William J. Gaston (1778 – 1844)

Written By Ronnie W. Faulkner

Born September 19, 1778, in New Bern, to Alexander and Margaret Sharpe Gaston, William J. Gaston later became a lawyer, politician, and jurist.

Gaston was educated first at New Bern Academy, second at Georgetown College (the first student to enroll), and later at the College of New Jersey (also known as Princeton), where he graduated first in his class.  He studied law under New Bern attorney François Xavier Martin (1762-1846), and in 1798 passed the bar.  He thereafter took over the practice of John Louis Taylor (1769-1829), his brother-in-law, and gained renown in property and criminal law.

A member of the Federalist Party, Gaston advocated a strong federal government.  In 1800, he was elected to the North Carolina Senate.  He was later elected to the N.C. House and served three terms, one as speaker from 1808 to 1809.   In 1812, he was elected again to the Senate.  In 1813, he was elected to the U.S. Congress and served there from 1813 to 1817.  As a Congressman, he served on the Ways and Means Committee, opposed the War of 1812, and obtained a Congressional charter for Georgetown University.

Gaston returned to practicing law in New Bern, but constituents called him back to the N.C. Senate from 1818 to 1819; in this post, he also served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.  A supporter of President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), he went against the popular tide in the Tar Heel State and opposed Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) in 1828.

Gaston joined the generally conservative and pro-business Whig Party—which supported banks and internal improvements—when it was formed in the mid-1830s.  As president of the Bank of New Bern, Gaston also supported the formation of the Bank of the United States.  He likewise authored an address for the North Carolina Internal Improvements Convention of 1833.  In his address, he called attention to his state’s dearth of colleges, railroads, hospitals, and appropriate care for the handicapped.

In 1833, Gaston was elected by the legislature to the North Carolina Supreme Court.  Although a slaveholder, Gaston surprisingly supported abolition efforts.  In the case of State v. Negro Will (1834), the Tar Heel jurist ruled that a slave had a right to defend himself if his master attacked him without justification.  In the State v. William Manuel (1838), Gaston ruled that free blacks were North Carolina citizens and thereby protected by the state constitution; in 1857, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis (1809-1874) cited this case in his dissent of the Dred Scott decision.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1835, Gaston called for continuation of free black suffrage and for basing representation in the N.C. House on the federal census.  Article Thirty-Two of the old state constitution, however, drew most of his attention.  The section stated that North Carolina’s elected officials and civil servants be Protestants; a devout Roman Catholic, Gaston persuaded the delegates to change the requirement to Christian.   Gaston’s prominence and past political service were evidence that the Protestant provision was ignored in practice.

In the 1830s, few Catholics lived in North Carolina, and as a result, not one Catholic cathedral existed in the state.  Bishop John England (1786-1842) of Charleston, South Carolina, selected Gaston as one of five Catholics permitted to conduct services at Gaston’s home.  Gaston and his Catholic neighbors eventually raised enough money in 1841 to construct St. Paul’s Church of New Bern, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the state.

Gaston is perhaps best known today as the author of the state song “The Old North State.”  In late 1830s, he composed the song to counter the charge that North Carolina was the “Rip Van Winkle State”—backward and unchanging.  This motivation is evidenced in the following line: “Tho’ the scorner may sneer at and witlings defame her, Still our hearts swell with gladness whenever we name her.”   In 1927, the state officially adopted Gaston’s song.

Many North Carolinians, and Americans from elsewhere, respected, if not adored, Gaston.  John Marshall (1755-1835) once said that he would retire if he knew Gaston would replace him as U.S. Supreme Court Justice.  In 1840, the state legislative leaders proposed Gaston as U.S. Senator, but he declined the honor.  He likewise turned down an offer to be attorney general for President William Henry Harrison (1773-1841).  Later generations also thought highly of Gaston.  For example, many North Carolina places are named for him: Gaston County, the city of Gastonia, and Lake Gaston, to name three.

Gaston was married three times and fathered one son and four daughters.  He died in his Raleigh office on January 23, 1844.  Initially buried in Raleigh, his remains were moved to Cedar Grove Cemetery in New Bern. These were his last words: “We must believe there is a God—All wise and All mighty.”