agent for the Continental Congress with regard to shipping. When the House of Commons met in 1779 Hewes was again there as an elected member of the House of Commons.
A letter signed “ G. Washington” as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army to Joseph Hewes, August 25, 1779, responds to Hewes’ asking Washington to help gain the “enlargement” (release) of a friend (Mr. Granberry) captured by the British. Washington replied with his opinion that trading captured British soldiers for captured American civilians would only motivate the British to capture more civilians.
Because of his poor health, Hewes sent his resignation to the General Assembly in late 1779. However he died In Philadelphia on November 10, 1779 before he could return to his home in Edenton, NC. He was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who died at the seat of government. His remains were followed to the grave in Christ Church Cemetery by Congress in a body, and a large concourse of the citizens of Philadelphia. Congress resolved that they would “attend the funeral with a crape round the left arm, and continue in mourning for one month.” It was suggested that a committee also be appointed to superintend the ceremony, and that the Rev. Mr. White, their chaplain, should officiate on the occasion. Today a marker commemorates Hewes, but the site of his grave is unknown.
In 1894 the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park In Greensboro, North Carolina, decided to re-inter the remains of the three Signers and erect a monument. Hooper and Penn were reburied in the park in 1894, but Hewes’s unmarked grave could not be located. The monument to the three signers was erected over the new graves of Hooper and Penn and was dedicated on July 3, 1897. The monument is inscribed:
“In Memoriam William Hooper and John Penn Delegates from North Carolina, 1776 to the Continental Congress and signers of the Declaration of Independence. Their remains were re-interred here 1894. Hewes grave is lost. He was the third signer”
Hewes’ Memorabilia is quite extensive in addition to the preceding Memorial.
Close by the Washington monument in Washington, D.C. in a special memorial park celebrating each of the 56 signers of the Declaration, there is a granite boulder engraved with the name of Joseph Hewes. In the Rotunda at the National Archives Building nearby is a large mural painting by Barry Faulkner showing a number of the signers of the Declaration, including Joseph Hewes who is shown on the extreme left in the top row.
In the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is the famous painting by John Trumbull entitled “The Declaration of Independence,” Joseph Hewes is shown seated with a group of ten figures, the third from the right, to the left of the figure of John Adams.
Two Naval ships have been named in honor of Joseph Hewes. During World War II sixteen shipyards on both coasts built Liberty ships. The ships were initially named after famous Americans, starting with the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The “USS Joseph Hewes-AP 50” was launched in 1942. This ship was sunk by a German Torpedo along the North African Coast. The second ship was a Knox Class Frigate “USS Joseph Hewes – FFT-1078” commissioned in 1971 as a Destroyer Escort. The ship made a cruise to Vietnam in 1972 , participating in a gunfire support role off the coast of Quang Tre, Vietnam. The ship was decommissioned June 30, 1994. She was sold that same day to the Taiwanese Navy and renamed the “Lan Yang”.
- Thomas E. Baker, The Monuments of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park (Greensboro, N.C.: Guilford Courthouse NMP, 1979), p.26.
- Barthelmas, Della Gray :The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. (McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC, 1977)
- Brotherhead, William: The Centenial Book of Signers, (Philadelphia, 1861)
- Ferris, Robert G and Morris, Richard E. “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence , Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Revised 1975.”
- Frost, John: National Archives: “Lives of American merchants, eminent for integrity, enterprise and public spirit, 1844, Merchants U.S.”
- Goodrich, Rev. Charles A. “ Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence,” New York: William Reed and Co., 1856
- Colonial Hall, accessed 2008
- Halifax Resolves : Forth Provincial Congress adopted
- Lossing, B, J. “Religious Affiliation of Joseph Hewes”, Webpage created 13 Nov. 2005. from , “Signers of the Declaration of Independence”, by George F. Cooledge and brother; New York 1848 .
- Lowry, Harold: spouse of William Hooper descendant.
- Maybury Hill, New Jersey
- National Parks Service –”Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings”.
- Mitchell, Memory F. : “North Carolina’s Signers Raleigh Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1964.”
- Sikes, Walter: “U.S. Congress; Biographial Directory of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence”.
- Sanderson, John; Notes from the biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, (R. W. Pomeroy, Philadelphia, 1827)
- Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, National Parks Service: Maybury Hill New Jersey, Princeton Township.
- United States Naval Vessel Register.