Reprinted from the Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Joseph Hewes was born at Kingston in New Jersey, in the year 1730. His parents, at the time of their marriage, resided in Connecticut, and belonged to the society of Friends.
From Connecticut they removed to New Jersey, where they found a quiet and tranquil retreat in Kingston, a short distance from Princeton.
This proved a very favorable circumstance to Joseph, for when he attained to the proper age for pursuing his studies the vicinity of his father’s dwelling to the college in Princeton, furnished him with facilities for procuring an education such as a more distant residence from a seminary of learning would have precluded.
Having finished his academic studies, he went immediately to Philadelphia, and entered as an apprentice to a merchant, to qualify himself for commercial business.
On the close of his apprenticeship, he commenced business on his own account, and by means of peculiar advantages, which at that time attended the colonies, in connection with the protection to merchant ships afforded by the British flag, Mr. Hewes rapidly acquired property. His residence for several years, was divided between New York and Philadelphia, as his business demanded his attention in the one place or the other.
At the age of about thirty years, he removed to North Carolina, and settled in Edenton, which he afterwards made his home for life.
In this his new residence, his industrious attention to business, his probity in his dealings, his sobriety of deportment, his intelligence and address, early acquired for him the esteem and confidence of the inhabitants ; insomuch that while he was yet comparatively a stranger among them, by their voluntary and unsolicited favor, he was called to take a seat in their legislative assembly. That appointment was repeatedly given him, and the duties connected with it he uniformly discharged to the acceptance of his constituents.
North Carolina was early decided in her opposition to the aggressions of the ministry and parliament of Great Britain. Consequently, so soon as the proposal for a general congress was announced to her influential men, measures were adopted for calling a convention to discuss the subject. That convention met fully prepared for the object. Accordingly, three delegates were appointed to attend the first congress in Philadelphia, of whom Joseph Hewes was one.
He entered the session on the fourteenth day of September, 1774; and like all the other delegates, his services were immediately called into action for arranging some of the various subjects which were to be considered, and decided by congress before the session closed. He was placed on the committee for considering and “stating the rights of the colonies in general, the several instances in which those rights had been violated, and the means most proper to be pursued for obtaining a restoration of them.”
That committee, after an industrious attention to their duties, reported a bill of rights to which the inhabitants were entitled, just one month from the day on which he entered congress.
Mr. Hewes was another striking instance of self devoted patriotism, of which there were many in those days, worthy of the age in which they lived, and which would honor any, age, of any nation. He was a merchant. He had been engaged in the business of importing goods from Great Britain and her dependencies. By importing and selling those goods he procured his support; and this had been his business and the source of his income, more than twenty years ; and he had no other. Yet all this must fall a sacrifice by the establishment of a non-importation agreement. But notwithstanding this sacrifice, he aided in maturing such an agreement, voted for it, and exerted himself to have it universally concurred in, and carried into complete effect.
Congress having finished the business of that session, and resolved that it was expedient that there should, be another meeting in May, 1775, adjourned. In the spring of 1775, Mr. Hewes was re-elected a delegate to congress, and took his geat accordingly at the time appointed. He was emphatically a man of business. Of whatever committees he was a member, he devoted himself to discharge his several duties with great assiduity, and unwearied perseverance. He was a member of that which had in charge the whole naval department ; and he became in effect the first secretary of the navy. He was also a member of the secret committee, whose duties were of the first importance, and of the highest responsibility.
But while he was so much occupied with his multiplied avocations in congress, he was not unmindful of North Carolina. The civil war was raging in that distracted region, and exposed the country to the attack of the common foe. It stood in need of aid ; and this aid Mr. Hewes forwarded for her relief, from his own private resources, although he was afterwards remunerated by congress.
The convention of North Carolina, in April, 1776, had voted a resolution, empowering the delegates from that province to concur with those from the other colonies, in declaring independence ; and Mr. Hewes, who was present when the question was debated in congress, was under no embarrassment in voting for it in conformity to his established judgment, as well as his views of its indispensable necessity, or in signing the instrument by which it was declared.
As soon as the business of the session would admit, Mr. Hewes returned to North Carolina ; and although he was appointed again a delegate to congress in the spring of 1777, he declined resuming his seat at that time. He remained at home, attending to his own private concerns, and to the interests of the state, until July, 1779; he then resumed his seat in congress. But his term of service was fast drawing to its close. His constitution had been severely tried, and his health was now quite feeble. He was able, therefore, to attend but little to the business of the public, or afford his aid to the national councils.
He attended and acted in congress, and gave his last vote in that body, on the twenty-ninth day of October. Thence he betook himself to his chamber, where he was confined until the tenth day of November, when he breathed his last, in the fiftieth year of his age.
His funeral was attended by congress in a body, by many personages of distinction, civil and military, and a large concourse of the citizens of Philadelphia, with marks of sincere regret for his decease, and profound respect for his character.