William Hawkins (1777 – 1819)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

When the War of 1812 came, North Carolinians voiced pro and anti-war opinions and debated whether the threat from England was worth answering President Madison’s call for troops.  During this time, Governor William Hawkins supported the war effort and cooperated with national authorities in defending the young United States from enemy invasion while increasingly becoming disenchanted with the national government’s lack of military assistance to ensure North Carolina’s safety.

Before becoming governor, Hawkins had served in several government posts.  A native of Granville County, which included modern-day Vance County, Hawkins attended the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton) and received his law license in 1797. His first posts included negotiating with Native Americans: he served as assistant Indian agent in Georgia for two years and in 1801 he negotiated a settlement with the Tuscarora of Bertie County.  Hawkins gained representative experience in the General Assembly (1804, 1805, 1809, 1810, and 1811).   During his last two terms, he was speaker of the General Assembly.  Assemblymen later elected the Democratic-Republican as governor three times (December 1811, 1812, and 1813).  Governors then were elected by the state legislature and served only one-year terms (with a maximum of three consecutive terms).

During his administration, debates continued in the young nation regarding the proper role between the national and the state governments.  In this case, the debate revolved around the war effort. Unlike  many Democratic-Republicans in the Tar Heel State, Hawkins supported the war effort, yet he eventually believed the national government ignored North Carolina even though Tar Heels provided manpower to protect other states. 

At the beginning of the war, the state had less than 10,000 militiamen.  When Madison had asked for it to send 7,000 troops, many of Scottish descent volunteered.  North Carolinians were reminded that war can hit home, when for four days British Admiral George Cockburn and one hundred vessels anchored off the Carolina shore at Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands.  North Carolinians feared an imminent attack on New Bern, so militiamen rushed to the port.  During the entire war, Hawkins feared another unwelcome and possible devastating visit.  Hawkins routinely surveyed his state’s coastal defenses and reported to the General Assembly.  He also continuously yet unsuccessfully asked national leaders to send troops and gunboats to defend North Carolina.  

After his last gubernatorial term ended (shortly before the War of 1812 ended), in 1817 Hawkins served in the House of Commons one more time. In 1819 and in Georgia, he died and was buried.