“Republican Ideology in the Life and Politics of Willis ‘Congress’ Alston, 1769-1837”


Timothy J. Williams
Department of History
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, N.C.
January 22, 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Timothy Joseph Williams
All rights reserved

Republican Ideology in the Life and Politics of Willis “Congress” Alston, 1769-1837
Timothy J. Williams

Speaking to an assembly of North Carolinians at a Fourth of July Celebration in rural Halifax, North Carolina in 1824, Willis Alston, a congressman from that town, urged his listeners to consider the vulnerability of American democracy in the absence of a virtuous citizenry. “The efficiency of our government, wise and munificent as it is,” Alston began, “depends at last on the people: on their virtue and intelligence… rests the stability of the Constitution.” Alston’s message echoed the republican ideology that he had espoused ever since his congressional career began in 1798: American democracy rested not in the hands of wealthy aristocrats, but on the virtues of self-reliant farmers, who were the true guardians of individual liberty and freedom. Ever mindful that luxury, wealth, and partisan spirit threatened to undermine the success of the still-new experiment in American democracy, Alston warned his audience against corrupt politicians and offered, instead, a prescription for the preservation of the republic, which had been his lifelong credo. “So long as we remain true to ancient feelings and principles, we have nothing to fear,” Alston explained to his audience, “but when we depart from them, our dignity and our prosperity will leave. It is beneath a nation of freemen to entertain an ambition for dominion and luxury… .We should look with contempt on the trappings of office, and the ostentation of wealth.”

The political career of Willis Alston of Halifax, North Carolina, captures much of the essence of republican ideology and the development of party politics both in North Carolina and in the United States in the early national period. Willis Alston occupied a prominent place in state and national politics between 1798 and 1832. His longevity in Congress, in fact, earned him the nickname Willis “Congress” Alston. He was a man noted for his strong leadership, his loyalty to his state, and his unwavering sense of good judgment. His name appears alongside many notable names in national politics such as Nathaniel Macon, William R. Davie, John Randolph, and Andrew Jackson. Yet Alston’s significance lies not in his associations, but in his service to North Carolina. Between 1790 and 1835, a time when the very nature of American democracy was still uncertain, Alston worked to overturn conservative domination of state politics with vernacular republicanism. First as a Jeffersonian Republican, then as a Jacksonian, he championed a style of democracy that exulted states’ rights, individual liberty, and popular government at the local level. “I act from the dictates of my own judgment, independently of any man or set of men,” he once said, “but if the course which I pursue is the course with which the nation is satisfied, it gives the pleasure.”

Willis Alston was born in 1769, on Fishing Creek, near Littleton, in Halifax County, North Carolina. He was the son of Captain John Alston and Ann Hunt Macon and, thus, he was the nephew of Nathaniel Macon, a prominent North Carolina Congressman and Senator. Alston spent most of his life in Halifax County, North Carolina. Located in the northeastern part of the state, just southeast of the fall line that demarcates the piedmont plateau to the west and the costal plain to the east, Halifax was a sparsely populated county in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its major crops were corn, wheat, oats, and tobacco. The county seat was also named Halifax, and it was located just south of the Virginia-Carolina border on the banks of the Roanoke River.

The Alston family has had a long history in North Carolina, indeed one as old as North Carolina itself. Willis Alston’s great grandfather, John Alston, was born in Bedfordshire, England in 1673. He arrived in Carolina in 1711 with a grant from the Crown for 270 acres on the northwest side of Bennett’s Creek in present-day Gates County, North Carolina. In 1713, he received land grants for several additional sites. By 1725, John Alston had become revenue collector for King George I of England. Later, between 1738 and 1747, he also served as a Vestryman of St. Paul’s Parish in Chowan County.

Joseph John Alston, Willis Alston’s grandfather, continued to patent a large number of tracts of land around Bennett’s Creek, which later became Halifax. Like his father, Joseph John Alston served in colonial politics as a justice of peace in 1732 and in the colony’s General Assembly between 1744 and 1746. By 1745, Joseph John Alston had become a member of the Committee on Grievances, which was a standing committee within the colonial legislature that either considered complaints regarding conditions within the colony that required laws, or raised complaints of the colony itself.

The historical record is conspicuously silent with regard to Willis Alston’s father, Captain John Alston, particularly in regard to his public life. We do know, however, that John Alston inherited a large portion of the family’s land in and around Halifax in addition to numerous slaves. Willis Alston’s father often is mistaken for his uncle of the same name, Colonel Willis Alston because Willis Alston was frequently referred to as “Willis Alston, Jr.” in congressional records and the press of the time. Yet it was not uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to use the suffix to distinguish between relations of different generations, and this was likely the case between Colonel Willis Alston and, Willis Alston, his nephew.

Willis Alston’s paternal uncle played an important role in the future congressman’s childhood. As both a political and military figure, Colonel Alston was an eighteenth-century gentleman par excellence and he earned the respect of the colonial gentry in North Carolina as well as in Virginia. In assessing Colonel Alston’s character, for instance, William Byrd of Westover, for instance, who was usually quite disparaging of North Carolinians, praised him in his memoirs (and also noted that he admired his daughter, Sarah). Colonel Alston was a figure of great importance in Halifax during the Revolutionary period. He played a prominent role in the Fifth Provincial Congress in November 1776, for example, which was a self-authorized legislature that took up the task of drafting a state constitution. He also fought against the crown during the Revolutionary War. Young Willis Alston probably held his patriot uncle in high esteem as he watched the events of the American Revolution unfold in his town and among his family.

