Born in 1730 at Maybury Hill, an estate on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey, Joseph Hewes was the son of a pious and well-to-do Quaker farmer. He received a rigorous religious upbringing, and studied at a local school before attending the College of New Jersey (Princeton).
After college, Hewes moved south and became a merchant in North Carolina. He was prosperous and outspoken, and as such, was soon elected to the colonial legislative assembly.
Throughout his entire political career, Hewes pushed the people of North Carolina towards independence. He was, in many respects, a true revolutionary.
Because of his steadfast patriotism and outstanding reputation in his community, Hewes was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774. In 1775, he began serving on the Marine Committee, where he was critical to the formation of the Navy and was appointed by his colleagues as the first head of the Navy. According to John Adams, Hewes “laid the foundation, the cornerstone of the American Navy.” Among other achievements as the inaugural head of the Continental Navy, Hewes secured the appointment of the first genuine American Naval hero of the revolution, John Paul Jones.
In 1776, Continental Congressman Joseph Hewes gladly voted for the resolution of independence and signed the Declaration of Independence. He returned home to North Carolina shortly thereafter in order to deal with troubles there that threatened his business and property.
After failing to win re-election in 1777, Hewes returned to the Continental Congress in 1779. Tragically, the burden of the office and the travel were too much for Hewes, who had never enjoyed particularly good health. Hewes died while in Philadelphia on November 10, 1779.
The entire Continental Congress attended his funeral. He was the only member of the Continental Congress who died in Philadelphia while the Congress met.
In his personal life, Hewes had seen his fair share of heartbreak. His fiancée of his youth tragically and suddenly died only days before she was to be married to Hewes. He never found anyone else to marry and years later in his diary, he wrote that it had never been his intent to remain unmarried. Sadly, then, Hewes had no living family at the time of his death or children of his own. His remains stayed in Philadelphia, where the culmination of his life’s work had taken place.
Today, the legacy of Joseph Hewes lives on as numerous U.S. Navy ships have been named after him in recognition of his service to the cause of American liberty and his singularly vital role in birthing the Continental Navy.
Check out Mark’s book: Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor: The Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence