Samuel Johnston

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Samuel Johnston
Samuel Johnston Bust.JPG
United States Senator
from North Carolina
In office
November 26, 1789 – March 4, 1793
Preceded byNone
Succeeded byAlexander Martin
6th Governor of North Carolina
In office
December 20, 1787 – December 17, 1789
Preceded byRichard Caswell
Succeeded byAlexander Martin
1st and 3rd Grand Master of the
Masons of North Carolina
In office
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byRichard Caswell
In office
Preceded byRichard Caswell
Succeeded byWilliam Richardson Davie
Acting Governor of North Carolina
In office
MonarchGeorge III
Preceded byJosiah Martin
Succeeded byRichard Caswell
Personal details
Born(1733-12-15)December 15, 1733
Dundee, Scotland, Kingdom of Great Britain
DiedAugust 17, 1816(1816-08-17) (aged 82)
Edenton, North Carolina, U.S.
Political partyFederalist

Samuel Johnston (December 15, 1733 – August 17, 1816) was an American planter, lawyer, and statesman from Chowan County, North Carolina. He represented North Carolina in both the Continental Congress and the United States Senate, and was the sixth Governor of North Carolina.

Early life and revolutionary politics[edit]

Johnston was born in Dundee, Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain, but came to America when his father (Samuel, Sr.) moved to Onslow County, North Carolina in 1736. Samuel Sr. became surveyor-general of the colony where his brother,[1] Gabriel Johnston, was Royal Governor. Young Samuel was educated in New England, then read law in Carolina. He moved to Chowan County and started his own plantation, known as Hayes near Edenton.

Johnston was admitted to the bar and began the practice of law in Edenton. In 1759 he was elected to the Province of North Carolina House of Burgesses and would serve in that body until it was displaced in 1775 as a part of the Revolution. During North Carolina's War of the Regulation in December 1770, he introduced the anti-Regulators bill that would later be passed as the Johnston Riot Act in response to the September 1770 Hillsborough Riot and later reports of a planned Regulator march upon the provincial capital, New Bern, a march which ultimately did not occur. The passage of the Johnston Riot Act amongst others precipitated an even greater enlargement of the Regulator movement forcing Royal Governor Tryon to call out the provincial militia culminating in the Battle of Alamance on May 16, 1771[1][2][3] As a strong supporter of independence, he was also elected as a delegate to the first four provincial congresses and presided over the Third and Fourth congresses in 1775 and 1776.[4] In the time after the Royal Governor Josiah Martin abdicated in 1775, he was the highest-ranking official in the state, until Richard Caswell was elected president of the Fifth Provincial Congress.[5]

Johnston is frequently cited as having served in the North Carolina Senate in 1779, but this is not confirmed by a careful perusal of the Senate Journals. He may have been elected but he certainly did not attend. In Johnston's own words, after 1777 he "had nothing to do with public business" during the Revolution except for his later service in the Continental Congress.[6] Under the new state Government, Johnston was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1783 and 1784.

Election as President[edit]

North Carolina sent Johnston as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1780 and 1781. Johnston was elected the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation, but he declined the office, as reported[7] July 10, 1781:

Mr. [Samuel] Johnston having declined to accept the office of President, and offered such reasons as were satisfactory, the House proceeded to another election; and, the ballots being taken, the hon. Thomas McKean was elected.[8]

Thomas Rodney's letter to Caesar Rodney of Delaware, dated the same day, reported Johnston's decision to decline the U.S. Presidency:

Congress has been endeavouring some time past to elect a new President, Mr. Huntington having often applied for leave to go Home on Account of his health and private affairs, and Yesterday Mr. Johnston of N. Carolina was appointed but he declined it on Account of his Bad State of health, and Today Mr. McKean was appointed and prevailed on to serve Till October next at Which Time he says he is determined To decline serving in Congress any longer.

The reasons for Johnston's refusal to serve are unclear, but some historians claim the letter of July 30, 1781 clearly indicated he was in no position to accept an office which offered no salary:

Having no prospect of being relieved or supplied with money for my expenses and my disorder, which abated a little on the first approach of warm weather, returning so as to render me of little use in Congress I left Philadelphia the 14th, for which I hope I shall be held excusable by this state.

Johnston's letter to James Iredell only one month earlier gives support to that conclusion with him writing:

I thought about this time to be making preparations for leaving this place, but none of my colleagues appearing to relieve me, several States being unrepresented in Congress, and affairs of the first magnitude being now on the tapis, I thought it inconsistent with my honor to leave the State unrepresented at so interesting a period. Notwithstanding my anxious impatience to return to my family, I have determined to stay till I am relieved, or at least till the States are more fully represented in Congress. I don't doubt but you and my sister will offer such reasons to Mrs. Johnston as will reconcile her to this measure. I hope she will keep up her spirits and if I should not return before the sickly season, I wish you would prevail on her to take the children down to the sea-side, if it can be done with safety; but as I have hopes of returning before that time, it will be unnecessary to say any thing on the subject till the season approaches.

The uncertainty of a letter's getting safe to you, lays me under great restraints. I can only mention in general that the King of France has given us under his own hand very lately, the most unequivocal assurances of his friendship and support, and is at this time exerting his interest and influence at the different courts in Europe to bring our affairs to a happy and speedy conclusion; and I have in my own mind the most perfect confidence in these assurances. We shall suffer much in this campaign; it will be very bloody, but I hope it will be the last. I may be disappointed, but was I at liberty to commit my reasons to writing, you would not hesitate to subscribe to my opinion.

