A Brunswick County native, William Henry Hill was the state’s district attorney, a state senator, a University of North Carolina Trustee, and a U.S. Congressman. Unlike many of his North Carolina contemporaries in Congress, Hill was a staunch Federalist who, according to Lawrence F. London, “believed in a strong central government.”
Although he was born in Brunswick County, William Henry Hill was educated primarily in Boston, Massachusetts. He also studied law in the port town.
After North Carolina’s 1789 ratification of the U.S. Constitution, President George Washington appointed Hill as a district attorney in North Carolina. While in this capacity, he was elected to the state senate and then later to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served four years (1798-1802) in Congress.
Also during the 1790s, Hill was interested in starting a public university in North Carolina. So, he served on the first Board of Trustees and on the board that chose the campus’s location. His philanthropy included monetary gifts to the University of North Carolina and book donations for the school’s library.
Hill was known for being a champion of the Federalist Party and supporter of the administrations of George Washington and John Adams. Especially after the 1800 presidential election, many Tar Heel politicians espoused Democratic-Republican (also known as Jeffersonian) views and supported policies that placed constraints on the national government. During Hill’s last term, for instance, fellow North Carolinian, Nathaniel Macon, was U.S. Speaker of the House. Even so, Hill towed the Federalist Party line.
Hill’s political Waterloo was his opposition to President Jefferson and other Republicans’ desire to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801 (also known as the Midnight Judges Act). Many Democratic-Republicans disliked the newly created circuit courts, and the idea that district judges had lifetime appointments. Some wanted to move more cautiously than others, but in the end, the Republican controlled Congress repealed the Judiciary Act—an act that was instituted to ensure that Federalists assumed judgeships before John Adams left office and Jefferson undertook the presidential duties. The Federalists, like Hill, argued that the Jeffersonian repeal essentially destroyed the independence of the courts and politicized them.
During the repeal debate, the North Carolina legislature had urged all North Carolina Congressmen to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801. Hill did not want to do so, and he argued in a lengthy congressional speech, that the state legislature had no authority to tell a Congressman how to vote.
The repeal of the Judiciary Act debate negatively affected Hill’s electoral performance in his reelection bid. He lost his seat to a Jeffersonian. Prior to the repeal debate, President Adams had appointed Hill to a federal judgeship in North Carolina; he was one of the many “midnight judge” appointments. To no one’s surprise, Jefferson, writes London, later “refused to honor the appointment.”
Even without a congressional seat or a judgeship, there was life after politics for Hill. He practiced law and paid more attention to his plantations: Hilton near Wilmington and Belmont in Chatham County. He died in 1808 and was buried at Hilton.
Lawrence F. London, “William Henry Hill” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vol. 3 (Chapel Hill, 1988) and Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York, 2009).