Willis “Congress” Alston Biographical Overview

Missouri Alston-Pleasants stated in her May 9, 1958, Trust Agreement her intention that the Alston-Pleasants Scholars Fund would be a perpetual memorial to her Grandfather, Willis “Congress” Alston.

In 2008, with the approaching 50th anniversary of the Alston-Pleasants Scholars Fund in view, it was decided to celebrate her substantial contribution to her three-county home community through a Commemoration Program that would focus on Willis “Congress” Alston.

At the recommendation of Harry L. Watson, Director of the University Center for the Study of the American South, Timothy J. Williams, Ph.D., a well-regarded member of the UNC History Faculty, prepared a research paper on the life and times of Representative Alston and provided a well-received overview of his findings at the Commemoration Program.

Separately, the American Historical Theatre which is based in Philadelphia, was requested to develop, using the Williams paper as an additional resource, a special interpretation of Dolley Madison’s views of Representative Alston during his Congressional service for presentation by the AHT professional Dolley Madison interpreter, Elizabeth Michaels.

The Person Place Preservation Society, of Louisburg, NC, hosted the 50th Anniversary Commemoration Program on May 25, 2008. This web-site includes both the Williams paper and a video of the Williams and Michaels presentations and other materials from that celebration.

Additionally, to make sure that this information is readily available to students throughout the three-county home community, copies of the Williams paper have been provided to each public library and it is available for general scholarly research through the University as well as at this free searchable web-site.

We hope that, as more people become aware of and interested in the important contributions that Willis “Congress” Alston made, both locally and at the state, regional and national levels, we will have additional materials that can be posted at this web-site.

Already, we have posted an excerpt from the Stephen E. Ambrose book Undaunted Courage, which tells the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This excerpt, Chapter 32, tells about how Alston was able to obtain House of Representatives passage of an appropriations bill requested by President Jefferson to pay certain Expedition expenses over strong Federalist opposition that was led by John Quincy Adams.

It is hoped that additional studies will follow-up about other aspects of his service to our region. For example, it would be interesting to know more about the effects of Alston’s successful defense in 1803 of his House of Representatives seat against a strong challenge by William R. Davie.

As background, both Davie and Alston were residents of Halifax. Davie, a leading member of the Federalist Party, had been a non-signing Constitutional Convention delegate, a Revolutionary War hero, an NC Governor, founder of the University of North Carolina and, at the request of President John Adams, a diplomat. Alston, a nephew of House of Representatives Speaker Nathaniel Macon, was a promising young Congressional leader in the Jefferson-Madison Democratic-Republican Party.

When Davie returned from Europe after helping to negotiate the Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which ended the Quasi War between the United States and France, it appeared that the Federalist Party had an easy opportunity to get Davie elected to the House in place of Alston.

Alston’s victory was a win for the Jefferson-Madison Democratic-Republican Party. Following his defeat, Davie relocated to a South Carolina plantation and apparently took no further substantive role in state, regional and national politics.

In later years, Speaker and later Senator, Nathaniel Macon frequently joined with Virginia’s John Randolph in opposition to many of the Democratic-Republican Party policies. Throughout this period, it appears that Alston became an increasingly important Congressional ally of President Jefferson and President Madison.

We are grateful that Miss Missouri chose to memorialize her grandfather, Willis “Congress” Alston through the establishment of the Alston-Pleasants Scholars Fund for the recognition and encouragement of selected students for Franklin, Halifax and Warren Counties.