From 1757 to 1837.
Ours is a government of suspicion; every election proves it; the power to impeach proves it; the history of Caesar, of Cromwell, and Bonaparte proves that it ought to be so to remain free.
Long before there was Jesse Helms, dubbed “Senator No,” North Carolina had another vigorous dissenter of centralized power and federal expenditures. Nathaniel Macon was born in Warrenton, North Carolina, almost two decades before American independence. After attending The College of New Jersey, later renamed Princeton, Macon joined a New Jersey militia company in 1776. Four years later, Macon turned down a military commission and enlisted in a North Carolina unit during the American Revolution and was soon elected to the North Carolina State Senate.
Macon married Hannah Plummer in 1783. She died seven years later, and a young son died a few months later. Macon, now more firmly committed to public service, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, holding office in the House from 1791 to 1815. Gaining popularity and influence among Democratic-Republican leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Macon served as Speaker of the House from 1801 to 1807. Throughout his political career, which would extend to the U.S. Senate, Macon prided himself on never actively campaigning for office or soliciting votes. Deploring political patronage, he turned down every cabinet position offered to him and refused overtures to run for vice president and later president.
His biographer, William Dodd, wrote in 1902 that Macon’s life was a “protest against every extravagance for which the name of the national government has become synonymous.” Writing in National Review, Ryan Cole called Macon “an early-nineteenth century version of Dr. No – Ron Paul in a frock coat.” He opposed taxes and tariffs, believing they caused undue burden to his constituents, who were largely agrarian and owners of small farms. Macon joined forces in Congress with other dissenters of federal power like John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke, while eschewing their elitist titles. “The attempt to govern too much has produced every civil war that ever has been, and will, probably, every one that ever may be,” declared Macon.
Macon even voted against a national monument for America’s beloved George Washington, believing the proposal too expensive and would only set a bad precedent of what he called “monument mania.” Writing to a friend in North Carolina, Macon warned, “Be not led astray by grand notions or magnificent opinions; remember you belong to a meek state and just people, who want nothing but to enjoy the fruits of their labor honestly and to lay out their profits in their own way.”
“Macon’s Bible shows much use, and his letters over 30 years bear testimony to his familiarity with the Scriptures,” declared Dodd. Macon attended Baptist services regularly near his Buck Spring plantation and openly professed a Christian faith. In 1835, he was elected to preside over the North Carolina Constitutional Convention. He argued for religious liberty and defended full political rights for Roman Catholics in North Carolina. “But of all the attempts to arrogate unjust dominion, none is so pernicious as the efforts of tyrannical men, to rule over the human conscience,” Macon said. Thomas Jefferson called Macon “The last of the Romans,” for his selfless service and disinterest in political power. The Richmond Enquirer eulogized Macon at his death in 1837, calling him “justum et tenacem propositi virum” (a man upright and firm of purpose).
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-US