The “foremost leading public man of North Carolina” during the early republic era (1789-1830) is only a blip on the radar screen of modern historiography. So, let me introduce him and tell how he embodied the “Old Republican” values. (During this time, republicanism was the idea that a citizenry should be virtuous and maintain a proper balance between liberty and power.)
Ultimas Romanorum—“the last of the Romans”: That is what Thomas Jefferson called his fellow defender of liberty, Nathaniel Macon. Others referred to Macon, not George Washington, as “the real Cincinnatus of America,” and some nicknamed him “the Cato of Republicanism.”
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. During his thirty-seven years as a national political figure, Macon assumed many responsibilities, including Speaker of the House, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and president pro tempore.
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.
Always exhausted by what he considered unnecessary political wrangling, Macon turned down opportunities to serve in the Second Continental Congress, numerous cabinet appointments, and 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.
Macon was also considered a resolute defender of Roman libertas—a citizen’s right to be protected by a body of law that stands above any government. Far from being mindless, Macon’s decisions were based on a well thought-out ideology that combined laissez-faire and republican principles. According to one historian, Macon encouraged “individual freedom, strict economy and accountability in government expenditures, frequent elections, limited discretion in officials, avoidance of debt and paper money, and Republican simplicity in forms.” With the tenacity of Cato the Younger, Macon promoted republican virtue and condemned government encroachment until his death.
In his defense of liberty, Macon was pithy. Considering much legislation reactionary and unnecessary, Macon remarked that it unwise to “pass laws as fast as we can,” for “the less legislation the better.” The North Carolinian persistently opposed increased taxation and tariffs—to name two issues. In one Congressional debate, Macon succinctly remarked, “Trade thrives when left to itself.” In another debate, Macon reminded and warned his fellow statesmen: “Our strength is in proportion to the smallness of our taxes; encumber and overload us with debt, and we are ruined.” His admonition to one young North Carolinian is worth writing down: “You belong to a meek state and just people, who want nothing but to enjoy the fruits of their labor honestly and to lay out their profits in their own way.”
Long before North Carolina adopted a slogan, Nathaniel Macon lived up to it. For throughout his life the Old Republican preferred “to be rather than to seem.”