Gaston County and the county seat of Gastonia, located in the southwestern part of North Carolina, bear his name, a fitting tribute to the easterner who came to support the rights of his western brethren. In his day, his legal acumen was hailed by none other than the great Luther Martin of Maryland, perhaps the greatest lawyer of the time. Hot-tempered (he came close to dueling the great John C. Calhoun), he was nevertheless ever the prudent conservative, often finding a middle way that would reconcile sides in political contests.
Born in 1778 in New Bern, North Carolina, William Gaston was the son of an outspoken Patriot who was murdered in by invading British troops during the American Revolution. His devoutly Roman Catholic mother made sure that he received an education in the faith, sending him in 1791 to the newly-established Georgetown College. Indeed, Gaston was the school’s first student. Due to ill health, Gaston left the school and eventually graduated from Princeton College. He went on to study the law and was admitted to the North Carolina bar at the age of twenty.
In 1800, Gaston, a committed Federalist, entered state politics, happily swimming against the rising Jeffersonian Republican tide in his state and across the country. Gaston served first in the North Carolina legislature, favoring internal improvements that largely benefited the western part of the state, defending state-chartered banks against demagogic attacks, and fighting for an independent judiciary. In 1833, the North Carolina House of Commons elected him to the high court he had helped shape.
Prior to this appointment, Gaston had wondered whether as a Roman Catholic he was barred from holding a position in the state’s judicial branch, as Section 32 of the North Carolina constitution prohibited anyone who denied “the truth of the Protestant religion” from “holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department” of the state. Twenty-five years earlier, Gaston had successfully defended the right of the Jewish Henry Jacob to hold a seat in the assembly, arguing that the prohibition did not encompass the legislature. But a place on the high court was another matter.
In consultation with supreme court justice Thomas Ruffin, an Episcopalian, Gaston concluded that the wording of the test clause was too vague as to constitute a clear prohibition against Catholics. He would expound his arguments to his fellow North Carolinians during the state convention of 1835.
Called by Governor David L. Swain, the convention was empowered to address the issues of representation in the assembly, suffrage requirements, and the religious test clause of the constitution. Gaston was elected to the convention, and he played an influential role in its proceedings during the course of the summer.
When the issue of Section 32 of the constitution was taken up, Gaston rejected as murky the language of the provision, and wondered whether anyone could describe what “the Protestant religion” was. “Innumerable sects,” he declared, “differing each from the other in the interpretation of what all deem the revealed will of God — some holding for divine truth what others reject as pernicious error — are indiscriminately called and known as Protestants.” No official tribunal existed to determine what constituted Protestantism, nor could one be established, Gaston claimed, unless the disestablishment clause of Section 34 was expunged from the constitution.
Besides, Gaston added, Catholics did accept the general tenets held by most Protestants but simply added certain beliefs to this catechism. Even if one were to concede that true Catholicism entailed a rejection of Protestant beliefs, Catholics did not “deny” the Reformed faith. “It is obvious,” Gaston asserted, “that the term ‘deny’ does not include those who merely doubt, not even those who disbelieve, unless that disbelief be accompanied by some overt act of negation of its truth.” Following in the tradition of the Enlightenment, Gaston equated religious belief with opinion and suggested that “society generally legislates not upon opinions but on acts.”
Gaston saw something devious at work in the effort to preserve Section 32 unchanged. By attempting to exclude a segment of society from office-holding, the Protestant majority sought to preserve political power for itself. Not merely ancient prejudice, but also “the spirit of cupidity “ underlay Section 32.
Declaring that he would “not be content with any thing short of the total abrogation of religious tests,” Gaston was forced to accept the decision of the convention, which settled upon changing the word “Protestant” to “Christian” in Section 32. Gaston blamed his failure to win “unlimited freedom of opinion” on “the meanest of all two-legged creatures, time-serving, popularity hunting politicians.”
In considering the issue of suffrage, the convention considered a motion to revoke the suffrage rights of free blacks. Gaston objected, declaring that he believed that the African American “should not be politically excommunicated and have an additional mark of degradation fixed upon him solely on account of his color.” The proposal, however, narrowly passed the convention by a vote of sixty-six to sixty-one. In an attempt to salvage the issue, Gaston submitted an amendment that proposed to permit free blacks who held a certain amount of money to vote. This plan, however, was voted down.
Gaston defended the rights of blacks — slave as well as free — as a jurist. Though he himself owned at least forty slaves, Gaston believed that slavery was “the worst evil that afflicts the Southern part of our Confederacy. “It is slavery,” he declared in 1832, “which, more than any other cause, keeps us back in the career of improvement. It stifles industry and enterprise; it is fatal to economy and prudence; it discourages skill, impairs our strength as a community, and poisons morals at the fountain head.” Gaston’s condemnation of the peculiar institution is especially striking in that it came at a time when southern attitudes about slavery were hardening.
In 1834, the case of State v. Will came before the North Carolina high court and Justice Gaston. At issue was the power of masters over their slaves. Will was a slave who had inflicted a fatal knife wound on his overseer, apparently in self-defense, after the latter had shot him in the back. A lower court had ruled that Will was guilty of murder, but Gaston rejected this decision, concluding that “the slaying is felonious homicide, but it is not murder.” Will had simply reacted as human being would have done when his life was threatened. “The prisoner,” Gaston declared, “is a human being, degraded indeed by slavery, but yet having organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions like our own.”
Labeling the taking of a slave’s life ‘a grievous crime,’ Gaston rejected the notion that the master’s power over his slave was absolute. “It is certain that the master has not the right to slay his slave,” he asserted, “and I hold it to be equally certain that the slave has a right to defend himself against the unlawful attempt of his master to deprive him of life.” But Gaston ruled that this was the only limitation on the master’s authority. In a later case, however, he went further, ruling that a slave’s defiant behavior did not justify an excessive beating.
In the case of State v. Manuel, Gaston ruled that black people — including freed slaves — were citizens of the state and thus entitled to the protection of the rights contained in the North Carolina constitution. Despite his comparative liberality on the issue of race and his professed aversion to slavery, Gaston was careful to safeguard the master’s right of jurisdiction over the freedom of his slave. In an 1835 decision, he declared that the power of manumission belonged solely to the slavemaster and that not even the state legislature could manumit a slave without his owner’s consent.
Gaston himself seems to have freed only one of his slaves during his lifetime. He cared enough about his slaves’ souls to have them baptized, though this was not an uncommon practice at the time. His comparative liberality towards blacks earned him a reputation as a humanitarian, but Gaston’s innate social conservatism precluded him from letting his human chattel go free and from advocating for the abolition of slavery, an institution he claimed to despise.
Likewise, Gaston did not position himself as a radical when it came to religious toleration. A defender of the law throughout his public life, Gaston waged his battle narrowly within the limits of legal interpretation. In fighting against the state’s test act, he made no appeal to natural rights and was ready to resign or refuse his office if it could be proven that Section 32 was legally sound.
Gaston’s integrity was widely recognized, and he became a respected figure in North Carolina, where Catholics constituted a tiny minority, even among the Protestant elite. No less a public figure than Judge Joseph Story urged Protestant Harvard University to confer an honorary degree upon the Catholic statesman. The key to Judge Gaston’s being accepted by elite society was his refusal to advocate for extralegal solutions to the contentious issues of race and religion in his state.
After 1835, no state constitution retained a restriction against Catholics. Religious toleration for Catholics seemed to have won the day, at least in terms of the law; African freedom would have to wait.
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