Indeed, the spirit of the Revolutionary era must have had a lasting impression on young Willis Alston. Seven years old in 1776, Willis Alston was certainly too young to participate in the political and military events of war and the creation of the American republic, but he likely imbued a sense of momentous change and excitement within his family and community. Committees of correspondence and revolutionary upheavals took place along North Carolina’s eastern seaboard, and in his own county of Halifax. These places were among the first to see the decrees of the Provincial and Continental Congresses of the 1770s enforced. For example, Halifax had its own safety committee, which, sometime between 1774 and 1775 “resolved to have no more delays with a certain Loyalist merchant.” Safety committees existed in towns throughout the state and were groups of political activists, of sorts, who spread Whig propaganda and made military preparations for war; Loyalist Governor Martin condemned them as “motley mobs.” In addition, North Carolina’s Fifth Provincial Congress met in Halifax on 12 November 1776—with Willis Alston’s uncle in attendance—and framed a constitution for the new state of North Carolina. This constitution created the framework for a new state government that would provide for a more popular, though by no means unlimited, brand of popular democracy that differed greatly from the colonial government. This constitution remained unrevised until 1835, that is, for all but two years of Willis Alston’s life.

This political milieu in which Alston came of age doubtless shaped his political consciousness in early youth, but so too, did his education. Like countless elite young men, Alston had access to intellectual, social, and political resources through education. As a boy, he probably studied under a private tutor, or in a small academy, and then went to college. Biographical sketches of Alston say that he attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) after he completed his preparatory studies, but there is no evidence that he ever attended. Yet a young man from rural North Carolina had fewer options for attending college in the colonial period than today; those options were often limited by distance as well as political and religious considerations. He could have attended one of nine colonial colleges—Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Queen’s College (now Rutgers), and Dartmouth. Of these nine colleges, William and Mary was closest in proximity to Halifax, but if Alston ever did attend college, he likely attended Princeton because his maternal uncle, Nathaniel Macon, attended in 1776 (though he, too, did not receive a diploma).

University training notwithstanding, Alston’s political education began in earnest when he first entered local and state politics. At twenty-one, Alston was elected to the House of Commons and served until 1792. A Senate and a House of Commons—together called the General Assembly—comprised the legislative branch in North Carolina. Each county had one member in the Senate and two representatives in the House of Commons; each town, or “borough town,” was to have one representative. Members in both houses were elected annually among freemen who paid taxes, though election to the Senate required property qualifications of three hundred acres. The General Assembly’s main functions were to elect the state’s governor, judges, Secretary of State, State Treasure, and a seven-member Governor’s Council. In addition to property qualifications, the Constitution excluded clergymen, atheists, and Catholics from membership in the General Assembly and other public offices. Though undemocratic by today’s standards, this constitution allowed for a more egalitarian and representative form of government than had previously existed in the colony.

At the time of Alston’s entry into state politics, statesmen did not claim fixed party identities as they do today, but they did identify with particular ideological positions that emerged during the debates over ratification of the federal Constitution (1786-1788). Two ideological camps had emerged during the ratification contest—federalists and antifederalists—and these factions would shape the politics of the early national period. Those who believed that a strong federal government was necessary to ensure the stability of the United States, to protect property rights, and to encourage trade were called federalists. Typically wealthy merchants, planters, shippers, and artisans, federalists favored a new Constitution over the Articles of Confederation, which, they believed, gave too much power to individual states and not enough power to the central government. A strong central government, from the federalist perspective, was necessary to protect property rights; stimulate commerce; raise revenue; provide a stable national currency; and protect the United States in foreign relations. Those who opposed a strong federal government were called antifederalists. Comprised mostly of farmers, small merchants, and urban workers, antifederalists believed that the Articles of Confederation needed only to be amended. Fearing that power concentrated at the federal level would become monarchical, antifederalists insisted that state power should be paramount in a republican form of government; they advocated, therefore, a small republic that protected common interests and individual rights. North Carolina did not, at first, vote for ratification on account of an overwhelming majority of antifederalist delegates who met at the Hillsboro Convention in 1788; one year later, however, due to a shift in public opinion, North Carolina Federalists ratified the U.S. Constitution on November 21, 1789.

The ratification of the Constitution did not quiet the contest between antifederalists and federalists. In the early 1790s, when Alston made his political debut, two competing visions for America came to dominate the political arena, which ultimately gave rise to the formation of the first national party system. One vision for the new American republic is most commonly associated with Alexander Hamilton of New York, secretary of the treasury in President Washington’s cabinet. Hamilton’s vision was strongly nationalistic; he envisioned a republic that was powerful and prosperous, held together by a strong federal government that subsidized manufacturers, regulated trade, and maintained good relations with Great Britain, which Hamilton believed was a source of revenue for the American economy. James Madison of Virginia—often referred to as the father of the Constitution—opposed Hamilton’s vision for America. Along with Thomas Jefferson, Madison articulated what came to be largely a sectional opposition to Hamilton’s plan for development. Southerners generally opposed Hamilton’s federalism and instead extolled an agrarian society comprised of small freeholders and small, local governments. Congress, however, enacted many of Hamilton’s proposals for development, which widened ideological rifts over development of the republic. By 1794, opposition to Federalist policies and Hamilton’s economic plans solidified under the leadership of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who became the leaders of a new political party, which was called the Democratic-Republican party, and ultimately the Republican party. Thus, by 1794, the nation’s first party system emerged, and Federalists and Republicans would compete vigorously for their visions of what the American republic should be.

