Willie Jones, Revolutionary era statesman, was born on May 25, 1741 in Surry County, Virginia, the son of Robin and Sarah Cobb Jones. He was the brother of Brigadier General Allen Jones. In the 1750s, Robin Jones, the land agent of Lord Granville, moved the family to Northampton County. Both Willie and Allen were sent to England to study at Eton, their father’s alma mater.
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Upon his return to North Carolina, Willie set about constructing his plantation, “The Grove,” near Halifax. Jones married the daughter of Colonel Joseph Montfort the Grand Master of the Masonic Order in America, with whom he fathered thirteen children, although only five of them lived to maturity. Jones was a very wealthy planter, and the 1790 census indicates that he had nearly 10,000 acres of land in Halifax County as well as 120 slaves, making him one of the largest slaveowners in North Carolina at the time.
Jones first entered public service as a member of the colonial assembly in 1767. During the War of the Regulation, he served as the aide-de-camp to Governor William Tryon and took part in the Battle of Alamance. In 1774 Governor Josiah Martin appointed him to the Royal Council, but Jones, a supporter of radical Whig ideology, refused the assignment.
During the Revolution, Jones was elected to all five provincial congresses where he led radical Whigs in opposition to the more conservative faction led by William Hooper, Archibald MacLaine, Samuel Johnston, and his brother Allen. Jones also served as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the southern colonies and as a member of the commission that drafted the first state constitution. He served as a member of the House of Commons throughout the conflict, as well as a term in the Continental Congress in 1780.
A staunch Jeffersonian and Anti-Federalist, Jones led the opposition during the Hillsborough Constitutional Convention of 1788. Although initially successful, Jones realized by the following year that the Federalists led by William Richardson Davie and James Iredell had the votes necessary to ratify, and thus he excused himself from the Fayetteville convention of 1789. Jones retired from political service but his close friend Nathaniel Macon carried on his political tradition. Jones did not retire from public service entirely, however. In 1791, Jones served on the committee to locate the capital within ten miles of Isaac Hunter’s tavern in Wake County. Shortly thereafter, he joined his former political opponent William R. Davie in soliciting donations for the construction of the University of North Carolina and served on the committee to hire the institution’s first president.
Jones died on June 18, 1801, and was buried in an unmarked grave on ground that is now occupied by St. Augustine’s College. The editor of the Raleigh Register wrote that, “Carolina has not produced a son of greater mental endowment than Mr. Jones, no one who lived more universally and deservedly respected or died more affectionately and sincerely regretted.” Jones, a Deist, recorded in his will that he wished no one to mourn him, and asked that, “No priest or other person is to insult my corpse by uttering any impious observations over my body. Let it be covered sunny and warm and there is an end.”
William Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 330-331—sketch by Blackwell P. Robinson
Walter Clark, ed., State Records of North Carolina, XII, XVII, XIX, XXV (1895-1906)
William Saunders, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, IX, X (1890)
Blackwell P. Robinson, “Willie Jones of Halifax,” North Carolina Historical Review (January, April 1942): 1-26, 133-170
James Iredell Papers, Manuscripts Division, Duke University Library