Born in 1725 in the town of Bath, Samuel Ashe was the second son of John Baptiste Ashe and Elizabeth Swann. Both of Ashe’s parents died soon after moving to a Cape Fear plantation in New Hanover County in the early 1730s. Samuel and his two siblings were raised by their uncle Samuel Swann. Swann had been the Speaker of the House for almost two decades.
John Baptiste’s will “recommend[ed] the pursuit & study of some profession or business” to all of his children. Following his father’s affinity, Samuel Ashe was educated in law at Harvard. In the early 1770s, Ashe became assistant attorney for the Crown in the Wilmington district of North Carolina. Even though Ashe was connected to Britain through occupation, his social life revolved around colonial independence. Ashe and several Patriots organized the state’s first revolutionary council in August 1774 after Governor Josiah Martin refused to summon the General Assembly. A year later, Ashe was selected to serve as president of the Committee of Safety, and in November 1776 he was part of the committee that framed the North Carolina Constitution.
After the new state constitution was adopted, Samuel was selected by Governor Richard Caswell in 1777 to serve as Speaker for the Senate and as a judge of the first superior court in North Carolina. One of Ashe’s most prominent accomplishments came in 1787 when he, along with two other judges, decided the landmark case of Bayard v. Singleton (1785). The court’s decision was one of the first to pioneer the precedent of judicial review of legislative laws. Years after his judicial service, Samuel Ashe remarked about the judicial climate of the era: “At the time of separation from Great Britain, we were thrown into a similar situation with people ship-wrecked and cast on a marooned island, without law, without magistrates, without government,…[and without] any legal authority.”
On November 11, 1795, Ashe, now seventy-years-old, resigned as judge to become the ninth Governor of North Carolina. He served three one-year terms as Governor and was an ardent Federalist at the beginning of his term. However, Ashe soon supported state’s rights and Jeffersonian ideals despite the growing pro-Federalist support in the coastal and commercial cities from 1797 to 1798. During Ashe’s last year in office a land fraud incident with Tennessee was brought to light. One of the most important events of Ashe’s administration, Ashe cooperated with the fraud investigation and helped foil a plot to burn the Capitol.
Ashe retired in 1798 and spent the remainder of his life managing his plantation in Rocky Point. He died on February 3, 1813.
Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, SC; 2005); William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill, 1979); Michael Hill, ed. The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007).