Born in 1758 near Warrenton, North Carolina, Macon was twenty-three when he began his public service. As a private fighting the British during the Revolutionary War, Macon learned that he was elected to the North Carolina Senate, a position he reluctantly filled until 1786. In 1791 he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served for twenty-four years, and in 1815 he was elected to the Senate, where he served another thirteen.
A disciple of Anti-Federalist Willie Jones, “the Jefferson of North Carolina,” Macon gained national recognition when he emerged after 1798 as a leader of the Jeffersonian Republicans and served as Speaker of the House from 1801 to 1807 during Jefferson’s administration. He eventually criticized Jefferson for violating his own principles of limited government and became a leader in the Jeffersonian opposition, also known as the Tertium Quids or Old Republicans.
From 1815 to 1828, Macon spent the rest of his career in the United States Senate, and his retirement in 1828 made him one of the longest serving statesmen in congressional history. As a torchbearer of plain republicanism, Macon continued influencing North Carolina, where he remained active in state politics. “No longer on the national stage in Washington,” writes historian William Price, Jr., “Macon nevertheless remained a palpable link to certain aspects of the American Revolution and to Antifederalism.” No less than future presidents James K. Polk, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson used Macon’s ideas to form their political philosophies. Macon’s career culminated in 1835, when he presided over the North Carolina constitutional convention. Few men of his day had such opportunities and influence.
Despite an illustrious public life, Macon’s behavior reminded his colleagues of Cincinnatus, the model of Roman virtue and simplicity. Like the Roman agrarian, Macon did not seek political office but reluctantly served because he was chosen; in fact, he never campaigned for public office: “I never solicited any man to vote for me,” he claimed, “or hinted at him that I wished him to do so.” And like Cincinnatus, the Old Republican refused to abuse the power given to him by his constituents; he never met the maximum allowance for traveling expenses—to name one example. Exhausted by what he considered unnecessary political wrangling, Macon turned down opportunities not only to serve in the Second Continental Congress and on numerous cabinet appointments but also the offer from John Quincy Adams to be his running mate in 1828.
Disenchanted with the waning state of republicanism and the increasing use of broader constitutional interpretations, Macon retired instead that year. Voted unanimously to be president of the 1835 North Carolina constitutional convention, he left retirement to perform one last public service. Yet once this task was done, Macon, in Cincinnatus-fashion, left the public sphere for the rural life. In 1837 the Old Republican died at Buck Spring, his modest plantation in Warren County.
William E. Dodd, The Life of Nathaniel Macon (1903); William Price, Jr., “Nathaniel Macon, Planter” North Carolina Historical Review 78 (April 2001): 187-214 and “Nathaniel Macon, Antifederalist,” NCHR 81 (July 2004): 288-312.