Joseph Hewes (1730-1779)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Although Joseph Hewes was a native of New Jersey, he was one of three North Carolinians to sign the Declaration of Independence. His business experience, education, and honorable character enabled him to serve North Carolina vigilantly in public service for thirteen years.

Born in 1730, Hewes grew up near Kingston, New Jersey. His parents, Aaron and Providence Hewes, belonged to the Society of Friends. Hewes is said to have received his classical education from Princeton College, although it is only known for sure that he attended the Kingston Friends’ Grammar School. He then moved to Philadelphia to pursue business and acquire more merchant and trade-related knowledge. Serving as an apprentice to the successful merchant and importer Joseph Ogden, Hewes learned much, and this knowledge combined with his work ethic contributed to his financial success.  After the apprenticeship concluded, Hewes became a successful, independent merchant. Hewes’ success was not unusual.  The burgeoning merchant class, and their increasing wealth, prompted England to pass numerous tax laws.

After living in New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, Hewes moved to Edenton, North Carolina. Even though he was practically a stranger in the town, he soon acquired a reputation as a distinguished and honorable man of agreeable demeanor and generous hospitalities. This reputation led to his election and service as a representative to the North Carolina legislature. In 1774 and 1775 Hewes (along with two others) was sent to the two Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. In 1775 he also served as a member of the Committee of Correspondence of the new Provincial Assembly.    

Hewes became an influential member of the Patriot cause, especially when he was appointed to one of two committees at the First Continental Congress. The original goals of this Congress were to restore harmony between American colonies and Great Britain, obtain redress of grievances suffered by the colonies, and peacefully obtain and secure the unalienable rights of the colonies. 

One of the committees Hewes served on focused on general rights that had been violated and on the best course of action to take to restore them. Hewes helped prepare the report for King George that included ten declarations of rights, an enumeration of wrongs already committed against the states, and a conclusion in which the committee stated its desire to pursue peaceful measures. Called the Olive Branch Petition, it was rejected by King George.

North Carolinians were pleased with Hewes’ representation and elected him to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. He stayed until its adjournment at the end of July.  He continued to serve the state of North Carolina, almost without interruption, for the next four years. His final appearance in Congress came on October 29, 1779. 

Struggling with an illness, he remained confined in his chamber from October until his death on November 10, 1779.  His funeral took place the following day. Members of Congress, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, the President and Supreme Executive Council, the Minister Plenipotentiary of France, and a number of citizens came to pay their respects to a great man who dedicated so many years to the Patriot cause. To honor Hewes’s memory, members of Congress wore crape around their left arms for one month. Hewes did not have any children to leave his inheritance to, as his bride-to-be had died suddenly in 1766.  

Hewes Historic Marker. Image owned by the North Carolina History Project