When Politics Turned Physical

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

The heated debates over national politics that played out during the recent election campaign and its aftermath often pale in comparison to the battles that took place throughout the 1800s. A case in point: the interactions involving North Carolinian Willis Alston and Virginian John Randolph.

Born near Littleton in Halifax County, Alston grew up on a plantation. His mother, Ann Hunt Macon, was Nathaniel Macon’s sister. Alston attended Princeton University. His political career began as a college student, when he was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons. He served in this role from 1790 to 1792 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 and again from 1825-31.

In Congress, Alston became known as a Thomas 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 walking away from what Macon labeled old republican principles.

Macon was Alston’s uncle, and while Congress was in session, both rented rooms from the same establishment, which became known as the Marache Club. Politics proved that blood is not always thicker than water.

In one instance, involving Randolph, the views Alston stated on the floor of the House, plus caustic comments he made after a session, prompted a caning from Randolph, one of Macon’s best friends and one of Alston’s fellow boarders.

Following an intense congressional debate, Alston and Randolph “had a fracas,” as Macon put it in personal correspondence. After adjournment, Alston must have slandered the Virginian, who 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 [Alston],’ 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 — quite likely because he was aware of Randolph’s reputation of preferring to seek satisfaction with duels.

There were two Alston eras in Congress. The first 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 1825-31. Alston championed a presidential ticket of Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun in 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 because Alston and Calhoun had been political allies and friends since the debates surrounding the War of 1812.

While not in Congress, Alston served in the N.C. House from 1819-24. As a state legislator, he called for an investigation into state Treasurer John Haywood. Haywood had held the position for almost 40 years, and his office could not account for approximately $68,000.

Married twice, Alston had five children (all from his second marriage). This 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.