Gaston, William Joseph

views updated


Judge, statesman; b. New Bern, N.C., Sept. 19, 1778;d. Raleigh, N.C., Jan. 23, 1844. He was one of three children of Alexander, a physician, and Margaret (Sharpe) Gaston. In 1781 his father, an ardent rebel, was killed by Tories. William became the first student of Georgetown College, Washington, D.C., but after two years withdrew because of ill health. He graduated from Princeton in 1796, studied law with François X. Martin, and in two years was admitted to the bar. His election to the North Carolina Senate at 22 was the beginning of a 30-year career of service that included four terms in the state Senate and seven in the state House of Commons. He drafted many of North Carolina's important statutes and was chairman of the joint committee that in 1818 created the new supreme court of the state. He was trustee of the state university for 42 years. In 1840 he wrote the song "The Old North State."

In 1808 Gaston was a Federalist presidential elector. He was twice elected to Congress (1813, 1815), where he was a leader of the antiwar Federalists. Among the speeches that gained for him a national reputation, the best known was that on "The Previous Question," directed against Henry Clay. It has been frequently reprinted as a masterpiece of parliamentary oratory. In 1815 he obtained from Congress the charter for Georgetown University. Despite a prohibition of the state constitution against anyone holding office "who did not believe in the truths of the Protestant religion," Gaston was elected by the legislature in 1833 to the state supreme court. Two years later he was elected to the state constitutional convention, where his eloquence effected the substitution of the word "Christian" for "Protestant" in the constitution.

Gaston was known for his humanitarianism and ready defense of minority causes. He dared to speak against slavery and did so in 1832 in delivering the commencement address at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Three years later he spoke at Princeton against the nativist movement. As a member of the state supreme court he handed down opinions that were models of clarity, logic, and vigor of expression. His judgment in State v. Will established the rights of slaves against brutal treatment; another concerning the citizenship of the colored freemen (State v. Manuel ) was cited by Judge Benjamin Curtis in the Dred Scott case. Gaston was awarded honorary doctorates by Harvard and Princeton Universities and the University of Pennsylvania. He served Bp. John England of Charleston as legal and financial advisor and saved the U.S. Catholic Miscellany from destruction on several occasions. Gaston was married three times and was survived by five children. He died on the bench while presiding over a session of the North Carolina supreme court in Raleigh and was buried in New Bern.

Bibliography: p. k. guilday, The Life and Times of John England, 2 v. (New York 1927). j. h. schauinger, William Gaston: Carolinian (Milwaukee 1949).

[j. h. schauinger]