As a young leader, Willis Alston took a while to sort out his party identity, as was the case for many leaders in the first party system, and he often supported measures from both ends of the political spectrum until at least the election of 1800. Among the first issues of Willis Alston’s political career was a rather heated contest in the state legislature over the chartering and funding of the University of North Carolina in 1790 and 1791. North Carolina’s 1776 constitution provided for a state university, and in 1789, the Federalists passed a bill chartering the University of North Carolina, the new nation’s first publicly supported university to open its doors to students. In establishing a state-sponsored university, federalists hoped to create well-educated leaders, who would serve the state in national politics; in so doing Federalists also hoped to spread the light of knowledge through the wilderness of the North Carolina frontier. William R. Davie, the founder of the University of North Carolina and Alston’s political forerunner from Halifax, North Carolina, played a major role in securing support for the University. In 1790, Willis Alston voted in the majority to support a loan to the trustees of the University and, one year later, Alston voted, again with the majority, for a loan of five thousand pounds in order to erect new buildings. Willis Alston believed in the Revolutionary promises of the Declaration of Independence and the new Constitution, and he championed state funding of a university because doing so seemed to guarantee the success of the revolutionary experiment.

While Alston spent his first two years as a state legislator learning politics, much of his political education probably occurred through participation in the local Freemason Lodge. On April 22, 1790, Alston became a member of the Royal White Hart Lodge No. 2 and, one year later, he became a third degree member. It is plausible that Alston’s early political education occurred as a Freemason. According to historian Stephen Bullock, Masonry “created networks that encouraged communication and cooperation between politically active men” and “helped constitute an elite that could plausibly claim to be enlightened and republican.” In other words, Masonry helped to cohere a ruling class of elite political leaders. Thus, Masonry and politics were almost inextricably bound. Indeed, between 1776 and 1836, Masons held the governorship of North Carolina for a totally of forty-eight of sixty years. As an active member for almost fifty years, Alston, too, leveraged the social connections of Masonry in his politics and electioneering.

In 1794, at the age of twenty-five, Alston entered the state Senate and served until 1796, when he retired to plantation life at “Butterwood,” the family plantation. But his return to plantation life was short, for already in 1795, Alston had announced his candidacy for election to the Fifth Congress for the Halifax District. Confirming the political and social clout that Alston had already garnered, Thomas Blount, a prominent merchant and planter from Halifax, who was running for re-election, wrote to his brother, “J[ohn] Haywood had alarmed me with an apprehension that Beaufort County is to be lopped off from our District & Willis Alston has given me Notice that he intends to be a Candidate. Now if both these Things happen I shall be run hard indeed—much harder than my health can bear.”

Indeed, as Blount feared, Willis Alston emerged victorious in 1798. Local rivalries and scandals played a partial role in securing Alston’s victory. At the time of the election, Thomas Blount and his brothers were under investigation for land fraud. Though Blount denied that he was connected to the fraud, Alston used the case to garner support from voters who believed that Blount and his brothers were traitors for embezzling state money.

Yet Alston’s successes were as political as they were social, for he was able to appeal to voters from both ends of the ideological spectrum. On one hand, he appealed to many Federalists in power due to his support of the Jay Treaty; he had generated public confidence in his political leadership; and he did not appear as an ultra-federalist, thus ameliorating the fears of most Republicans. For all intents and purposes, Alston was a moderate Republican. While Alston occasionally voted with the Federalists early in his congressional career—for greater national defense and for continued suspension of trade with France—he typically joined most southern Republicans in voting against Federalist policies. This was particularly true during John Adams’ administration, when Alston voted against the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, increased naval appropriations, and the reorganization and expansion of federal courts. Alston, by this time, was more likely to be found voting with Republicans, especially after George Washington stepped down and John Adams assumed the Presidency.

Responding to Alston’s sweeping victory, Blount’s embittered supporters suggested that Alston had manipulated the election by writing a circular about the land frauds. “I was very much mortified when I heard of the fate of the election in your division,” wrote Richard Dobbs Spaight to John Gray Blount, Thomas Blount’s brother. He lamented the results not only because “the popular currant [sic] had taken a sudden turn,” but because “it must be acknowledged on all hands that election was not lost by Alston’s popularity in the district, but owing to a private enemy by underhanded means taking off 1000 of his votes.” Contrary to Blount’s wishes, the election was not held a second time, and Alston’s victory heralded a long congressional career.

Alston’s victory in the 1798 election helped to the lay the foundation for Republican reorganization of national politics. This had not gone without censure from embittered Federalists, who launched scathing attacks against him in partisan newspapers. “When you arrived at the seat of government and found the Republicans had a large majority,” an anonymous author recalled in 1810, “and also learned…that the public mind was undergoing rapid change, it was no longer doubtful with those best acquainted with your character which side you would prefer.” Alston’s opposition believed that his alliance with Republicans seemed to have been a political strategy to stay in office and remain popular, rather than a matter of personal conviction. “It was easier to toss with the tide than to stem the torrent,” the author continued, “Your principles were convenient…you voted with the majority, and in the language of the day became by profession a warm Republican.”

Contrary to his opposition’s obviously partisan l810 letter, Alston’s voting record in the Sixth Congress and his public enthusiasm for Jefferson suggest that Alston’s politics were a matter of conviction rather than mere expediency. The congressional election of 1803 solidified his allegiances to that party. This election was, by far, the most heated election in early national North Carolina, for it pitted the state’s new republican golden child against the state’s most venerable Federalist politician, William R. Davie, founder of the University of North Carolina and former Governor of the state, and also from Halifax. Federalists were especially confident in securing a victory for Davie—his prominence, his charm, and his eloquence made him the most respectable candidate.

