Founding Fathers Friday: Joseph Hewes

by Derrick G. Jeter

“My country is entitled to my services, and I shall not shrink from her cause, even though it should cost me my life.” These patriotic sentiments from Joseph Hewes were prophetic, for he was the only founder who actually died in Philadelphia attending to the country’s business.
Hewes was not born in North Carolina, his adopted home. (None of the North Carolina delegates were natives of the state.) Born and raised on an estate outside of Princeton, New Jersey, Hewes attended the university there before apprenticing with a merchant in Philadelphia. Finished with his apprenticeship, Hewes set up his own mercantile business and acquired a tidy sum of money.
Sometime in 1760, Hewes took his small fortune and moved to the growing seaport of Edenton, North Carolina, where he established an import/export business with his nephew Nathaniel Allen Jr. Hewes’s fortunes continued to grow professionally, but personally he met with tragedy. The engagement to the beautiful Isabella Johnston—the women he dedicate his life to—came to sudden end just days before their wedding when she died. Heartbroken and dispirited, Hewes threw himself into his work. He would never marry.
Quickly becoming a pillar of the Edenton community, Hewes was elected to the North Carolina legislature in 1763. Three years later, he became involved in the provincial assembly. Although he was an advocate for the rights and freedoms of the colonies, Hewes believed that independence from Britain wasn’t the best means of achieving those goals. Nevertheless, he was willing to partner with the other colonies to discuss how they might secure their rights and freedoms as British citizens. When Massachusetts put out a call for a general convention of the colonies, Hewes was the first patriot in North Carolina to call a convention within his colony to second Massachusetts’ motion. The North Carolina convention met in the summer of 1774 and elected Hewes as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
When Hewes arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, he was appointed to the committee that composed a declaration of rights and drew up a plan for nonimportation—the boycott of importing goods from England. This was an act of sacrifice for Hewes, as one early biography described it: “In this act his devoted patriotism was manifest, for it struck a deadly blow at the business in which he was engaged. It was a great sacrifice for him to make, yet he cheerfully laid it upon the altar of Freedom.”
Hewes was elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, where his Quaker faith propelled him to speak out against any talk of violent revolution. When Richard Henry Lee submitted his proposal for independence in June 1776, Hewes was wary. He believed the measure premature, despite his colony’s permission to vote in the affirmative. But vote yea he did. What changed his mind? A speech . . . the one delivered by John Adams the day before the vote. After the speech, Adams wrote: “Mr. Hewes, who had hitherto constantly voted against [independence], started upright, and lifting up both hands to Heaven . . . cried out, ‘It is done! and I will abide by it!’” Later Adams observed: “The unanimity of the States finally depended upon the vote of Joseph Hewes, and was finally determined by him.”
Hewes’s primary contribution in Congress, however, was in the area of his expertise: shipping. The leading member of the marine committee, Hewes was instrumental in establishing the Continental navy. John Adams is considered the father of the American navy because he was the first to call for its establishment, but Hewes is considered the first secretary of the navy. His chief achievement was the appointment of John Paul Jones—the first naval hero of the United States.
Hewes left Congress for a brief time in 1777, to attend to his personal business, and returned in July 1779. Hewes never took care of his heath. And having no wife to take care of him, he arriving in Philadelphia ill. But he didn’t let up from his sunup to sundown work. It didn’t take long before his body gave out. In October Hewes resigned his seat, but too weak to travel he remained in Philadelphia and died a few days later. Buried in Philadelphia, his funeral was attended by Congress, the Pennsylvania general assembly, and leading citizens of the city. Congressmen wore black crape around their arms for a month in tribute to their fallen colleague and America’s ardent patriot.