A New Bern Legend
by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society
On January 23, 1844, the brilliant career of a most distinguished scholar, lawyer, landowner, US Representative, and NC Supreme Court judge ended with his death. Who was this most famous son of New Bern, North Carolina?
William J. Gaston was born in New Bern on September 19, 1778, to Dr. Alexander Gaston, an Irish Huguenot and surgeon, and Margaret Sharpe, a French Roman Catholic. Dr. Gaston, an ardent Patriot, was killed in New Bern in August 1781 while trying to flee British troops. Margaret Sharpe Gaston, age 26, was left a widow with three children.
Religion and education were extremely important to Mrs. Gaston; she was determined that her son was to be brought up as a Roman Catholic and that he would be well educated. At the age of 13, William Gaston became the first student to attend the Catholic Georgetown Academy in Washington DC (now Georgetown University). He returned to New Bern due to illness but graduated from the New Bern Academy as valedictorian in 1794, then graduated as valedictorian from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1796 at age 18.
Gaston returned home to New Bern and studied law under Francis Xavier Martin. In 1798, at age 20, he was admitted to the bar and began his law career. Only two years later, Gaston was elected to the NC Senate from Craven County. This was the beginning of an exceptional 30 year political career which included four terms in the state Senate and seven in the state House of Representatives. He was also elected to the United States House of Representatives during the 13th and 14th Congresses (1813-1817).
Gaston's primary interests were in the judiciary and banking systems. He was part of the joint committee that in 1818 created the new North Carolina Supreme Court. Gaston was elected to that court 1833, in which position he remained until his death in 1844.
The fact that Gaston was elected to so many public offices was highly unusual as the Constitution of North Carolina prior to 1835 prohibited Roman Catholics from state offices. The laws of that time required elected officers to believe in the "Truth of the Protestant Religion." Gaston successfully argued that no one could define the "Truths" and was thus allowed to serve.
The first Roman Catholic Mass in New Bern was celebrated at the Gaston home in 1821. There were few Catholics in the state, let alone in New Bern. William Gaston began a fund to build a Roman Catholic Church in New Bern, and a priest was appointed in 1824. New Bern Catholics agreed to build a church and in 1841 St. Paul's Church was completed, making it the oldest Roman Catholic Church in North Carolina. Gaston was one of the largest financial supporters.
An eloquent and famed orator, William Gaston was a much sought-after speaker at public events. His commencement speech at the University of North Carolina is ranked with the greatest speeches of the 19th Century. Although he owned slaves, he detested slavery and, in this speech, called for the abolition of slavery.
In 1840, Gaston wrote the words for what was to become in 1927 the official state song of North Carolina, "The Old North State."
Gaston was married three times. His first wife Susan Hay died eight months after their marriage. In 1805 he married Hannah McClure who gave birth to one son and two daughters before her death in 1813. Gaston married once again in 1816 to Eliza Ann Worthington and they had two daughters. She died in 1819.
Gaston died suddenly in his office in Raleigh on January 23, 1844, at age 65. He is interred at Cedar Grove Cemetery in New Bern. Widely respected - if not adored - across North Carolina, Gaston County, the towns of Gaston and Gastonia, as well as Lake Gaston are all named for the Honorable William Gaston, proud son of New Bern.