On a few well-tended acres here in Princeton stands a dignified and by no means extravagant house, a true Colonial built in 1725. I pass it
regularly on walks and runs. There, in an upstairs bedroom on January 23, 1730, Joseph Hewes was born.
Now I’m guessing that you’ve probably never heard of him. I hadn’t either until I received the terse education on a
weather-worn blue sign outside the house, a sign often obscured by the overhanging foliage of a cottonwood tree. It reads:
Born here, 1730, he later moved to North
Carolina. He signed the Declaration of Independence for that state in 1776.
What a marvel of brevity! In a way, what more needs to be said? If “Signer of the Declaration of Independence” is the only item
listed on your rÃ©sumÃ©, you’re going to get the job as long as you include your phone number.
And yet, that sign doesn’t do Hewes half the justice he deserves. For one, through no fault of its own, the sign no longer brings
home the harrowing risk which Hewes, like the other 55 signatories, brought upon himself in signing that audacious
declaration. In effect, he had signed his own death warrant, but since the American Revolution turned out so well, we have little sense of alternative outcomes.
I’ve visited Ireland many times and lived in Dublin for two years. Throughout much of the country, but especially in the capital,
signs and plaques bear grim testimony to the price one paid for resisting England. Ireland is strewn with lapidary reminders of
those “alternative outcomes.” Just a few blocks from my old apartment on Dame Street, for example, in a section of Dublin
ironically called The Liberties, one such inscription states:
In the roadway, opposite this tablet, Robert Emmet
in the cause of Irish Freedom 20th September 1803.
Brevity again, but this time in the cause of discretion. Emmet was convicted of high treason against the king, King George III,
the same inbred fraud against whom Joseph Hewes and the other Founders pitted themselves. Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, Emmet was instead hanged and then
beheaded after his death–English mercy at its finest.
Along with barbaric execution, it was a centuries-old English custom to send the chopped segments of a traitor’s body to far
-flung corners of the empire with the choicest morsel–the head–to be displayed atop a spike on London Bridge.
As icing on this bloody cake, there was the charge of “corruption
of blood” which stipulated that a traitor forfeited the right to pass title or property on to his or her heirs. The descendants of
an executed traitor could neither inherit from the traitor nor any other family member related to the traitor; all inheritance passed directly to the crown.
Our Constitution expressly prohibits “corruption of blood” as a punishment for treason.
And then there’s something that old blue sign fails to mention: while John Barry and John Paul Jones share the title “Father of
the American Navy,” Joseph Hewes justly deserves to be called the Navy’s grandfather.
After apprenticing as a merchant in Philadelphia, Hewes moved to North Carolina when he was 30 and started his own
mercantile and shipping firm. His integrity bolstered not only his great commercial success but his appeal as a potential
politician. Within a matter of years, Hewes was elected a representative to North Carolina’s colonial legislature, a position he held from 1766 to 1775.
As the movement for independence gained speed, Hewes was also elected in 1774 to represent North Carolina in the
Continental Congress. With war approaching, Hewes chaired the seven-man Naval Committee responsible for fitting out the first
American warships. With the disbursements of the Naval Committee under his special charge, eight armed vessels were fitted out for battle.
From his years in the seafaring community, Hewes played a key role in selecting many of the Navy’s first commanders, including
personally championing the merits of John Paul Jones.
Having already bet his life on the wager of independence, Hewes also put his entire merchant fleet at the disposal of the
Continental Armed Forces.
Sadly, Hewes never saw the fulfillment of his heroic labors. Working tirelessly in the cause of America’s new navy took a
fatal toll on his health and he died shy of his fiftieth birthday on November 10, 1779.
Whenever I pass by the birthplace of Joseph Hewes, I read that sign and do the math: he was 46 when he signed the Declaration,
putting his neck, his name, and a sizable shipping business on the line-what guts!
In many ways, the house where he was born serves as a perfect memorial to his dedication to liberty. It’s standing, for starters.
Never to be razed by vengeful Redcoats, it closes in on its 300th birthday, a low-key member of the U.S. National Register of
Historic Places and a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
And there’s something wonderfully democratic about the place; no wall or fence surrounds it, no guard paces its grounds, no
sentry post spoils the view. It’s still in use, a private residence. Americans live inside.