This is the 4th part of my look at the diary of Susan Edwards Johnson, a Connecticut woman that visited the North Carolina coast in 1800-1801. I found the diary at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn.
Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., from the 24thof November until the 21stof December, 1800. Her husband Samuel did not. After two days, he left her and returned to his work on the Black River, more than 100 miles to the south.
Susan had traveled all the way from Stratford, Conn., to see him. One might suspect that she was disappointed that Samuel did not stay in New Bern for a longer visit with her, or that he did not believe it suiting for her to accompany him.
But if either was the case, she does not say so in her diary. Instead, she used her diary to recount how and with whom she spent her time, the books she read and the other things she did and saw.
On November 26th, the day her husband left, she mentioned the first local woman that called on her.
This day I sat at home. Mrs. Judge Taylor called to see me. She is an amiable pretty little woman.
“Mrs. Judge Taylor” was Jane Gaston Taylor (1776-1845), the wife of Judge John Louis Taylor (1769-1829).
She was the daughter of an Irish surgeon (apparently of French Huguenot ancestry) who served in the British navy and settled in New Bern sometime prior to 1764.
A Patriot in the Revolutionary War, her father died at the hands of a party of Tories in 1781. Five-year-old Jane witnessed the incident, as did her mother and brother.
Her husband, Judge Taylor, was also an immigrant. The child of Irish parents who resided in England, he accompanied his older brother to America when he was 12 years old.
Not having the funds to finish college, he taught himself the law and found an important mentor or two in New Bern. By 1800 was serving as a superior court judge.
His career reminds me of the line in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton” that always gets the audience’s most enthusiastic applause.
In the musical, Alexander Hamilton, born on the West Indian island of Nevis, and Lafayette, a Frenchman, meet on the eve of the Battle of Yorktown. They pay their respects to one another, and they anticipate that they will lead their troops to victory against the British forces.
Jubilantly they sing—
“Immigrants! We get the job done!”
Like Hamilton, Jane Gaston Taylor’s husband was a Federalist. He would become the first chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Jane Gaston Taylor’s brother, by the way, also became a justice on the state’s Supreme Court.
Like Judge Taylor, William Gaston (1778-1884) was a devoted admirer of Hamilton’s Federalist political philosophy. In November 1800 he was practicing law in New Bern, and he had just been elected to the state senate.
He later served in the U. S. Congress and went on to become one of the most respected and influential jurists in the state’s history.
Today he is most famous for a legal opinion on the rights of enslaved people—State v. Negro Will. In 1834, Judge Gaston ruled that an enslaved man named Will had the right to defend himself against an unlawful attempt by his owner, or a representative of his owner, to kill him.
This was a landmark case because the right to defend oneself implied the individual was not merely property, but a human being with at least some rights.
State v. Will was not William Gaston’s only important ruling on the rights of the downtrodden or on African American rights, yet he also owned a plantation near New Bern and at his death held 200 men, women and children in slavery—the early American Republic in a nutshell.
Next time– more on Susan Johnson’s diary and her stay in New Bern