Judge Samuel Spencer (1738-1794)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Born in East Haddam, Virginia in 1738, Samuel Spencer played important roles in several chapters of the history of North Carolina. He served as the de facto executive of North Carolina after the American Revolution broke out. Shortly thereafter, he was elected a superior court judge in North Carolina, remaining on the bench until his death. He is, however, best known as the leader of the antifederalist faction at the Hillsborough Convention of 1788.

After his childhood in Virginia, Spencer attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).  He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1759. In 1760, he moved to Anson County, North Carolina, in the south central region of the state, where he practiced law. His career in politics began with his election to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1769. 

Having attended the first North Carolina Provisional Convention in New Bern in 1774, Spencer took a seat in the North Carolina Provincial Congress in 1775. There he was elected colonel of the North Carolina Provincial Council of Safety, which was the executive branch of the provincial government of North Carolina from September 9, 1775 until November 12, 1776. This position made him the first de facto executive of the state of North Carolina and the predecessor of Richard Caswell, the first governor of the state of North Carolina.

In 1777, after the disbandment of the provincial government, Spencer joined the bench, becoming a North Carolina superior court judge. In 1788, Spencer was elected to the convention at Hillsborough, where delegates would decide whether North Carolina should ratify the new federal Constitution. Though not the most prominent  delegate with antifederalist sentiments, Spencer would become the preeminent antifederalist debater in the Hillsborough Convention. Like many of the other antifederalists at the convention, Spencer argued against allowing the proposed U.S. Congress control of national Congressional elections. 

Despite his antifederalism, Spencer was outspoken in support of the clause proscribing religious tests for federal offices. He made two arguments in support of this clause. First, he contended that a religious test could become a basis of persecution. Second, he claimed that a religious test would only keep morally upright citizens out of federal offices, for a disingenuous office-seeker could easily pass any religious test.

After the antifederalists’ victory in the Hillsborough convention, Spencer attended the Fayetteville convention of 1789, at which delegates voted to ratify the Constitution. 

According to a late nineteenth-century magazine, Spencer died in 1794, when, while sleeping in a chair under a tree, he was attacked by a wild turkey. On this account, he died almost certainly not from a wound inflicted by the turkey but, rather, from falling out of his chair.