On this date in 1735, Hugh Williamson, a remarkable founding-era figure from North Carolina, was born. Williamson’s name is seldom mentioned alongside the famous characters of his day, but his life was arguably as significant.
He prophetically warned in 1774, before almost anyone else, that a harsh British retaliation against Massachusetts would produce a hostile and bloody affair.
During the American War for Independence, he published pamphlets that supported the cause of American severance from Britain. While doing so, he devoted himself professionally to medical studies and became well-known internationally for his expertise. Upon settling in North Carolina, he was selected to serve as the state’s surgeon general, where he made monumental contributions to the field of communicative diseases. When Charleston was captured by the British in 1780, Williamson demanded to be allowed to travel behind enemy lines to treat the wounded, where he used his methodologies to avert the spread of smallpox and other diseases.
Williamson attended the Philadelphia Convention which wrote the current federal Constitution. His chief contribution was the introduction of a prototype for the eventual Three-Fifths Compromise, which prevented southern states from becoming alienated by the prospect of ratification. In contrast, northern representatives did not want slaves to count toward representative/electoral apportionment, a plan considered unpalatable to the South.
Prior to North Carolina’s decision to ratify, and while North Carolina was an independent republic, Williamson served as North Carolina’s ambassador to the new United States government in Philadelphia. While he was there, Williamson actively encouraged the government to amend the Constitution so that it would be suitable to his own state’s interests. He observed that the state remained fearful that an “energetic government” would trample upon the state’s sovereignty and the individual liberty of its inhabitants. While making this clear, the two republics established a cordial, well-mannered relationship.
During this time, the sovereignty of North Carolina was not threatened by the United States, and the relationship between the two governments remained amiable. Peace, friendship, and a mutual understanding helped pave the way for North Carolina to eventually ratify the Constitution and join the Union.
Although not as renowned as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or even John Rutledge, his deeds were unforgettable bright spots in a tumultuous era. Williamson’s wholesome dedication was instrumental, most importantly, to the constitutional precept of the union as a voluntary association of states.
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