William Joseph Gaston

Associate Justice - NC Supreme Court

Date Born: September 19, 1778

Date Died: January 23, 1844

Place Born: New Bern, NC

Place Buried: Cedar Grove Cemetery in New Bern, NC

Associate Justice 1833-1844

William Joseph Gaston was born on September 19, 1778 in New Bern, NC, the son of Dr. Alexander Gaston and Margaret (Sharpe) Gaston. He entered Georgetown College in Washington, DC, at the age of thirteen, becoming its first student. Due to illness shortly thereafter, he also became its first dropout. He later graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1796. He then returned to New Bern to study law under Francois-Xavier Martin, an eminent attorney. He was admitted to the NC bar in September of 1798, and he then took over part of the law firm of his brother-in-law, John Louis Taylor, who had been elected as a Judge in the NC Superior Court.

In 1800, William Joseph Gaston was first elected to represent Craven County in the NC Senate of the:
- 25th General Assembly that met in 1800

On September 4, 1803, William Joseph Gaston married Susan Hay. On October 6, 1805, William Joseph Gaston married a second time to Hannah McClure, daughter of William McClure and Hannah (McIlwean) McClure of Craven County, NC; they had one son and two daughters. On September 3, 1816, he married a third time, to Eliza Ann Worthington; they had two daughters.

In 1808, William Joseph Gaston was elected to represent the town of New Bern in the NC House of Commons of the:
- 33rd General Assembly that met in 1808
- 34th General Assembly that met in 1809

In 1812, William Joseph Gaston was again elected to represent Craven County in the NC Senate of the:
- 37th General Assembly that met in 1812

Inb 1813, William Joseph Gaston was elected to represent the 4th District of North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives of the:
- 13th U.S. Congress that met from 1813 to 1815
- 14th U.S. Congress that met from 1815 to 1817

In 1818, William Joseph Gaston was again elected to represent Craven County in the NC Senate of the:
- 43rd General Assembly that met in 1818
- 44th General Assembly that met in 1819

In 1824, William Joseph Gaston was again elected to represent the town of New Bern in the NC House of Commons of the:
- 49th General Assembly that met from 1824 to 1825
- 52nd General Assembly that met from 1827 to 1828
- 53rd General Assembly that met from 1828 to 1829
- 56th General Assembly that met from 1831 to 1832

In 1827, William Joseph Gaston was elected the first President of the Agricultural Society of Craven County.

In November of 1833, William Joseph Gaston was elected as an Associate Justice on the NC Supreme Court, where he remained until his death.

In 1835, William Joseph Gaston was elected to represent Craven County as a delegate to the NC Constitutional Convention.

On January 23, 1844, William Joseph Gaston died in his office in Raleigh, and he was later buried in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in New Bern, NC.

His home at New Bern, the Coor-Gaston House, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

William Joseph Gaston is perhaps best known today as the author of the state song “The Old North State.” In late 1830s, he composed the song to counter the charge that North Carolina was the “Rip Van Winkle State”—backward and unchanging. This motivation is evidenced in the following line: “Tho’ the scorner may sneer at and witlings defame her, Still our hearts swell with gladness whenever we name her.” In 1927, the state officially adopted Gaston’s song.

Click Here to review his biography online at UNC, from where much of this information comes.

William Gaston was the son of Dr. Alexander Gaston, who was unmercifully murdered in front of his wife by Loyalists on August 20, 1781.

Happily for William Gaston, his mother was a woman of great energy of character, of devoted piety, and extraordinary prudence. Naturally of a quick temper, her counsel, example, and advice, taught him to subdue it.

Justice Gaston has often been heard to declare that whatever distinction he had attained in life was owing to her pious counsel and faithful conduct. Under her eye his early education was conducted. In the fall of 1791, he was sent to the Catholic College at Georgetown, then only fourteen years old. The rigor of this bleak climate, the painful and rigid discipline, and being exiled from the comforts and attentions of affection, caused his health to give way, and in the Spring of 1792 it was feared that he was sinking under a consumption; and it was advised by his physician that he should return to the mild air of his native climate. He returned home and his health soon improved.

Under the care of Rev. Thomas P. Irwing, he was prepared for college. He entered the Junior Class at Princeton University in the fall of 1794. He graduated at the early age of eighteen, with the first honors of that renowned and ancient institution.

He studied law with Francois Xavier Martin, then residing in New Bern; afterwards the author of a History of North Carolina, and late Judge in Louisiana.

In 1798, before arriving at manhood, Mr. Gaston was admitted to the bar. The elevation of his brother-in-law, John Louis Taylor, to the bench in that year, threw all his business into the hands of William Gaston, at once heavy and lucrative. To his well-disciplined mind, laborious habits,a nd indefatiguable industry, this only stimulated him to increased exertion. He not only sustained this responsibility, but his reputation was established; it continued to increase in such rapid stridges until he attained by the approbation of all the head of his profession.