With everything in place for a heated political match in Halifax in 1803, the press took up much of the partisan competition in this election, creating, for the first time in the state’s political history, formidable journalistic obstacles for candidates running for office. Federalist papers pitched Davie as “highly dignified and honorable…elegant and graceful in his person; affable, polite and condescending in his manners; he was the favorite of men of sense and virtue of every description of party.” Alston, “the competitor of this gentleman,” however, was seen as a mere “drowned rat,” with questionable personal qualities and no chance to win.

Whereas Federalists employed the language of elite sociability and respectability to lionize their candidate, Alston employed the vernacular of republicanism to expose a dangerously monarchical Davie. A story about Davie that Alston loved to tell voters illustrates his popular appeal as a truly democratic candidate. When Davie had been in France in 1800, dealing with the XYZ affair, he happened to purchase some fine china, among which was a china bowl that he evidently kept under his bed. Alston accused Davie of being pampered. He supposedly roused voters by telling them that saying that “Davie could not do like the ordinary men of that day when it became necessary to meet certain calls of nature,” that is, use the woods, “but instead [he] used his fine china bowl.” And thus, with one scatological story, Alston beat the pampered aristocrat with a majority of 823 votes.

Thus, in beating Davie in 1803, Willis Alston played a role in ending Federalism in North Carolina and cementing Republicanism in its place. Indeed, Willis Alston was among the young and energetic leaders who strengthened Republicanism in the state. Alston believed that Jeffersonian republicanism, as opposed to the centralizing Federalist policies of the Adams administration, safeguarded North Carolina’s political and economic rights as a state. Jefferson’s vision included a balance between agriculture and commerce. Commercial society seemed inevitable to Jefferson, so his policies worked to forestall its development with policies that minimized corruption in the national government; provided unobstructed access to open land (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase of 1803); and liberal international commerce that would benefit small farmers and their communities. Because mostly farmers of moderate wealth inhabited North Carolina, they opposed strong federal control. North Carolinians instead championed Jefferson’s vision of a republic of farmers, controlled not by expansive commerce and banks, but by individual work and community interest.

This was exactly the vision that Alston had for North Carolina. The period 1801-1817 therefore saw a sustained commitment to secure these conditions for a viable republican political economy. Prior to 1810, North Carolina Republicans emphasized state and local economic concerns over national and international interests. When the topic of erecting a monument to George Washington in Washington, D.C. arose, for example, Alston opposed the construction of it because he believed it was an extravagant use of money. And, in 1804, Alston opposed a bill that proposed the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which provided for the separate election of President and Vice President. According to congressional records, Alston opposed the amendment because “he was much disposed to guard against the influence of the large States as any member upon the floor.”

Alston believed that he should, at all times, advance the interests of North Carolina and the South. These interests were most clear during debates in 1804 of a proposed ten-dollar tax on the importation of slaves into the United States. South Carolina had resumed importation of slaves four years before the slave trade was scheduled to end. Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, saw the resumption of slave importation in South Carolina as a way to undercut the growing southern aristocracy and balance the federal budget at the same time. Alston opposed the tax on the basis that it was inherently unfair because it did not tax citizens in each state equally. Therefore, it could not be considered a general tax and was, instead, an abuse of federal power to tax slave states over non-slave states. “This is an extremely delicate subject, and one in which the feelings of almost the whole Southern country are always alive,” Alston argued. “Why will gentlemen choose to agitate it upon this floor,” he asked, “It can answer no good purpose. Those gentlemen who are not interested in this description of property ought to let us alone, and permit us to enjoy it as the necessity of the case requires.”

Alston’s prestige escalated in the period 1803-1808, and his successes were due in no small part to his adherence to republican ideologies and his political skills on the House floor. But this is not to say that Alston did not escape criticism, even from other Republicans. For instance, John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, frequently poured his wrath upon Alston on the House floor. Randolph was a great orator, a leading Republican, and an adamant defender of state rights and classical republican ideology. Randolph opposed nationalist movements at home and abroad, the U.S.’s growing commercial economy, and any encroachment of federal power upon an individual’s rights to wealth and property. Republicans had corrupted republicanism from within the party, Randolph believed, and so he formed a dissident faction of Republicans—the Tertium Quids—who professed to be pure exemplars of Jeffersonian republicanism.

While Alston admitted in 1796, “I think Mr. Randolph a tolerable good republican,” mutual antagonism developed between the two on account of differences in political ideology, for certain, but perhaps most of all because of differences in personality. Willis Alston was an adamant Jefferson supporter and he did not join Randolph’s Quids in their crusade against the President. As a result, Alston and Randolph began to bicker incessantly over a host of issues in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Feuds erupted sporadically on the House floor between these Virginian and North Carolinian Republicans over duties on salt, the notorious Burr conspiracy, and daily insults to character and honor.

Not all of their feuds were political in nature, for Randolph never thought highly of Alston. During the first session of the Sixth Congress (1799-1800), when Randolph was a member of the Senate, he boarded in Philadelphia with other congressmen, including Willis Alston. He recalled in his diary that Alston “was one of the mess” of republicans with whom he boarded, though “a paltry member of it.” Tension came to a head in 1804, when Randolph and Alston became embroiled in a dinner conversation over the Jefferson administration’s interference with a land fraud in Georgia. Alston allegedly had insulted a woman in attendance at the dinner party, and Randolph threw a glass of wine into the North Carolinian’s face! The next day, Raleigh’s Minerva described the “Feast of the Democratic Members of Congress” at which Willis Alston, “the honorable member from Halifax in this state, said something, which so irritated little David, alias John Randolph…that the latter flung the contents of a glass of wine in the face of the Goliath of Roanoke, then the glass and lastly the bottle itself—How this drunk affair ended we have not yet heard.”

