William Blount (1749–1800)
The son of a prosperous planter, Blount received a good private education. During the war he served in the North Carolina military as a paymaster. When he returned to civilian life, Blount began an uninterrupted career in politics. He sat in the lower house of the state legislature from 1780 to 1784 and in the upper house from 1788 to 1790. In between he served in the Continental Congress. At thirty-eight, he was a member of the North Carolina delegation to the Constitutional Convention but rarely participated in the debates. He signed the Constitution with considerable reluctance, although he supported its ratification in his home state. When he was passed over for the first U.S. Senate, Blount left North Carolina, settling in what became the state of Tennessee. Washington appointed Blount as governor for the Territory South of the River Ohio and superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern Department. In 1796 he chaired the constitutional convention that created the state of Tennessee. That same year Blount was chosen as one of Tennessee’s first U.S. senators. His political victory was overshadowed by personal financial difficulties, however. He became involved in a wild scheme to conquer Spanish-held Florida and Louisiana, and this led to his expulsion from the Senate. Despite this humiliation, Blount remained popular in Tennessee and was elected to state office in 1798, two years before his death in 1800.
William Richardson Davie (1756–1820)
Born in England, Davie was brought to South Carolina in 1763 by his father in order to place him in the care of the boy’s maternal uncle. Davie’s uncle adopted him and educated him, sending him to the Queen’s Museum College in Charlotte, North Carolina, and later to the College of New Jersey. Davie studied law and began a practice in North Carolina. When the Revolution began, he helped raise a cavalry troop and rose to the rank of colonel. He was wounded in a battle at Stono in 1779. In January 1781 Davie was appointed commissary-general for the critical Carolina campaign. After the war Davie settled in Halifax, North Carolina, practicing law and earning praise for his courtroom presentations. He was well liked by his community as well as well respected. Halifax sent him to the North Carolina legislature for a dozen years, beginning in 1786. There he worked to encourage all efforts to strengthen the national government. At the Constitutional Convention, Davie swung his state’s vote in favor of the Great Compromise. He left the convention on August 13 but continued to be a strong supporter of the Constitution and worked for its ratification in North Carolina. He was a founder of the University of North Carolina, playing an active role in the selection of its instructors and its curriculum. For his contribution to state education, the trustees of the university named him “Father of the University” and granted him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Davie became governor of the state in 1799 and served as one of President Adams’s peace commissioners to France in 1799. He retired from politics in 1805.
Alexander Martin (1740–1807)
Martin was born in New Jersey, but his family moved first to Virginia and then to Guilford County, North Carolina, where he grew up. He returned to his birth state to attend the College of New Jersey. After graduation Martin began a mercantile career in North Carolina but devoted most of his energies to a political career as justice of the peace, deputy king’s attorney, and, by 1774, judge of the Salisbury district. When members of the backcountry movement known as the Regulators staged a violent protest in Martin’s courtroom, he was severely beaten by the protesters. In the years before the war, Martin, who never married, served in the North Carolina House of Commons and in its provincial congresses. When war broke out, he was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the Second North Carolina Continental Regiment. He saw military action in South Carolina, but when he joined Washington’s army in 1777, he was arrested for cowardice after the Battle of Germantown. Although acquitted, Martin resigned his commission. The embarrassment of his military experience did not seem to impede Martin’s political career. He was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1778 and served there for eight years, often as that body’s speaker. In 1781 he became acting governor and the following year was elected to that office in his own right. From 1785 to 1787, Martin was a delegate to the Confederation Congress. At the Philadelphia convention, Martin showed little commitment to the nationalist agenda. He took no active role in the debates, perhaps because he had limited skill in public speaking, and left before the Constitution was signed. From 1789 to 1792, Martin again sat in the governor’s seat of North Carolina. By 1790 he had joined the ranks of supporters of the Jeffersonian party, and by 1792 the Democratic-Republicans had placed him in the U.S. Senate. His national career ended, however, when he voted with the Federalists for the Alien and Sedition Acts. By 1804 he was back in the state senate, where he again served as speaker.
Richard Dobbs Spaight Sr. (1758–1802)
Spaight, born into a distinguished family of English and Irish descent, was orphaned at the age of eight and his guardians sent him to Ireland in order to insure he was well educated. He returned to North Carolina, perhaps with a degree from Glasgow University, in 1778. He was given a commission in the military and served as an aide to the state militia commander. In 1780 he saw combat at the Battle of Camden. In 1781 Spaight returned to civilian life in order to devote himself to politics. He served in the state legislature from 1780 to 1787, taking two years off in 1783 to serve in the Confederation Congress. Only twenty-nine when the Philadelphia convention began, Spaight spoke on several occasions during the debates. Back home in North Carolina, he campaigned actively for ratification. His political career did not fare well after this. He was defeated in a bid for governor in 1787 and lost an election for the U.S. Senate in 1789. Soon afterward illness forced him to retire from public life. In 1792 Spaight returned to politics, this time in a successful campaign for the governorship. In 1798 Spaight—now a Democratic-Republican—took a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. While serving in Congress, he voted against the Alien and Sedition Acts and for Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800. At the age of forty-four, Spaight was killed in a duel with a Federalist politician.
Hugh Williamson (1735–1819)
The versatile Williamson was born into a large family in Pennsylvania. His parents hoped for a career for him as a clergyman and, toward that end, gave him a fine education. He was a member of the first class at the College of Philadelphia (later part of the University of Pennsylvania) and went on to become a licensed Presbyterian minister, although he was never ordained. He took a teaching position in mathematics at the College of Philadelphia rather than a pulpit. In 1764 Williamson rather abruptly abandoned his academic career and took up the study of medicine at Edinburgh, London, and Utrecht. He received a medical degree from the University of Utrecht and came home to Philadelphia, where he opened a practice. Unfortunately, he found a career in medicine emotionally exhausting. His interests in science led him to publish An Essay on Comets, for which he was recognized with an LL.D. degree from the University of Leyden. For his next career, Williamson decided to found an academy. On a fund-raising trip, he witnessed the Boston Tea Party, but when the British government called on him to testify about the event, he warned them that their unfair policies were provoking rebellion. Increasingly sympathetic to the American cause, Williamson wrote a pamphlet while in England, asking the English Whigs to support the colonists. Still abroad when the Declaration of Independence was signed, Williamson returned to America and settled in North Carolina. There he established a mercantile business and began to practice medicine again. During the war he served as surgeon general to the state troops. In 1782 Williamson opened up a new phase of his life by entering politics. He was elected to the lower house of the state legislature and then to the Continental Congress. He left Congress to return to state office and in 1787 was chosen to join the North Carolina delegation to the Constitutional Convention. There he proved himself an effective debater and was chosen to serve on a number of key committees, including the Committee on Postponed Matters. In 1789 he began the first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1793 Williamson moved to New York City in order to better pursue his literary and philanthropic interests. He published a number of political, educational, historical, and scientific works and became a leading member of the New-York Historical Society.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.