About Captain William Jackson (Continental Army), Secretary to the U.S. Constitutional Convention
DAR Ancestor #: A061301
William Jackson (March 9, 1759 – December 17, 1828) was a figure in the American Revolution, most noteworthy as the secretary to the United States Constitutional Convention. He also served with distinction in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. After the war he served as one of President George Washington's personal secretaries.
Early life and military career
Born in the county of Cumberland in England, Jackson was sent to Charleston in South Carolina after the death of his parents. He was raised by a family friend and prominent merchant, Owen Roberts, who was the commander of a militia battalion. After the war broke out in 1775, Roberts joined the Patriot side, and the teenaged Jackson followed; Roberts probably helped Jackson to obtain a position as a cadet in the 1st South Carolina Regiment. In May 1776 Jackson was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Jackson first saw action near Charleston in June 1776, when his regiment fought off General Sir Henry Clinton's attempted attack on Fort Sullivan. The unit then spent a long period garrisoning the city of Charleston, during which Charles Cotesworth Pinckney assumed command of the 1st South Carolina. Late in 1777, Jackson was part of the detachment that made an ill-conceived and worse conducted expedition against St. Augustine in British East Florida under Major-General Robert Howe. The expedition was a colossal failure, and the American force was struck down by disease. Jackson survived, and returned to South Carolina in 1778.
After the return from Florida, the Southern regiments were placed under the command of Major-General Benjamin Lincoln, from Massachusetts. Pinckney convinced Lincoln that as a Northerner, he needed an aide to assist him in relating to his Southern troops. Jackson was chosen for this position and was temporarily promoted to the rank of major. As Lincoln's aide he saw action in the Battle of Stono Ferry and the Siege of Savannah in 1779. In 1780 General Lincoln surrendered his troops after the lengthy Siege of Charleston. As a captured officer, Jackson was shipped to Philadelphia, then held by the British. After a few months he was returned to the Continental Army in an exchange of prisoners.
A skilled staff officer, Jackson was then assigned to General Washington's staff, serving as secretary to the general's aide John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens of South Carolina. When Laurens was sent to France in 1781 to buy supplies with money loaned by the French Government, he took Jackson along, and the job was handed over to Jackson when Laurens returned to America after a short and undiplomatic stay in France; Jackson made extensive purchases, beyond his budget, and had a discussion with Benjamin Franklin after spending some of the money Franklin had reserved for unpaid bills.
Jackson himself returned to the United States in February 1782, and was assistant secretary of war to Benjamin Lincoln. The Confederation's Department of War, like the British, was a financial liaison with the Army; Jackson helped settle the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783.
In October 1783, he resigned his office, and his commission, to become Robert Morris's agent in England; when he returned the next year, he studied law with the Philadelphia lawyer William Lewis.
As an impoverished law student, in 1787, Jackson wrote to Washington applying for the post as secretary to the Philadelphia Convention. On the Convention's first day of business, May 25, 1787, Alexander Hamilton nominated Jackson to the post, and the delegates chose him over William Temple Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's grandson, despite the latter's experience serving as his grandfather's secretary during the Treaty of Paris negotiations.
As the Convention secretary, Jackson had a number of duties, including maintaining the secrecy of the Convention's proceedings, keeping official minutes, and destroying many of the proceedings' other records. He signed the document "Attest William Jackson Secretary" to attest to the delegates' signing. With his signature Jackson became the fortieth signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Jackson was sent to the Congress of the Confederation, assembled in New York City, with a copy of the Constitution, and was honored to read it out to the Congress just days after the signing, on September 20, 1787.
Life after the Convention
Major Jackson was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1788, but in those days, he had to wait two years to practice before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the most lucrative branch of the law; besides this, he was an (unpaid) volunteer in the Second Philadelphia Light Horse. He applied to be secretary of the United States Senate, but Samuel Allyne Otis was appointed. He then applied to be personal secretary to George Washington, now first President of the United States, writing that he had unpaid expenses as a Continental officer, and that business was "not congenial to [his] temper."
He resigned in 1791 to restart his law practice, and work as agent for William Bingham and Henry Knox (then Secretary of War), who were selling off a large land grant in Maine first acquired by William Duer, first Undersecretary of the Treasury and now bankrupt. Jackson's job was selling land on commission in England and France; among his potential customers was the Committee of Public Safety. They declined to invest their scanty funds in Maine land; but Jackson wrote a very favorable report on them back to the United States.
He returned to the United States in the summer of 1795, and married Elizabeth Willing, Mrs. Bingham's sister, in November; they were the oldest daughters of Thomas Willing, a rich Philadelphia merchant, related to the Shippens. In January 1796 (during his last months in office), Washington, who had gone to the wedding, appointed Jackson Collector for the Port of Philadelphia; Jefferson, another wedding guest, dismissed him in 1801 for politicizing his office; Jackson then started a Federalist newspaper, the Political and Commercial Register, in Philadelphia, and edited it until 1815.
He was, after his marriage, a leader of society, with Charleston manners, and his father-in-law's wealth; John Adams compared him to Sir Charles Grandison.
Jackson succeeded Henry Knox as President of the Society of the Cincinnati, a group of former Continental Army officers, in 1799. As such, he headed an unsuccessful effort to lobby Congress to grant all veteran Revolutionary officers half-pay for life, in 1816. Congress was to pass such a bill in 1826, fifty years after independence, but Jackson was not associated with it; his last public appearance was welcoming the Marquis de Lafayette to Philadelphia in 1824. He remained titular president of the Cincinnati until his death, December 18, 1828, at the age of 69, in Philadelphia.