Our prospects are very fair in Europe, but it is necessary we should exert ourselves here, for every advantage we gain this summer will count as so much solid coin. We are in daily expectation of hearing from the General, who has been lately at Connecticut to consult the officers of the French army and navy. My hopes and expectations of a favorable issue to our troubles are very sanguine; but human affairs are governed by such a variety of whimsical circumstances, that we should always be prepared to stand the shock of that disappointment which the best concerted measures are constantly subject to. Present my love to my sisters, the children, and all friends. Let my brother see this and the newspapers, when you have an opportunity. I present my best wishes to him, and his family. I wish much to hear from you and him, and am, with the most sincere affection and esteem, ...[citation needed]

On June 27, just 13 days before his election to the Presidency, Johnston wrote:

I was only yesterday favored with the letters which you were so obliging as to write me the 14th of April and 10th of May last. I have wrote to you frequently by casual opportunities, but cannot have any confidence of your having received my letters. I write by this opportunity to my brother, and must refer you to his letter and the enclosed newspaper for news. I am sorry people were in such haste to remove themselves and property from Edenton. I rather could have wished they had thought of defending it, which would have been attended with less risk and expense in my opinion, for till the conquest of Virginia is effected, which I flatter myself will not speedily take place, I scarcely think you will be molested with any considerable invasion, and if the plundering parties meet with opposition they will grow sick of the business. However, every one will and has a right to judge for himself on these occasions. So far as it respects me, I am perfectly satisfied, and shall ever consider myself under the highest obligations to you on this occasion for your friendly attention. I have been detained here longer than I expected from unavoidable circumstances, which I shall have the pleasure of communicating when I can see you. I hope to leave this place some day next week but as it will be necessary for me to take a pretty extensive circuit to avoid the enemy's horse, and the weather being too warm for me to make long days' journeys at this season, I cannot form to myself any judgment respecting the time I shall arrive with you. I am truly sensible what anxiety and distress you must all have sustained in your alarming situation. I have often wished to have been with you on the occasion; indeed my mind has been so much in that country, that it has rendered me almost incapable of attending to any thing elsewhere. This will probably be a very important, though perhaps not a decisive campaign. I am not perfectly informed of the plan on which it will be conducted on our part, nor is it proper that I should communicate so much as I do know to paper. Should a few fortunate events cast up in our favor, I hope there will be no more of it after this summer-if otherwise, God knows where it will end, for America can never submit. Pray remember me most affectionately to my sister and the children. I grow every day more impatient of being absent from my friends; and had I not believed my services, or rather my vote essentially necessary here for some time past, no importunity should have detained me.[citation needed]

Later career and death[edit]

Johnston served as Governor of North Carolina from 1787 to 1789. He presided over both conventions called to ratify the U.S. Constitution. The first in 1788 rejected the Constitution in spite of Johnston's strong support. He called another convention in 1789 which did complete ratification. After statehood Johnston resigned as governor to become one of the state's first two United States Senators, serving from 1789 until 1793. In 1800 he was made a Judge in the Superior Court of North Carolina, an office he held until his retirement in 1803.

Samuel Johnston died at his home, Hayes Plantation, near Edenton in Chowan County, in 1816 and is buried in the Johnston Burial Ground there. The plantation house is privately owned, but was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. It is now within Edenton. However the current house was completed by his son, James Cathcart Johnston, a year after Samuel's death.

Samuel Johnston's personal collection of books, which he bequeathed to his son James, is preserved in a full-scale replication of Hayes Plantation's library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That octagonally shaped historic room is on permanent exhibit in the North Carolina Collection Gallery in Wilson Library.


It is apprehended that Jews, Mahometans, pagans, etc., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States Those who are Mahometans, or any others who are not professors of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President, or other high office, but in one of two cases. First, if the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do themselves. Another case is, if any persons of such descriptions should, notwithstanding their religion, acquire the confidence and esteem of the people of America by their good conduct and practice of virtue, they may be chosen. I leave it to gentlemen's candor to judge what probability there is of the people's choosing men of different sentiments from themselves.

— Elliot's Debates, Vol. IV, pp 198–199, Governor Samuel Johnston, July 30, 1788 at the North Carolina Ratifying Convention

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bair, Anna Withers (1988). "Samuel Johnston". NCPedia.
  2. ^ Howard, Joshua B. (October 2009). "The Battle of Alamance: A Reanalysis of the Historical and Documentary Records". North Carolina Division of Archives and History Report (Revised ed.): 4–5.
  3. ^ Kars, Marjoleine (2002). Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 187–191. ISBN 978-0807849996.
  4. ^ Connor, Robert (ed.). "A Manual of North Carolina Issued by the North Carolina Historical Commission for the Use of Members of the General Assembly Session 1913". University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  5. ^ Lewis, J.D. "Royal Colony of North Carolina, 27th House of Burgesses". Retrieved October 24, 2019.
  6. ^ Samuel Johnston to William McCormick, August 1, 1783 Audit Office 13/121/5
  7. ^ USCA Journals, America's Four Republics: The More or Less United States. 2d Edition, June 2018
  8. ^ America's Four Republics: The More or Less United States. 2d Edition |date=June 2018

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Governor of North Carolina
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
U.S. senator (Class 3) from North Carolina
November 26, 1789 – March 4, 1793
Served alongside: Benjamin Hawkins
Succeeded by