Benjamin Williams was born on January 1st, 1751 to John and Ferebee Williams in Johnston County, North Carolina. Williams married Elizabeth Jones in 1781, and their only son received Williams’s namesake.
Williams’s political career began in 1774 when he was selected to serve on the First Provincial Congress. With the American Revolution seeming imminent, Williams represented Johnston County as he became more involved in the movement for colonial independence. In 1775, Williams served under George Washington as an officer in the North Carolina Regiment. Later, Williams’s resignation from military duties to serve in North Carolina’s House of Commons would be short-lived; Williams soon went back to fight the British. In fact, on March 15, 1871, Williams received an award for his bravery exemplified at the Battle of Guilford Court House.
After the war, Williams again returned to politics. He served in the North Carolina General Assembly and was later elected to the Third Congress of the United States (1794-1795). Almost immediately after his return to North Carolina, Williams was elected Governor of North Carolina and served the maximum of three one-year terms from 1799 to 1802. In between his first three terms and his last stint as Governor from 1807 to 1808, Williams served as a Moore County Senator in the General Assembly and enjoyed broad support during his tenure in that office.
Many historians label Williams an Anti-Federalist or Republican, but his views were more consistent with the Federalists. As a politician, Williams was able to successfully draw upon both Federalist and Republican support by using a middle-of-the-road strategy. Using marginal politics to his advantage while in the governor’s office, Williams pushed for internal improvements and public education. However, post-war North Carolina debt kept these goals out of reach. Regardless, Williams is well-known as a staunch supporter of the formation of the University of North Carolina. Williams served on the very first Board of Trustees at the university and was instrumental in selecting the university’s original site in Chapel Hill.
Leaving the governor’s office in 1808, Williams retired to his plantation in Moore County. After retirement, Williams led a simplistic life farming, planting cotton, and racing horses on his 2,500 acre plantation. Williams died on July 20, 1814.
Today, Williams’ plantation, nicknamed “The House in the Horseshoe” is a State Historic Site and a tourist attraction because of the plantation’s historical and cultural significance to North Carolina.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007).