William Hooper is generally considered to have been one of the most impressive North Carolinians to have served in the Continental Congress. Yet his career is marked by irony. Initially a key figure in mobilizing opposition to Great Britain, Hooper nevertheless struggled after 1776 to adjust to the politics of a revolutionary era.
Born in Boston in 1742, Hooper was educated first by his father, the Reverend William Hooper of Trinity Episcopal Church, and later at Boston’s Public Latin School. At the age of 15, he entered Harvard College as a sophomore and graduated in 1760. Hooper continued his studies at Harvard, receiving a master’s degree in 1763, and read law with James Otis, an early defender of American rights and an obvious influence on Hooper’s political views.
Shortly after completing his studies, Hooper moved to Wilmington. The North Carolina seaport had fewer lawyers than did Boston, and it offered Hooper other advantages. The Boston merchant James Murray was a family friend, and Murray’s brother-in-law, Thomas Clark, lived in Wilmington and served as his business agent. Clark’s family provided Hooper invaluable support, and in August 1767, he married Clark’s much-admired daughter, Anne.
Hooper prospered in Wilmington and became identified with the colony’s eastern faction. Appointed deputy attorney general for the Salisbury District, he clashed on more than one occasion with the Regulators, backcountry farmers who protested—sometimes violently—against taxes, debt collection, and political corruption at the local level. In 1773, Hooper entered the colonial assembly as a representative of what is today the city of Fayetteville, and at about the same time, he began buying land south of Wilmington on Masonboro Sound, where he would eventually build a house he called Finian.
As a member of the assembly, Hooper became embroiled in the foreign attachment controversy, which involved the power of colonial courts to seize the North Carolina property of debtors in Great Britain who owed money to North Carolina residents. The royal governor Josiah Martin had been instructed by the crown to end the practice. In response, Hooper wrote a series of essays under the pseudonym “Hampden” that demonstrated considerable learning and eloquence in defending the jurisdiction of North Carolina’s courts.
Hooper returned to the assembly from New Hanover County in December 1773 and was appointed to the colony’s Committee of Correspondence. Britain’s closing of the port of Boston after the Boston Tea Party helped radicalize him. He sensed as early as April 1774 that events were driving the American colonies to independence, an end he did not relish. But he considered “the cause of the Town of Boston” to be “the common cause of British America,” and in Wilmington he led a call for a provincial congress and helped raise money and supplies for the citizens of Boston.
North Carolina’s First Provincial Congress met in New Bern in August 1774, and elected Hooper to North Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress. In November, he was elected to Wilmington’s Committee of Safety. Hooper became a regular fixture in North Carolina’s provincial congresses, which, as royal authority disintegrated, governed the colony until a new state government could be organized. He authored several important public papers defending American rights, but by the end of 1775, Hooper privately grew disillusioned. Politics, he wrote, “drives men to expedients that morality must condemn.”
Hooper’s defense of American rights did not spring from a hostility to the British constitution. Consistent with the classical republicanism then common in America, he believed Britain’s commercial success had produced a widespread luxury that had undermined civic virtue. The resulting corruption manifested itself in the oppression of the colonies. Oppression in America, Hooper seemed to believe, could spread to Britain itself, making the survival of colonial liberty essential to the survival of British liberty. Hooper envisioned for North Carolina, should it become independent, a British-style government purged of corruption. This, he thought, required a strong executive, an independent judiciary, a bicameral legislature, and popular deference to an educated elite.
His service in the Fourth Provincial Congress of April 1776 only increased his frustration. He served on a committee that tried but failed to produce a new state constitution. As prospects for reconciliation with Great Britain evaporated, Hooper supported the Halifax Resolves, endorsing independence, but his presence at the North Carolina congress meant he missed the Continental Congress’s debate over the Declaration of Independence. He did, however, participate in the general signing of the document on August 2.
Hooper struggled as the Revolutionary War went on with no end in sight. Early in 1777, he contracted yellow fever and sometime later, malaria. In April he resigned his seat in the Continental Congress, partly because the new General Assembly failed to reelect his friend and congressional colleague, the Edenton merchant Joseph Hewes. Hooper remained in the state assembly, but fearing British warships, he abandoned Finian for Wilmington and then fled Wilmington before it fell to the British in January 1781. He, Anne, and their three children eventually settled in Hillsborough. There he resumed a profitable law practice while his political fortunes declined.
In 1782, Hooper won a Hillsborough seat in the General Assembly, but lawmakers voided the election results, and the next year he lost a race to tavern keeper Thomas Farmer. Hooper returned to the state legislature in 1784, but it was a last hurrah. His elitism and his support for the lenient treatment of former Loyalists and a stronger national government alienated many North Carolina voters, and in 1788 he lost his last election: a bid for a seat in the Hillsborough convention called to consider ratification of the United States Constitution. Undeterred, he continued to champion the Constitution and received a measure of vindication when a second convention, meeting in Fayetteville, ratified the document. Weakened by disease, sometimes delirious, and drinking heavily, the 48-year-old Hooper died in 1790, the day before his daughter was to be married.
Jeff Broadwater is professor emeritus of history at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina, where he taught courses on the American Revolution and on the history of the American South. His publications include Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution (2019); James Madison, A Son of Virginia and a Founder of of the Nation (2012); and George Mason, Forgotten Founder (2006). He also co-edited, with Troy Kickler, North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders (2019).
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
Engstrom, Mary Claire. “Hooper, William.” In William Powell, ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979-1991, 3: 199-202.
Ashe, S.A. “William Hooper.” In S.A. Ashe and Stephen B. Weeks, eds. Biographical History of North Carolina: From Colonial Times to the Present, 8 vols. Greensboro, N.C.: Charles L. Van Nappen, 1906, 7: 233-244.
Watson, Alan D. Harnett, Hooper and Howe: Revolutionary Leaders in the Lower Cape Fear. Wilmington, N.C.: Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, 1979.
Williams, Patrick G. “Hooper, William.” In John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography, 26 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 3: 145-147.
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