Born on March 5, 1756 in present-day Mecklenburg County, Nathaniel Alexander was the oldest of Moses and Sarah Alexander’s six children. Although little is known about his early life, Alexander studied medicine at the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) where he graduated in 1776.
Alexander became a surgeon in the North Carolina Continental Army in 1778. Although supplies were scant and there were many injuries, Alexander worked diligently to support his fellow countrymen during the war. After the Revolution, Nathaniel married Margaret Polk, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Polk of Charlotte. The couple never had children.
Due to the demand for medical care in the Carolinas, Alexander practiced medicine in Santee, South Carolina after the war. Alexander returned to Mecklenburg County several years later and continued his practice while helping pioneer the local Masonic lodge. In 1797 Alexander began his political career as a house representative in the North Carolina General Assembly. Aligning himself with the rising Jeffersonians, Alexander served as a senator in the N.C. Legislature in 1801 and had the opportunity to serve in Washington from 1803 to 1805 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Political experience helped shape Alexander into a popular candidate for North Carolina Governor, and he was elected to replace James Turner in November 1805. Alexander would serve as governor for two years until Federalist Benjamin Williams won the office in 1807.
Although Alexander was a Jeffersonian, he nevertheless managed to gain Federalist support while in office. Minerva, a Raleigh Federalist newspaper, conceded that Alexander was “an ornament to the predominant party,” and he was considered a “scholar and true patriot.” While governor of North Carolina, Alexander worked to settle a boundary dispute with Georgia while proposing liberal changes to education and internal improvements. Specifically, he worked toward the creation of better roads and inland navigation additions across the state. It is worthwhile to note that historians credit Alexander as one of the first politicians to understand the significance of education.
Alexander’s call for repeal of the Court Act of 1806 was the main reason he did not win reelection in 1807. The act was created to reform the state’s judiciary, and it allowed for individual superior courts in every county of the state. Alexander was concerned that the extension of the number of courts would place a burden on judges and jurors. Although the act received initial Democratic-Republican support, the mounting Federalist opposition was a reason Alexander called for repeal. Many of Alexander’s Republican supporters abandoned him at the polls, and Benjamin Williams won the governorship in 1807.
Alexander died in Salisbury, North Carolina on March 6, 1808, and he was buried in the cemetery of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. Alexander’s house in Harrisburg sat on the site of what is now the present Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007) and William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989).
By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Governors, Political History, Early America