Gaston, William, 1778-1844

Alternative names
Birth 1778-09-19
Death 1844-01-23

Biographical notes:

American jurist.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Savannah, to Charles S. Henry, 1825 Nov. 5. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 269581046

From the description of Autograph letter signed : to F. De Petit De Villers, Esq., 1828 July 15. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 269582548

Epithet: of Balcombe

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000446.0x0001af

William Gaston of New Bern, N.C., was a lawyer, state legislator, United States representative, and North Carolina Supreme Court judge.

From the description of William Gaston papers, 1744-1950 (bulk 1791-1844). (Oceanside Free Library). WorldCat record id: 23150586

William Gaston (1778-1844) of New Bern, N.C., was a lawyer, state legislator, United States representative, and North Carolina Supreme Court judge.

William Gaston was born in New Bern, N.C., on 19 September 1778. His father, Alexander Gaston, was a prominent physician of the New Bern region who received his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, and served as a surgeon in the British navy. The elder Gaston, a Protestant Irishman of Huguenot descent, settled in North Carolina in 1765. He was married in 1775 to Margaret Sharpe, a convent-educated Englishwoman from a family of devout Catholics. The couple had three children: William; his sister Jane, three years his junior, who married John Louis Taylor; and an elder son who died in infancy.

With the outbreak of the American Revolution, Alexander Gaston became active in the patriot cause. On 19 August 1781, he was killed by the leader of a band of Tory raiders at New Bern. Margaret Sharpe Gaston, left with the care of two infants, raised her children in the Catholic faith.

In the spring of 1791, the twelve-year-old William Gaston was sent to Philadelphia, Pa., to be prepared for college. The following fall, he went to Georgetown College to become its first student. He returned to New Bern in 1793 due to poor health, and studied for a year at the New Bern Academy before he enrolled at Princeton, where he was graduated in 1796 with highest honors. He studied law in New Bern under the direction of Francois Xavier Martin, and, on 22 September 1798, he was admitted to the bar. Later in the year, when Gaston's brother-in-law, John Louis Taylor, was appointed judge of the North Carolina Superior Court, Taylor diverted a large part of his practice to Gaston.

In political matters, Gaston was a Federalist and then a Whig. He served four terms in the North Carolina Senate and seven terms in the North Carolina House of Commons. Gaston was a Federalist presidential elector in 1808, and, from 1813 until 1817, he was a member of the United States House of Representatives. As a congressman, Gaston acquired a reputation for the eloquence of his speeches, especially those supporting the Bank of the United States and opposing the Loan Bill. He denounced the War of 1812. He voluntarily retired from national politics in 1817 and on at least one subsequent occasion refused nomination to the United States Senate.

Gaston remained active in North Carolina politics. He served as chair of the judiciary committee of the North Carolina Senate and chair of the joint legislative committee that framed the act creating the North Carolina Supreme Court. In the North Carolina House of Commons, 1827-1833, Gaston served on the judiciary committee and as chair of the finance committee, a position that coincided with his interest in banking. In 1828, he was appointed president of the Bank of New Bern, and while in the House of Commons cooperated with conservative financial groups in an effort to maintain sound banking policies for North Carolina. He helped to lead the fight in North Carolina against the nullification doctrine in 1832.

Gaston took a lively interest in internal improvements for North Carolina. In July 1833, he attended an internal improvements convention in Raleigh, serving as chair of the committee to prepare an address to the state and to lay the convention's proceedings before the state legislature. The address stressed the need for colleges, railroads, hospitals, and asylums for the handicapped. As a member of the House of Commons, Gaston introduced the bill to charter the North Carolina Central Railroad.

In 1835, Gaston was an influential delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention, where he fought to have religious qualifications for office holding dropped and where he attempted to protect the voting privileges of free people of color. Gaston also supported federal representation as the basis for representation in the House of Commons and biennial meetings of the state legislature.

Gaston's law practice was very successful and recognized nationally. Daniel Webster and John Marshall, among others, consulted with him on legal questions. In 1833, Gaston was elected by the state legislature to a post as an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, where he served until his death in 1844. Gaston's most famous decision on the bench came in 1834 with the case of State v. Negro Will . Gaston ruled that a slave had the right to defend himself against an unlawful attempt of a master, or an agent of a master, to kill him. In the significant case of State v. William Manuel in 1838, he held that a manumitted slave was a citizen of the state and thus entitled to the guarantees of the constitution. Gaston purchased a library for the state Supreme Court while on a trip to New York City in 1835.

In addition to his service as legislator and judge, Gaston served the public as a trustee of the University of North Carolina from 1802 until his death in 1844. For many years, he was chair of the trustees of the New Bern Academy.

Gaston received many honors during his lifetime. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1817 and of the American Academy of Languages and Belles Lettres in 1821. He received honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in 1819, from Harvard and Columbia in 1825, and from Princeton in 1835.

Gaston owned a plantation and slaves (163 at the time of his death) in Craven County, N.C., and a town house and a law office in New Bern. During the sessions of the Supreme Court in Raleigh, Gaston stayed at the home of Mrs. James F. Taylor. At his office nearby, in 1840, he wrote the words for The Old North State, the music for which he apparently adopted from a melody sung by a group of Swiss bellringers who had visited the capital. The Old North State was first performed in public at the Whig state convention in Raleigh in October 1840 and has been North Carolina's official state song since 1927.

Gaston was married three times: on 4 September 1803 to Susan Hay (d. 1804); on 6 October 1805 to Hannah McClure (d. 1813); and on 3 September 1816 to Eliza Ann Worthington (d. 1819). With his second wife, he had one son, Alexander (1807-1848), who married Eliza W. Jones and then Sarah Lauretta Murphy, and two daughters, Susan Jane (1808-1866), who married Robert Donaldson, and Hannah Margaret (1811-1835), who married Matthias E. Manly. With his third wife, Gaston had two daughters, Elizabeth (1817-1874), who married George W. Graham, and Catherine Jane (1819-1885), who did not marry.

William Gaston died in his office in Raleigh in 1844.

From the guide to the William Gaston Papers, 1744-1950, (bulk 1791-1844), (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Historical Collection.)


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  • Lawyers--History--19th century
  • Napoleonic Wars, 1800-1815--Foreign public opinion, American
  • Banks and banking--history--19th Century
  • Judges--History--19th century
  • Elections--History--19th century
  • Nullification (States' rights)
  • Education--Finance--History--19th century
  • Families--Social life and customs
  • Lawyers--Political activity
  • Slavery


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  • North Carolina (as recorded)
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