Joseph Hewes Builds a Navy

Joseph Hewes Builds a Navy

Joseph Hewes is one of those names on the Declaration of Independence that is easily passed over without a second thought.

Hewes' most important service to the Founding of the United States was his active role in laying the groundwork for the Continental Navy.

First Continental Congress

Joseph Hewes was a New Jersey born self-made merchant who, at age 30, moved to North Carolina.  His business flourished and by the outbreak of the American Revolution he owned a fleet of ships.

North Carolina was a hotbed of rebel activity and Hewes, who was already serving in the Provincial Assembly, was sent to the First Continental Congress.

Hewes signed the Articles of Association and, despite the adverse effect it would have on his business, supported the Non-Importation Agreement.  All was not lost, however, as Joseph found a different use for his ships.

Building an American Navy

In October 1775, the Continental Congress formed the Naval Committee.  Joseph Hewes was the chairman of this committee and as such was responsible for building the first American Navy.

Hewes donated his entire fleet of private merchant ships to be outfitted for use by the Continental Navy.

When it came time to appoint Naval Officers, Hewes began to argue with another committee member: John Adams.  Although Hewes and Adams had previously maintained a good relationship (and would continue to work well together afterward), they disagreed strongly on who should be placed in charge of the Navy.

Adams, who had secured George Washington’s nomination as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in order to win Southern support in the war, now believed a Northerner should be given command of the Navy to balance out that power.  Hewes believed the most experienced (and therefore best) person was John Paul Jones.  In the end, however, Adam’s suggestion of Esek Hopkins won the day.  (Don’t feel too bad, as Jones went on to become a hero while Hopkins had to deal with the internal politics of Congress.)

Declaration of Independence

In spring of 1776, Hewes presented the Halifax Resolves on the floor of Congress.  These Resolves were a recommendation by the North Carolina Provincial Congress to declare independence.

Hewes, though he presented the Halifax Resolves, was at first against the idea of independence.  During the ensuing debates, however, he changed his mind.  Based on discussions with other delegates, Hewes determined it was too late for reconciliation.  From that point forward, he was instrumental in moving to create the new nation.

Hewes voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of North Carolina.


Joseph Hewes was then placed on the committee responsible for drafting a new government, what became the Articles of Confederation.  He would not see this come to fruition though.  Poor health would lead to his death while still working for the Continental Congress in 1779.

The representatives meeting in Philadelphia attended his funeral and officially resolved to mourn his passing for one month.  He is one of the few delegates to receive this honor.


Joseph Hewes dedicated all he had to the cause of independence.  He sacrificed the prosperity of his business and instead used his ships to help establish the United States Navy.  Essentially, Joseph Hewes was the first American Secretary of the Navy.

Although his legacy is not large in the annals of US history, Joseph Hewes is a name forever enshrined on the Declaration of Independence.


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To learn more about Hewes and the Continental Navy, pick up a copy of 'Give Me a Fast Ship.'  For fun biographies of the Declaration signers, try 'Signing Their Lives Away.'  All books are purchased through our affiliate Amazon.

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