The people, who delight to honor merit, soon perceived the rich jewel that was among them. When only twenty-two, he was elected a member of the NC Senate (in 1800), from Craven County. But the labors of his profession, and duties to those who entrusted their fortunes and lives to his hands, with his small patrimony, denied to him that service to the people that they required. He did not appear again in public life until 1808, when he was elected a member of the House of Commons from New Bern, of which body he was chose Speaker. He was elector on the Presidential ticket in this year. After his re-election to the House of Commons in 1809, he retired from the House of Commons.

But, he was not allowed to remain by the people long from their service. He was elected a member of Congress in 1813 from this district and re-elected in 1815.

This period was one of extraordinary excitement. He took a prominent stand in opposition to the Administration, sustained as it was by the ability of Lowndes, of South Carolina, the intellectual power of Calhoun of the same state, and the resistless eloquence of Clay, of Kentucky. Amid this galaxy of the political firmament, the bright star of North Carolina shone with peculiar brilliancy, even amid the influence of Webster, Grosvenor, and others.

Whatever the line of conduct William Gaston pursued, that course was marked by talent, labor, and genius of the highest character. His efforts in Congress on "the Previous Question" and "the Loan Bill" attracted the admiration of competent judges for their power and eloquence.

At the end of his second term he voluntarily resigned his charge; and attended to the laborious duties of his extended practice of the law.

He did not appear again in public life until 1827, when from the increased indisposition of Mr. Stanly, who had been elected that year a member of the House of Commons from New Bern, a vacancy occurred, and Mr. Gaston was elected to supply his place. This he accepted as a matter of duty, not of inclination; as a return of gratitude for favors received, not with the hope of honor or laurels yet to be acquired.

Not only in argument was he powerful; in repartee and with he was invincible. His anecdotes were pointed and most pungent, and his sarcasm was withering. He served in the following year and in 1835.

In 1833, he was appointed Justice of the NC Supreme Court to succeed Leonard Henderson, and he was elected in 1834. Once more he appeared in public as a statesman, in the Convention of 1835, as member from Craven County, to amend the State Constitution - an important occassion.

The State Constitution formed in 1776, while our country was in the middle of a war, was not free from errors and imperfections. By 1835, the people sent their ablest men to consult - Nathaniel Macon, Associate Justice Joseph J. Daniel, Richard Dobbs Spaight, Jr., John Branch, David L. Swain, among others.

To those who witnessed the intellectual labors, the eloquent efforts, and patriotic services of William Gaston on this occasion have recorded them quite well. His speech on the 32nd Article, which was supposed to exclude Catholics from any office or place of trust or profit in this State, under the peculiar circumstances of the case (he being a Roman Catholic), was considered one of his highest intellectual efforts, and was extensively published and read throughout the Union.

This was the last service he ever performed in a representative capacity. He then applied his whole vigor of his capacious mind and his varied acquirements to his duties as Justice of the NC Supreme Court. He was, however, solicited in 1840, by the dominant party, to accept the post of Senator in Congress. This was no idle compliment. The party had the power to elect him with no contest. He had but to give his consent and it was accomplished. But, to that solicitation he turned a deaf ear.

The manner in which he discharged his duties; his profound and varied literature; his extensive legal knowledge; his severe and patient research; his polished and clear compositions, render his opinions from this position not only monuments of legal learning, but models of elegant literature. A much higher opinion is given by one who knew him long and knew him well, pronounced from the judgement seat (Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin), when he said, "he was a great Judge and a good man."

William Gaston was married three times.

Susan Hay (daughter of John Hay of Fayetteville) on September 4, 1803.

Hannah McClure (daughter of General McClure) on October 6, 1805. She died on July 12, 1813, leaving one son and two daughters.

Eliza Ann Worthington (daughter of Dr. Charles Worthington of Georgetown, DC) in August of 1816. She died on January 20, 1819, leaving two infant daughters.

William Gaston was born in New Bern in 1778. His father was a native of the North of Ireland, of Huguenot descent, and graduate at the Edinburgh Medical College. Chief Justice John Louis Taylor married Gaston's sister.

Gaston served in the State Senate, represented the borough town of New Bern in the House of Commons, and was Speaker of that body. He was a member of Congress from 1812 to 1816. His address before the literary societies at the University of North Carolina in 1832, and at Princeton in 1834, were models of their kind. He was the author of our State Hymn, "The Old North State." On the death of Chief Justict Leonard Henderson in 1833, Gaston was elected to the NC Supreme Court. He died suddenly at Raleigh during the session of the Court in January of 1844.

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