Samuel Ashe was born on 24 March 1725 in Bath, Beaufort County, North Carolina. He was the second son of John Baptista Ashe (1695-1734) and Elizabeth Lillington Swann (1698-1729), and grandson of John Ashe, “The Agent”, who was a leader of the Dissenters in the crisis of 1703-1704. This John Ashe, although born and died in England, emigrated to America in the late 1600s, and was the grandson of John Ashe, MP for Freshford and Westbury, thus providing the link between the Ashes of Somerset and the Ashes of North Carolina.
Orphaned at the age of 9, soon after his family’s move to the lower Cape Fear region, Samuel grew up in the elegant plantation home of his maternal uncle, Samuel Swann, and inherited most of his father’s property. He married Mary Porter in 1748 and they had several children. After Mary died, Samuel married Elizabeth Jones Merrik in 1769 and had one more son.
Samuel studied law and was named Assistant Attorney for the Crown in the Wilmington district of the colony. In that position and before the beginning of the Revolution, he won the respect and admiration of the last Royal Governor, Josiah Martin, who in 1775 wrote to the King that Samuel Johnston and Samuel Ashe were the only men of integrity among the members of the Revolutionary Provincial Council of North Carolina. When people started to demand independence, Samuel was one of eight members of the Committee appointed in New Hanover County on 21 July 1774, to prepare an address to the people of North Carolina to call a Revolutionary Convention for the following month.
Samuel became actively involved in the Stamp Act resistance and played a leading role in the radical Sons of Liberty. In 1774 he became active in the North Carolina Council of Safety, serving briefly as president in 1776. Samuel was appointed to the committee that drafted the state’s constitution at Halifax in 1776. In 1787 he was one of three judges to decide the landmark case of Bayard v. Singleton, which asserted the constitutional doctrine of legislative review.
On November 11, 1795, at the age of 70, Samuel resigned his judgeship in order to accept election as governor. Re-elected on two subsequent occasions, he served the constitutional maximum of three consecutive years (1795-1798). Although earlier a Federalist, Samuel had since become an ardent Republican and a supporter of states’ rights.
During his second term in office, he became embroiled in the Glasgow affair. Glasgow was the State Secretary, who was charged with the sale of forged warrants for lands in Tennessee. Samuel, acting on the advice of Andrew Jackson, called for an investigation of Glasgow. When Glasgow and his cohorts attempted to burn the Capitol in Raleigh in an effort to destroy the records which would prove the fraud, Samuel succeeded in detecting and foiling the plot. Glasgow was brought to trial, found guilty and left both his state office and the state of North Carolina.
Samuel retired to private life in 1798 when he was 73 years old. He spent the remaining fifteen years of his life on his plantation at Rocky Point or at his summer home near Hawfields in Orange County. He died on 3 February 1813, in his eighty-eighth year.
Ashe County and the cities of Asheville, North Carolina and Asheboro, North Carolina are named in his honor, and in World War II the United States liberty ship SS Samuel Ashe was also named in his honor.
In February 2018, a very interesting document, Samuel Ashe and the Birth of a Free State was provided to me by its author, John W. Smith, Superior Court Judge, Wilmington, N.C., who has written extensively about the early judges of the lower Cape Fear region. It’s well worth reading to gain a deeper insight into those interesting times.
Footnote on the ancestry of Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr.
Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on 10 July 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. He went on to become a great tennis player, winning the US Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970, and Wimbledon in 1975. Arthur Ashe and his family can trace their ancestry back eleven generations to the early 1700s, when slaves were brought from Africa to the USA to work on the farms, in the homes, and on plantations. The Ashe ancestors were slaves who had been brought from West Africa and who were owned by Governor Samuel Ashe. Like many slaves in the colonial period, they adopted the name of their owner. Thus, the name “Ashe” was passed down to generations into the twentieth century. Arthur Ashe died of pneumonia related to AIDS on 6 February 1993 in New York City.