In 1811, during the second session of the Eleventh Congress, hostilities between Randolph and Alston reached a bloody and almost fatal climax, when John Randolph caned Willis Alston for striking one of his dogs, who frequently accompanied Randolph to the House. As one observer recalled, John Randolph “took his seat [on] the 22 [of January] and introduced two pointers with him which set up a barking when the members rose to speak—no one dared turn the dogs out.” After the House adjourned and Willis Alston rose to leave, one of the dogs “got between his [Alston’s] legs, and had nearly thrown him down.” Alston struck the dog, and John Randolph “beat Alston several times over the head and shoulders” with his cane. Alston returned the assault in kind, and members had to separate the two congressmen. One week after the fight in the House, Randolph commented on the incident in a letter to a friend that Alston, not his dogs, instigated the whole snafu. “You are mistaken, he wrote, “in your notion of the cause of my coup d’etat, although partly right for there was a ‘puppy’ in the way.” But the dog under question was not his own, but Alston. “This poor wretch [Alston], he continued, “uttered at me some very offensive language which I was not bound to overhear; but he took care to throw himself in my way on the staircase and repeat his foul language to another in my hearing.” Randolph, in the end, pledged his word that “my dogs had not directly or indirectly the slightest agency in this business.”

Regardless of emerging political factions and in-fighting among Republicans, Alston’s politics between 1808 and 1815 where characterized by steadfast support of the administrations’ domestic and foreign policies. These were the crucial years leading up to the War of 1812, and foreign policy took precedence in Congress. An especially important concern for the U.S. was commerce. By this time, the United States had begun to feel the strains of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, which had started around 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte gained control over France. While a truce was made between Great Britain and France in 1801, the two hostile nations resumed conflict in 1803. Though the United States tried to remain neutral, Britain’s naval blockades against France made it difficult for American merchants to engage in productive commerce. President Jefferson believed that the United States had three options in this situation—it could enforce an embargo on British goods, go to war, or submit to the tyranny of these two great monarchies. When James Madison took office in 1809, he tried to continue diplomatic negotiations and forestall war. Most North Carolinians were not enthusiastic supporters of Jefferson and Madison’s foreign policies. They detested involvement with foreign powers, and even fewer were enthusiastic about the nationalist appeal of war hawks that championed war.

During these years of mounting trans-Atlantic conflict, Willis Alston, along with most North Carolina Republicans, supported Jefferson’s, and, later, Madison’s administrations. Alston voted in favor of the Embargo Act (1808), the Non-Intercourse Act (1809), and the Naval Appropriations Bill (1811). Congress passed the Embargo Act in 1807 in order to avoid war with Britain; it prohibited American ships to sail to foreign ports and to export goods to all foreign countries. The embargo was hotly contested, especially in New England because of its effects on commerce. On the question of the Embargo, Alston demonstrated that the most important consideration in dealing with tensions in the Atlantic should be the preservation of Americans’ liberty. He voiced the nationalistic enthusiasm of the era when he criticized resistance to the Embargo in 1808: “Has the American Nation come to this, that the laws of our country are to be violated, that trade and commerce shall be carried on whether sanctioned by the government or not,” he asked. Alston believed that, were the U.S. to continue trade in the Atlantic, the nation would be forced to submit to England’s powerful navy and England’s trade laws. The opposition, he argued, “says that the whole nation calls for repeal; that every part of this great community feels its effect I readily admit; but that they wish its immediate repeal at the expense of our liberty as an independent nation, I positively deny.”

In reality, the Embargo did not really injure North Carolina’s economy or commerce. Yet while most of North Carolina’s commerce occurred between states, the Embargo did raise serious issues in North Carolina around the role of the federal government over state and local economies and markets. Alston couched his argument in terms of this long-waged battle over the role of the federal government. And because he also employed the rhetoric of individual and national liberty, Alston appealed to the broader issues that republicanism was supposed to safeguard against the tyranny of a strong central government.

In 1811, Alston supported the Naval Appropriations Bill for reasons similar to those he voiced against the Embargo Act. The bill called for congressional support of more than seven million dollars to construct thirty-six new sea vessels. He believed that the naval bill would bolster North Carolina’s internal economy. North Carolina was a major producer of naval stores. To augment the national navy would fuel the production of one of North Carolina’s main resources—tar—and would directly benefit the state’s economy. Alston proved to be an unwavering supporter of both the Jefferson and Madison administrations because he believed that their respective administrations promoted policies that protected the economic interests of North Carolina farmers, large and small, and thus, too, the individual liberty of the idyllic agrarian republican. Increasing naval appropriations and enforcing Jefferson’s embargo would, in the long run, protect the United States from British offenses at sea.

Willis Alston believed that only a war against Britain would guarantee the safety of American democracy against the tyranny of monarchy. On June 30, 1812, Governor Hawkins of North Carolina urged for “a united and vigorous support” of war. In Congress, North Carolina’s two senators voted for war and in the House, six Republicans, including Nathaniel Macon and Willis Alston, voted in favor of war. The War of 1812, in this vein, was for Alston, as well as for other southern congressmen, a second Revolutionary War. One historian has argued that, for most Republicans, “the only alternative to war was submission to the British commercial system.” In keeping with other pro-war Republicans, Alston supported the war because he believed it would provide economic and political freedom for North Carolina and for the U.S. And above all, he desired to preserve his nation’s honor against encroaching tyranny.

