William Jackson (1759-1828) was a military officer during the War for American Independence, known for his ability, integrity, and charm.1 He came to the notice of General George Washington through his military service as an assistant to Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Jackson became a secretary to Washington during the first few years of his presidency but is perhaps best known to history as the Secretary of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
William Jackson was born on March 9, 1759 in the ancient county of Cumberland, England, to an English father and a Scottish mother. He was orphaned at a young age.2 He was then sent to the South Carolina lowcountry, to live under the guardianship of Owen Roberts, a respected merchant and veteran of the Anglo-Cherokee War. Jackson undoubtedly received an ample education on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean as evidenced by his later writing and oration, delivered with a slight brogue.3
While still a teenager, William Jackson volunteered for military service with the provincial troops of South Carolina in the summer of 1775 when the Revolutionary War began.4 He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the First South Carolina Regiment when the unit was taken into the Continental Army in May of 1776 and defended Charleston against an enemy assault the following month. After his promotion to first lieutenant in 1777, Jackson’s unit shared in an arduous expedition into British-held East Florida in 1778. When Major General Benjamin Lincoln took command of the Southern Department of the Continental Army, William Jackson was appointed one of his aides-de-camp on June 29, 1779, with the brevet rank of major. He served on Lincoln’s staff during the Sieges of Savannah in 1779 and Charleston in 1780 but was captured with the garrison in the latter.5
Exchanged by the end of the year, Jackson was then appointed secretary to a special legation to the French Court to procure funding and supplies for the war effort.6 Successful, Jackson afterwards arranged for the shipment of monies and supplies, in the words of Ambassador John Adams, “with great Activity and Accuracy in Business, and an exemplary Zeal for the public Service.”7 Upon his return to the United States in early 1782, he once again supported Benjamin Lincoln - now Secretary of War - as his assistant until the end of the conflict.8
William Jackson spent the first half of 1784 as a business agent for Robert Morris in London. When he returned to Philadelphia, he began training as an attorney and became active in the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati, delivering a well-received oration on the decennial of the Declaration of Independence. When the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787, William Jackson was chosen as its Secretary on May 25th.9 He daily worked alongside the chair of the meeting, George Washington, for the next four months and had the honor of signing the document and delivering it to the Continental Congress.
When George Washington became the first President of the United States of America, he appointed William Jackson as one of his secretaries in September of 1789.10 Jackson served capably for over two years, earning praise and sincere thanks of the first President: “your deportment… has been regulated by principles of integrity and honor, and that the duties of your station have been executed with abilities, and I embrace the occasion your address has afforded me, to thank you for all your attentions, and for the services which you have rendered me.”11 When the establishment of a new Army occurred in 1792, George Washington offered Major Jackson the position of Adjutant General. Hoping to establish himself on a better footing as an attorney to propose marriage to the daughter of a prominent merchant, Jackson declined.12 After attending to a lengthy business venture in Europe, William Jackson married Elizabeth Willing on November 11, 1795 with George and Martha Washington in attendance.13 George Washington’s last act of patronage for his former secretary was his assigning Jackson to the post of Surveyor for the District of Philadelphia & Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Philadelphia on January 13, 1796.14 Upon Washington’s passing, William Jackson delivered a “Eulogium, on the Character of General Washington,” on what would have been the former President’s sixty-eighth birthday at the German Reformed Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Chief Justice John Marshall would recall the eulogy as “one of the best which that melancholy occasion produced.”15
With the election of Thomas Jefferson as President, William Jackson lost his position as surveyor and inspector of the revenue due to his political leanings. He countered by publishing a daily newspaper to restore “the tone of the Constitution, and the principles of General Washington’s policy” from 1804 to 1820.16 Afterwards, he became a lobbyist for a group of Continental Army officers to secure the half-pay for life promised them at the commencement of the War for Independence. Although unsuccessful in this specific undertaking, the effort sparked the demand for legislation to recognize and provide for veterans and their families.17 His last public act was to welcome the Marquis de Lafayette to Philadelphia in September of 1824 during his tour of the United States.18 William Jackson died in his home in Philadelphia on December 17, 1828, and his remains were interred in the burial ground of Christ Church in that city.19
Samuel K. Fore
Harlan Crow Library
1 “To George Washington from Benjamin Lincoln, 30 October 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11993 & “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 3 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4113
2 Littell, Charles Willing. "Major William Jackson: Secretary of the Federal Converntion." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 2, No. 4 (1878), pp. 354.
3 “Notes and Queries: Diary of William Rawle” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1898), pp.253.
4 “To George Washington from William Jackson, 19 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0070 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 April 1789?–?15 June 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 73–76.]
5 Benjamin Lincoln, 4 February 1792, to All Whom it May Concern. William Jackson autograph #4600-1527. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
6 Garden, Alexander. Anecdotes of the American Revolution, Illustrative of the Talents and Virtues of the Heroes and Patriots, Who Acted the Most Conspicuous Parts Therein… Second Series... Charleston, [S. C.] Printed by A. E. Miller, 1828 & “To John Adams from John Laurens, 28 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-11-02-0212 [Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 11, January–September 1781, ed. Gregg L. Lint, et. al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 293–296.]
7 “From John Adams to the President of Congress, 27 June 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-11-02-0292 [Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 11, January–September 1781, ed. Gregg L. Lint, et. al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 398–399.]
8 Benjamin Lincoln, “Princeton, [N.J.,] October 30th 1783,” to William Jackson. Society Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
9 “[Diary entry: 25 May 1787],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0003-0002-0015 [Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5, 1 July 1786?–?31 December 1789, ed. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979, p. 238.]
10 New York Journal & Weekly Register (New York, N.Y.) September 20, 1787
11 “From George Washington to William Jackson, 26 December 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0203 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 9, 23 September 1791?–?29 February 1792, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 312–313.] & “Certificate for William Jackson, 12 June 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-13-02-0043 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 13, 1 June–31 August 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007, p. 65.]
12 William Jackson, “Philadelphia November 5th, 1792” to George Washington. George Washington Papers, Library of Congress
13 Providence Gazette, November 28, 1795 & Elizabeth W. Jackson. widow's pension application no. 9072; service of William Jackson; Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, Record Group 15; National Archives & Records Administration, Washington D.C.
14 Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America: From the Commencement of the First, to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress. Volume I. (Washington, [D.C.,]: Printed by Duff Green, 1828), p. 197 & William Jackson Commission as Surveyor & Inspector. Society Collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
15 Hobson, Charles F., ed. The Papers of John Marshall: Vol. VI, Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, November 1800?–?March 1807. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990), pp. 301–303.
16 “To Alexander Hamilton from William Jackson, 20 April 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0001-0183 [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 26, 1 May 1802?–?23 October 1804, Additional Documents 1774–1799, Addenda and Errata, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 222–223.] & “The Political and Commercial Register” in Brigham, C. S. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. (Worcester, Mass., American Antiquarian Society, 1947), pp. 945-946
17 Jackson, William. Documents Relative to the Claim of the Surviving Officers of the Revolutionary Army of the United States, for an Equitable Settlement of the Half Pay for Life, as Stipulated by the Resolves of Congress. [n.p., 1818?], “To John Adams from Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 6 December 1819,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3739 & Resch, John P. “Politics and Public Culture: The Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1818.” Journal of the Early Republic Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer, 1988), pp. 139-158.
18 Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Penn.) September 30, 1824.
19 Daily National Journal (Washington, D.C.) December 25, 1828 & Elizabeth W. Jackson. widow's pension application no. 9072; service of William Jackson; Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, Record Group 15; National Archives & Records Administration, Washington D.C.