Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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MACON, Nathaniel, statesman, born in Warren county, North Carolina, 17 December, 1757; died there, 29 June, 1837. He was a student at Princeton at the beginning of the Revolution, but left in 1777 to serve as a private in a company of volunteers. On his return to North Carolina he began the study of law, but soon re-enlisted as a volunteer, and, although several offices were urged on him, continued a private under his brother, Colonel John Macon, until the provisional treaty of 1782, serving at the surrender of Fort Moultrie, the fall of Charleston, the rout at Camden, and with General Nathaniel Greene in his retreat across Carolina. During this campaign he was elected without his knowledge to the North Carolina senate, but at first declined, alleging that he "had seen the faces of the British many times, but never their backs, and he intended to stay in the army until he did." But being urged by General Greene to accept, as the country needed legislators at that time more than private soldiers, he left the army, refusing a pension and all pay for his military service. He continued in the state senate till 1785, was employed on the most important committees, and advocated pledging the state to redeem her paper issues. During this period he settled on a plantation on the Roanoke river, in Warren county, which remained his home throughout his life. When the United States constitution was first submitted to the vote of North Carolina, he opposed it as conferring too much power on the new government. He was elected to the 2d congress as a Democrat, and was successively re-elected without opposition, serving from 1791 till 1815, when he became United States senator, and continued in that office till 1828. From 1801 till 1806 he was speaker of the house, and twice during the administration of Jefferson declined the office of post-master-general. In congress he voted for the embargo and for the declaration of war against Great Britain, but held that the war should be defensive only, and refused to enlarge the naval force beyond what was necessary to guard the coast, also opposing fortification and privateering. He voted against all schemes of internal improvement, spoke in 1795 against a grant of lands to Count de Grasse, and in 1824 against that to Lafayette in recognition of his services during the Revolution. Although he was frequently offered high executive office, he refused whatever was not the gift of the people or their immediate representatives in the legislature. He received the twenty-four electoral votes of Virginia in 1824 for the vice-presidency, and from 1825 till 1827 was president pro tempore of the senate. During his political career of fifty-seven years he never recommended any of his faro-fly to public office. His speeches were short and to the point, and Thomas H. Benton says of him that he "spoke more good sense while getting in his chair and getting out of it than many delivered in long and elaborate speeches." He was a "strict, severe, and stringent "Democrat of the Jeffersonian school. His two last public services were in the Constitutional convention of North Carolina in 1835 and as presidential elector on the Van Buren and Johnson ticket in 1837. In the former he opposed giving the ballot to free negroes, a land qualification for voters, state control of works of internal improvement, and all religious tests as a condition of holding office, and was in favor of voting viva voce at all elections. He believed that a state could not nullify and remain in the Union, but that a state could secede. He was the intimate friend of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Randolph of Roanoke. Randolph said of him in his will" He is the wisest, the purest, and the best man that I ever knew." Mr. Macon died after a few hours' illness, but had already given directions to a neighbor to make for him a plain coffin, to be paid for before his interment, had selected for his grave a barren ridge where the plough would never come, and ordered the spot to be marked by a pile of loose stones from an adjoining field. His death-bed is described by Benton as that "of Socrates, all but the hemlock." He was a student of few books but the Bible, and. though suspicious of reform and prejudiced against all innovations, was of singularly pure character and life. A sketch of him was published by Edward R. Cotton (Baltimore, 1840).
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