Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Hugh Williamson was a physician and polymath who served as one of North Carolina’s delegates to the Federal Constitutional Convention. Active in the debates at the Convention, Williamson was a leading intellectual in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America.
Williamson’s parents were devout Presbyterians, and his father enrolled Williamson in a Presbyterian school, where he studied the liberal arts. Upon graduation from this school, Williamson matriculated at the new College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). At the college, Williamson not only studied mathematics but also taught Latin and English to secondary school students, and he graduated in May 1757 with a bachelor’s in mathematics.
Williamson then left Philadelphia to study theology, first in Pennsylvania and later in Connecticut. He soon decided to abandon these studies, returning to the College of Philadelphia to study medicine. Earning a master’s degree in 1760, he taught at the college while pursuing doctoral studies. In 1763, his studies took him to Britain. He finally earned an M.D. from Utrecht University in Holland and in 1768 returned to Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, Williamson not only practiced medicine but also became a renowned independent scholar. Within months of his arrival in Philadelphia, he was inducted into the American Philosophical Society, which had been founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1763. Led by luminaries such as Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Jefferson, the members of this organization studied not philosophy as we know it today but, rather, natural philosophy – to wit, natural science, with an emphasis on practical knowledge.
Though a physician by profession, Williamson, as a member of the Philosophical Society, soon began writing on subjects as diverse as climatology, marine biology, and astronomy. His “Attempt to Account for the Change of Climate” is perhaps his most famous scientific work; far from being the work of an amateur, it reveals a strong grasp of causal logic and the scientific method. In the early 1770s, Williamson became widely recognized as a scholar not only in America but also in Britain and the Netherlands.
Traveling widely, he happened to be in Boston when the Tea Party occurred. Immediately after witnessing the event, Williamson sailed from Boston to England on the first ship to depart the city. Because Williamson had left Boston so soon after the Tea Party, the English Privy Council questioned him about the Tea Party. While in Britain, Williamson penned an open letter to Lord Mansfield, the longtime chief justice of the King’s Bench, in which he explicated the grievances of the colonies. Published in both London and America, this open letter, titled The Plea of the Colonies on the Charges Brought Against Them by Lord Mansfield, and Others, in a Letter to His Lordship, became a classic pamphlet of the American Revolution.
At the outset of the Revolution, Williamson traveled to the Netherlands, though he left the Continent for Philadelphia when the Declaration of Independence was signed. He attempted to assist the war effort by joining the Continentals as a military physician, but they did not desire his assistance. He thus resumed the practice of medicine around Philadelphia.
The British occupation of Philadelphia drove Williamson, and thousands of others, out of the city. He briefly moved to Charleston to work as a merchant. As Williamson was sailing from Charleston to Baltimore, the movements of British forces left him with no safe option but to drop anchor at Edenton, North Carolina. He stayed in the city indefinitely, working as tanner, shipbuilder, and physician. Already a prominent figure in America, Williamson attracted the attention of Governor Richard Caswell, who welcomed Williamson’s medical expertise. After performing such services as inoculating North Carolinian soldiers against smallpox, Williamson was named the state’s surgeon general.
In 1782, Edenton elected Williamson to the General Assembly, and within months, he joined the Continental Congress, where he made himself an expert on all matters of concern to North Carolina. After completing three terms in the Congress, he returned to Edenton and again was elected to the General Assembly.
In 1787, Williamson was named a delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention. Appointed to five committees (the second most of any delegate to the convention) and giving more than seventy speeches, Williamson was one of the most active delegates in Philadelphia. He had a particularly strong interest in economic questions, serving on committees to consider questions such as state debts and the slave trade. While considering these questions of immediate import to the young republic, Williamson also made a large number of smaller contributions to the Constitution. After other delegates proposed that Federal senators serve seven-year terms, Williamson suggested the six-year term stipulated in the Constitution. Moreover, his comments on the procedure for trying the president after impeachment affected the outcome of that debate – though granting the Supreme Court the power to try the president had been considered, delegates deemed trial by the Senate a more desirable option.
After the convention, Williamson wrote a number of essays in support of the new Constitution, and he attended the Fayetteville Convention of 1789. He was elected to the House of Representatives from North Carolina after ratification, and, as in the Constitutional Convention, was especially active on economic issues. He nonetheless declined to run for reelection due to the early death of his wife.
Upon his departure from Congress, Williamson retired from political life, moving to New York to resume intellectual pursuits. During the decades he spent in New York, he wrote numerous scholarly works, including an authoritative history of North Carolina, before his death in 1819.