Nathaniel Macon (1758–1837) was an American statesman from North Carolina. He held office in a variety of roles, first in the North Carolina state legislature, then in the U.S. House of Representatives, and later in the U.S. Senate. He served as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1801 to 1807 and as President pro tempore of the Senate from 1826 to 1827.
Macon was a marked advocate of states' rights and decentralized government, aligning with the Anti-Federalists during the passage of the Constitution, and later joining the Jeffersonian Republicans. His opposition to a strong protective tariff and to federal interference with slavery, and his support for the doctrines of nullification and secession, made him an important transitional figure between Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun, who was greatly influenced by Macon's views.
Nathaniel Macon was born on December 17, 1758, at Macon Manor, the family home in Warren (then Edgecombe) County, North Carolina. He was the sixth and youngest child of Gideon Macon and Priscilla Jones Macon. The Macons were descended from a French Huguenot who had immigrated to Virginia sometime before 1680 and married into the local gentry; Martha Washington was a distant cousin of Nathaniel Macon's, and another relation of his was a brother-in-law of James Madison. Macon's parents had moved to North Carolina in the 1730s and established a modest tobacco plantation along Shocco Creek in the Roanoke river valley.
Gideon Macon died in 1763, and his widow managed the plantation and the children thereafter. Nathaniel and his older brother John attended a local school from 1766 to 1773; otherwise, not much is known about his youth. Surviving accounts suggest that he was an intelligent, serious-minded adolescent of some ambition, and in 1775, he left home to attend the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).
Revolutionary War Career
Macon's college education was cut short by the escalation of the American Revolutionary War. For a short period in the summer of 1776, he and some of his classmates joined a company of New Jersey militia; not long thereafter, the school closed down, and Macon, after only a year of attendance, returned home to study law.
Though the Roanoke region from which he hailed was among the most pro-Patriot areas in the state, Macon did not again serve in the military until 1780, when he joined one of the militia units formed in response to the British invasion of South Carolina. He enlisted as a private, declining an officer's commission and an offered cash bounty for signing up. He fought at the Battle of Camden, and remained with the army until January 1781, when he was elected to represent Warren County in the state senate. Macon intended at first to decline the seat, saying he believed the need for military manpower was too great, but was eventually persuaded to take office.
After his election to the state senate, Macon left the army and went to Halifax to attend the General Assembly in June 1781, and for the next several years was active in that body, being repeatedly re-elected from Warren County. While in the legislature, he joined a political faction led by Willie Jones, which dominated state politics for much of the 1780s. Somewhat radical by the standards of the times, the Jones party sought greater political power for the backcountry, a harsh policy toward the remaining Loyalist residents, the greatest possible independence for the state from the Continental Congress, and the repression of the more conservative elites (mostly merchants and great planters) in the eastern regions.
Not all of Macon's positions and actions on these issues during the period are known, but he was generally in support of Jones and his faction, especially regarding the suppression of Loyalists and the maintenance of state sovereignty. He also opposed over-reliance on a paper currency, as most states had been guilty of during the war, arguing that a specie-backed currency was the only safe policy.
During this same time, Macon married, established a new plantation at Buck Spring near the Roanoke River, and was appointed a lieutenant colonel of the Warren County militia, a position he was highly active and diligent in. In 1786 he was elected to serve in the Continental Congress for the following year, but declined on grounds of insufficient compensation (though more likely because of dislike for involvement in the federal government). He likewise opposed the new Constitution that was drafted in 1787, and, though not (unlike his brother John, also a Jones supporter) a member of the ratification convention, supported the campaign to reject it. After North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution in November 1789, however, Macon accepted calls to represent the Anti-Federalists in Congress, and was elected as the first U.S. Representative for the Hillsboro district in 1790.
House of Representatives
Macon took his seat in the House in October 1791 and quickly became prominent as a supporter of Thomas Jefferson and an opponent of Alexander Hamilton and his plans for political and economic centralization, including his funding and assumption scheme and proposal for a national bank. In February 1792, Macon introduced a bill to force the Treasury Department to disclose its financial records, igniting a severe controversy and establishing his reputation as an enemy of federal supremacy. Combined with the decline of the Federalist party in North Carolina, he soon became the recognized leader of the state delegation in the House.
In 1794, Macon proposed a series of excise taxes on beer and wine to balance the impact of the new tax on whiskey, which had disproportionately impacted farmers in the South and West; this was rejected, and resentment over the tax shortly led to the Whiskey Rebellion on the western frontier. He opposed other aspects of the Federalist program, notably the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, arguing that the federal government had no constitutional authority to limit freedom of speech and the press. Macon supported the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions put forward by Jefferson and Madison, and even suggested that the state legislatures should refuse to elect senators to Congress, thus dissolving the government.
In 1815, Macon was elected to the Senate, and immediately became one of its more respected members. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, he would continue his opposition to such proposals as a national bank and an expanded paper currency, holding to a "hard money" position; as well as to the "American System" of protective tariffs and internal improvements put forth by Henry Clay.
Macon emerged as a fierce opponent of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was his belief that Congress had no power to regulate or restrict slavery in the states or the territories; and he also believed creating a geographical division between free and slave states (the 36°30’ line associated with the Compromise) was the first step toward disunion. Macon hoped at least to have the dividing line moved two degrees farther north to give the South more leverage in the future; but to no avail. "This will be the ruin of the South," he wrote in a letter to an acquaintance.
"The people suspect something is not right when free discussion is feared by government. They know that truth is not afraid of investigation." -Nathaniel Macon
"Some people think borrowing five or six millions a trifling thing. We may leave it for our children to pay. This is unjust. If we contract a debt we ought to pay it, and not leave it to your children. What should we think of a father who would run in debt and leave it for his children to pay?" -Macon
"His integrity, his indefatigable attention to business, and his long experience give him a weight of character and consideration which few men of superior minds ever acquire." -John Quincy Adams on Macon
"The attempt to govern too much has produced every civil war that ever has been, and will, probably, every one that ever may be." -Macon
- Profile at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
- Nathaniel Macon, Encyclopædia Britannica
- Nathaniel Macon, Encyclopedia.com