Born near Littleton in Halifax County, Willis Alston grew up on a plantation. His mother, Ann Hunt Macon, was Nathaniel Macon’s sister. He later attended Princeton University.
Alston’s political career began as a college student, when he was elected to the House of Commons. He served in this role from 1790 to1792 and later filled a state senate seat for two years (1794-96). In 1798 he won a congressional seat and represented the Halifax District until 1815.
It was as a U.S. Congressman that Alston gained a reputation as a Jefferson supporter. In fact, he may have been the most ardent Jefferson ally from North Carolina, when fellow Tar Heels such as U.S. Speaker of the House Nathaniel Macon criticized the third President for starting to abandon, what he labeled, old republican principles. Macon and Alston were related and rented rooms from the same establishment while Congress was in session, but politics proved, in this case, that blood is not always thicker than water.
In one instance, involving John Randolph of Roanoke, Alston’s views, plus his caustic comment, prompted a caning from the fellow Congressman who was one of Nathaniel Macon’s best friends and one of Alston’s fellow boarders. After an intense congressional debate, Alston and Randolph “had a fracas,” as Macon put it in a personal correspondence. After the House adjourned, Alston must have slandered the Virginian, who always protected his honor with utmost vigilance. Historian David Johnson describes what ensued: “Randolph brought down his cane on Alston’s head, knocking off his hat and drawing blood. Alston turned and attempted to fight back, but he was on lower steps and could not reach Randolph. Some of the ‘ruffians who were with him,’ wrote Randolph, ‘wrested the cane from behind and put it in his hands.’ Randolph stared down at Alston and waited for a blow.” In the end, Alston didn’t retaliate—more than likely because he knew of Randolph’s reputation to seek satisfaction in duels.
There were two Alston eras in the halls of Congress. The first one lasted from 1799-1815. In this time, Alston served on the Ways and Means Committee and allied with War Hawks, such as Henry Clay and John Calhoun. He voted for the War of 1812. On the campaign trail for his last election in this era, Alston was being portrayed as a warmonger; his opponent was a self-styled “peace candidate.” Alston won.
The second congressional stint was from 1825 to 1831. Alston championed a Jackson-Calhoun ticket in the presidential election of 1828. When that political alliance disbanded in 1831 over the tariff and nullification issues, Alston supported South Carolina’s nullification doctrines. No doubt this was in great part because Alston and John C. Calhoun had been political allies and friends since the debates surrounding the events of the War of 1812.
In between his time in Congress, Alston served in the state house from 1819 to 1824. As a state legislator, he called for an investigation into John Haywood, the state treasurer. Haywood had held this position for almost forty years, and his office could not account for approximately $68,000.
Married twice, Alston had five children (all from his second marriage). Although the North Carolinian was influential on the Ways and Means Committee and made decisions of national importance regarding the country’s finances, Alston died and was buried near where he was born.
Daniel M. McFarland, “Willis Alston” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Volume 1 (Chapel Hill, 1979); North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, “Willis Alston.” http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?ct=ddl&sp=search&k=Markers&sv=E-66%20-%20WILLIS%20ALSTON,%20JR.%201769-1837 (accessed May 1, 2013); Nathaniel Macon to Joseph H. Nicholson, January 24, 1811, Bruce-Randolph Collection, Library of Virginia; Timothy Stanley, “Who Was John Randolph?”. American Conservative (October 12, 2012).