During the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Willis Alston wholeheartedly supported the executive branch and advocated a greater use of centralized power than many Republicans probably liked. While his positions certainly incited the censure of dissident Republicans such as Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph, who criticized Jefferson and Madison’s nationalism, they did not alienate Alston from his constituents. He had, by this time, proved that he was a good judge of the issues that mattered for North Carolina, especially for those in his socioeconomic sphere who benefited from federal measures against Britain, especially the buildup of a stronger navy. Most important, Alston sensed that the War of 1812, and the tensions around it, heralded a new age of American independence in which would flourish the republicanism of the 1790s that he cherished. Thus Alston leveraged the War of 1812 to his advantage and proved that he was, as one historian has put it, “a true man of the Era of Good Feelings.”

Following the War of 1812, which concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, Willis Alston gradually receded from politics. Alston was pleased that the United States had won the War and that the viability of the American republic had been vindicated in a second war for independence. In 1816, he retired to his Butterwood Plantation for a respite from national politics. It is unclear, exactly, why Alston to chose to retire at this time, but extant letters from Alston’s life to this time suggest that perhaps he needed to repair his finances and manage his crops. In his early career, he had struggled to pay debts from land sales (and he even found himself in court on occasion settling some of those issues). Moreover, Alston also had inherited his father’s debt to the British, which he had to pay off before he could pay debts on land. Finally, his first wife, Pattie Moore, may have been ill after the war, and Alston may have returned home to tend to her. Thus what propelled Alston out of Congress and back to his plantation was probably not a political force, but the need to manage his finances, plantation, and private life.

By the time of his retirement from Congress, Alston’s first wife, Pattie Moore had died without bearing children. There are no extant records indicating when they married or when she died. On May 29, 1817, however, Alston married his second wife, Sallie Madline Potts of New Hanover Country, North Carolina. The marriage suggests that Pattie Moore must have died between 1816 and the spring of 1817 at the latest. Potts’ father was Joshua Potts, a member of the North Carolina gentry. He was collector of the Customs for the Cape Fear River and founded the town of Southport, south of Wilmington. Thus, through his second marriage, Alston was certainly able to ameliorate whatever financial obligations burdened him as well as guarantee prosperity for the years to come. Thus, having married into considerable wealth, Alston was able to enjoy his time away from politics supervising his plantation, breeding, and racing horses. Family tradition has it that the Alstons were particularly adept at racing, though no records exist to indicate just how successful Willis Alston’s horses were on the track.

Though Willis Alston had distanced himself from national politics after the War of 1812, he followed local and state politics carefully. In 1818, he took particular notice of accusations that the state Treasurer, John Haywood, had defrauded the state of thousands of dollars. All of Raleigh was abuzz with discussion of corruption in the state government. In 1820 Alston ended his brief retirement and, once again, entered the North Carolina House of Commons. Immediately upon his re-entry into state politics, Alston led an investigation of John Haywood. The legislature appointed a committee to “investigate the state of the Treasury, and to enquire into the official conduct of John Haywood,” and Alston served as the chairman. Haywood cooperated with the investigation, and he supplied all the records that the committee requested of him. Testimony from individual state officials did not substantiate claims of corruption or malpractice. Instead, the committee found that “the insinuations made against John Haywood” were “base and malicious calumnies.” Many of Alston’s opponents believed that he should never have questioned Haywood, who had proven to be a man of “unvarying usefulness to the public…uncorrupted and incorruptible.” Yet, from the vantage point of history, we see that Alston’s instincts were correct, for upon Haywood’s death in 1827, the new Treasurer of North Carolina found that the state was short the exact amount of money for which Haywood was charged of embezzling.

Willis Alston’s return to state politics was marked with the same sense of concern for North Carolina’s socioeconomic stability that he exhibited in his early career. Once again, the state’s economy took precedence in the legislature. A national Panic in 1819 caused a devastating depression in the United States, including in North Carolina, where deflation, unstable prices, and low property values forced the state’s banks to stop specie payment of banknotes in circulation. This suspension of specie caused many North Carolinians to declare bankruptcy. Alston was enraged that banks suspended payment of specie; he believed that bankers were hoarding money because of the Panic. In a measure to castigate corrupt bank officials, then, he introduced a bill that required all banks to pay an annual interest on banknotes they rejected after they suspended specie payment. The bill, however, did not pass the House.

Alston had hoped to return to national politics in 1824 during a special congressional election. Between 1816 and 1825, three successive one-term Representatives from Halifax served in Congress. In 1824, one of them, Hutchins G. Burton, resigned to be Governor of North Carolina, and his resignation created an open seat in Congress. A special Congressional election was called to fill that seat, and Willis Alston ran, though he lost to an “Old Republican,” George Outlaw, who pledged his support to William H. Crawford in the presidential election of 1824. Alston was an unwavering advocate of Andrew Jackson, but North Carolina’s old Federalists and Old Republicans believed that Crawford championed their values more than Jackson. Alston lost the 1824 election to Outlaw.

