James Turner (1766-1824) was an accomplished governor of North Carolina from 1802 to 1805. Before that, Turner was a soldier during the Revolutionary War, during which he served under the famous General Nathaniel Greene. Turner later became a representative in the House of Commons from 1798 to 1800 and served in the State Senate before reaching the North Carolina governorship in 1802. Turner was best known for his affiliation with Nathaniel Macon, a politician from North Carolina who mentored the Old Republicans (Their political philosophy is considered by many to be more Jeffersonian than Thomas Jefferson’s views).
Born on December 20th, 1776, in Warren County, James Turner was the son of Thomas and Rebecca Turner. Not much information is known about Turner’s early life, but serving in the armed forces during the late stages of the American Revolution raised Turner’s name recognition considerably. It was during this time that Turner met Nathaniel Macon. The two became lifelong friends. After the war, Turner managed two different plantations and worked as a planter during the 1790s.
Turner was also married three times. Turner’s first wife, Mary Anderson, died in 1802 and Anna Cochran, Turner’s second wife, died in 1806. Turner’s third wife, Elizabeth Johnston, survived him. From all three of his marriages, Turner had six children; two sons and four daughters.
Turner gained his first political experience while serving in the House of Commons from 1798 to 1800. From 1800 to 1801, Turner served on the General Assembly and became part of the influential “Warren Junto.” Led by Macon, the Warren Junto was a group of Democratic-Republicans/Jeffersonians who disliked both Federalist policies and the encroachment and intrusion of government.
John Baptista Ashe was elected North Carolina governor in 1802 but died before his own inauguration. Because of Ashe’s death, Turner was elected governor in a special election a few days later. Turner served three years in this role.
As Turner took the governor’s office, Jeffersonian politics had become the dominant policy in North Carolina. This was largely due to the exodus of Federalist leaders in the state. Most Federalists had died, switched parties, or left politics altogether. Yet the political climate in North Carolina at this time prevented a strong governorship. The Anti-Federalists who retained much support were in favor of combining conservative politics and individual liberties, thus making Turner’s executive task much harder. Despite this opposition, Turner used his political capital to pressure the General Assembly for the necessity of organized, public education. Other notable instances during Turner’s tenure were border disputes with Georgia, the introduction of several North Carolina judicial system reforms, and New Bern and Wilmington’s procurement of the first bank charters in the state.
After resigning as governor, Turner accepted a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1805. Turner was a senator for eleven years, remaining close to Nathaniel Macon during that time. Though Turner was a United States Senator until 1816, his failing health prevented him from accomplishing any significant tasks while in Washington. After resigning from his Senate seat, Turner moved back to his plantation in Warren County where he lived until his death on January 15th, 1824.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007)