In 1825, Willis Alston returned to Congress to represent the Halifax district in the nation once again. Alston worked hard to guard North Carolina’s political and economic interests against the centralizing, anti-southern machinations of the Adams administration. The election of John Quincy Adams, the first northern president in twenty-five years, was not the choice of most southerners. Adams advocated a strong central government and was vigorous in his pursuit of nationalist programs. Southerners disdained his opposition to states rights, which were epitomized in his signing of the notorious Tariff of 1828. Southerners believed that the tariff was an “abomination” and would divide northern and southern economic interests. Willis Alston voted against the bill calling for the tariff as early as 1827. His vote reflected his interest in the prosperity of both North Carolina and the South as a whole. “We at the south will go with any side to defeat it [the tariff],” Alston wrote to Willie P. Mangum in 1828. Even when Alston perceived that the tariff would pass, he believed that the southerners should not let the tariff diminish southern production, manufacturing, and regional honor. “Our course is clear,” he wrote to Mangum later in 1828, “self defence, raise our Horses, mules & Pork, spin & weave at home buy nothing from the Tariff Gentlemen…we can live as cheaply as they can, Let us take pride in what we can make & raise within ourselves and not in what we buy.”

During this time of southern frustration with John Quincy Adams, Willis Alston and Andrew Jackson, then preparing for the coming presidential election, corresponded occasionally on matters of state. Jackson and Alston would have met in Congress in the 1790s, and they must have had an agreeable professional relationship. Jackson considered Willis Alston one of his “republican friends in Congress,” and once expressed to Alston that he enjoyed knowing that he had the confidence of men such as Alston going into the election of 1828. Indeed, southerners had great faith in the famed Hero of New Orleans and they believed that he would save the nation from the Adams administration’s abuses of executive power. Jackson’s position on federal tariffs, for example, won the respect of southerners such as Alston. “I think with you,” Jackson wrote to Alston in 1826, “that all the patriot can do, is upon the general principle of opposing with manly firmness where injury is to result to the country…. It is unaccountable that Mr Adams should court apposition [sic] by assuming constitutional powers, and adopting a political course so much like that which prostrated his father.” Jackson thus assumed office in 1828 with a flood of southern support, promising to recreate the nation according to the Jeffersonian vision of a yeoman’s republic.

Jackson, however, did not always hold up to these ideals, and he disappointed many North Carolinians who lived in the western part of the state. Jackson’s opposition to federal internal improvements in his Maysville Road Bill veto in 1830 and his stand against states rights in the Force Bill of 1833 troubled western North Carolinians in particular. Alston supported the President in these matters, but his enthusiasm for Old Hickory gradually melted into disillusionment, too, when Jackson refused to recharter the Second Bank of the United States. Alston had supported the recharter of the first Bank of the United States during Madison’s administration and he believed that the Jackson’s removal of deposits would harm the economy. Thus in Jackson’s second administration, Alston seemed to espouse the views of the emerging Whig party, not of the Jacksonian Democrats, who claimed to be heirs of Jeffersonian democracy. But at sixty-five years old, Alston chose to withdraw from state and national politics, rather than abandon the party of Jefferson and Madison.

Alston spent the remaining years of his life at his Butterwood plantation with his wife and their five children. By 1835, both Alston’s wealth and his family increased. He owned plantations throughout the state—the family plantation on Butterwood, which contained about fifteen hundred acres; other land in Halifax; and land and a plantation in Northampton County—all of which he bequeathed to his wife and children. In addition, Alston was able to bequeath at least ninety-seven slaves. In his will he named and bequeathed eighteen “negro slaves” to his wife; nineteen to his son, Charles; fifteen to his daughter, Ariella; sixteen to his son, Leonidas; fourteen to his daughter, Missourianna; and fifteen to his son, Edgar, as well as “all future increase of my negroes.”

Though Alston was, by the time of his retirement, clearly a man of wealth and social prominence, he was not pretentious. He devoted a lifetime of service to Jefferson’s republican ideology, which exalted small farmers, and he worked within the system of government established after the Revolutionary War in order to protect North Carolinians from a large federal government and corrupt politicians. Yet, by the end of Alston’s life, American democracy had begun to change radically. In 1835, while Alston was retired with his wife and children at Butterwood, the state Constitutional Convention met to revise the original constitution of the colonial years. Alston did not attend. He was content to remain silently devoted to the party of Jefferson and Madison that he supported through his long career in state and national politics. He had spent his life advancing Jeffersonian principles of agrarian democracy, state rights, and individual rights and liberties.

Willis “Congress” Alston’s life in politics follows a fascinating trajectory of historical developments in North Carolina from the colonial period to the rise of Jacksonian democracy and the birth of the Second Party System. Alston serves an example of how southern planters learned to rule the state by appropriating a vernacular republicanism to appeal to the common farmer. Born into a well-off family of British colonialists in 1769, Willis Alston spent his early childhood in the cradle of a new nation. He witnessed the monumental changes of the Revolutionary era in his childhood and he spent his formative years hearing about the grand experiment in democracy, the ratification of the federal constitution, and the creation of the American republic. He was educated in this new republic, and he matured into adulthood in service to it. He learned to admire the republican vision first espoused by Thomas Jefferson, which he supported unwaveringly during his congressional career. Though he possessed wealth and prominence in abundance, he appealed to common folk by advocating the interests of North Carolina’s small farmers and merchants—those whom he believed to be the cornerstone of the republic. Thus, perhaps appropriate for a man who grew up, matured, and reached adulthood with Jeffersonian democracy, Alston died on April 10, 1837, just when his familiar political order had begun to give way to a new party system.

[1] Willis Alston, 09 July 1824, Free Press (Tarborro, NC).

[1] “Willis Alston, Jr.,” Untitled Clipping in the North Carolina Collection Clipping File through 1975, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, Chapel Hill, N.C.

[1] David K. McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax, North Carolina, 1769-1837,” M.A., Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 1968, 4-5; Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 100.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,”1-2. Joseph A. Groves, The Alstons and Allstons of North and South Carolina (Selma: Franklin Printing Company, 1901), 81.

[1] Groves, Alstons and Allstons, 81; The Last Will and Testament of Joseph John Alston, Joseph John Alston Papers #17-z, Southern Historical Collection (hereafter SHC), Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Alison G. Olson, “Eighteenth-Century Colonial Legislatures and Their Constituents,” The Journal of American History 79 (Sept., 1992): 543-67.

[1] Joseph John Alston, Will, 1780, SHC.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 2.

[1] Hugh Talmage Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, North Carolina: The History of a Southern State (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1954), 191.

[1] The Constitution was actually designed to provide a working government during the Revolution, but not to create a democracy, per se. Yet, because the document enlarged the responsibilities of the legislature, it offered a far more democratic system of government than previously had existed in colonial North Carolina. See Delbert Harold Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 1789-1816 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931), 23-27. See also Lefler and Newsome, North Carolina, 210; Ready, The Tar Heel State, 108; 117-118.

[1] Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, accessed online at http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=A000167; Daniel M. McFarland, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 30; McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 5. Alston is listed neither in Princeton’s alumni records nor in the university’s non-graduate card index, which lists students who took classes but did not receive a diploma. See Ruth Woodward and Wesley Frank Craven, Princetonians, 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 466n1.

[1] McFarland, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 30.

[1] Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 24-25; Lefler and Newsome, North Carolina, 210-11.

[1] Cooper and Terrill, The American South, 100-103; Lefler and Newsome, North Carolina, 265-69.

[1] Ibid., 110-13.

[1] Ready, The Tar Heel State, 152; Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina from Its Beginning to the Death of President Swain, 1789-1868 (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1907), 17-18; Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 20; McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 8-9.

[1] R. D. W. Connor, ed., A Documentary History of the University of North Carolina, 1776-1799. Volume 1, 1776-1795 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 80-81; Battle, History, 17-18.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 8.

[1] Steven G. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 128.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 10.

[1] Alice Barnwell Keith, ed., “Thomas Blount to John Gray Blount,” 22 January 1795, in The John Gray Blount Papers, ed. Alice Barnwell Keith (Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History, 1959), 479-80.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 11-12. Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 91.

[1] Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 96-97.

[1] Ibid., 111-113; McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 16.

[1] William H. Masterson, ed., The John Gray Blount Papers (Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History, 1965), 259-60.

[1] Edenton Gazette, 27 July 1810.

[1] Blackwell P. Robinson, William R. Davie (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 371-74.

[1] Minerava (Raleigh, N.C.), 08 October 1804.

[1] Robinson, William R. Davie, 371-72.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halfiax,” 20.

[1] Lefler and Newsome, North Carolina, 284-285. See also Ready, The Tar Heel State, 147-151.

[1] Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 184-186; Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 179.

[1] Lefler and Newsome, North Carolina, 286.

[1] Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 8th Congress, 1st Session, 430.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 24-25.

[1] Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 8th Congress, 1st Session, 1031.

[1] Robert Dawidoff, The Education of John Randolph (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979), 30-33.

[1] Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 105.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 40.

[1] William Cabell Bruce, John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773-1833: A Biography Based Largely on New Material (New York: Octagon Books, 1970), 560.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 24-25.

[1] J. Jefferson Looney, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 330.

[1] Bruce, John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773-1833, 363. On this caning incident, see also Catherine Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 152.

[1] Roger H. Brown, The Republic in Peril: 1812 (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1965), 11-12.

[1] Ready, The Tar Heel State, 138.

[1] Norman K. Risjord, Jefferson’s America, 1760-1815 (Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 165-171.

[1] Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 10th Congress, 1st session, 556.

[1] Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 181-182.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 43-44.

[1] William Hawkins, quoted in Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 194.

[1] Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 196.

[1] Norman K. Risjord, “1812: Conservatives, War Hawks, and the Nation’s Honor,” The William and Mary Quarterly 18 (April, 1961): 210.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 44-47; Risjord, “1812,” 204.

[1] McCloud, 50.

[1] On Alston’s debts, see Willis Alston to John Joseph Alston, 27 May 1801, Alston-DeGraffenried Family Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, N.C.

[1] Ibid., 51.

[1] Ibid., 51-52.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 54-55.

[1] Lefler and Newsome, North Carolina, 303.

[1] Letter, 20 December 1823, Will H. Haywood, Jr. to Willie P. Mangum in Henry Thomas Shanks, ed. The Papers of Willie Person Mangum, Vol. 1, 1807-1832 (Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History, 1950), 93-94.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 61-62.

[1] Cooper and Terrill, The American South: A History, Volume I, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 153-54; Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990), 88-89.

[1] Willis Alston to Willie P. Mangum, 16 March 1828 in Shanks, ed., 323-324.

[1] Willis Alston to Willie P. Mangum, 07 May 1828 in Shanks, ed., The Papers of Willie Person Mangum, Vol. 1, 329-30.

[1] Andrew Jackson to Willis Alston, 18 May 1826 in John Spencer Basset, ed., Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, Vol. 3, 301.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Cooper and Terrill, The American South, 154.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alston of Halifax,” 79-79.

[1] Willis Alston, “Copy of Willis Alstons Will” in the Archibald D. Alston Papers #16, SHC.

[1] McCloud, “Willis Alton of Halifax,” 82-83.