Maj. William Jackson

Maj. William Jackson
Historic Christ Church, Philadelphia, PA

Like a few others in this study William Jackson had no service in the Pennsylvania Line. He is said to have been born in “Cumberland, England, March 9, 1759”, which it is supposed refers to the former county Cumberland, now no longer a part of the political geography of Britain. He was early an orphan but emigrated to South Carolina where his guardian is said to have been Owen Roberts. Jackson’s means and perhaps his connections enabled him to be comfortably integrated into the rather rigid Charleston society. At the age of seventeen Jackson received an ensign’s commission in the First South Carolina Regiment. The regiment, authorized as State Troops on 6 June 1775, was adopted into the Continental Army in November. Colonel Christopher Gadsden commanded and Jackson’s guardian Owen Roberts was the Major. Jackson was commissioned Second Lieutenant in May 1776, and the regiment fought bravely at Charleston when the city was unsuccessfully attacked by the British under Henry Clinton in June.

For the remainder of the year and during 1777 the Southern Theater remained comparatively peaceful but in February 1778 the Colonies signed the French Alliance, changing the nature of the war. Under the American General Robert Howe an attempt was made against the British in East Florida where the British were building up a force of Regulars, Loyalists and Native Americans. Howe’s chief objective, St. Augustine, was not won because of defections by the South Carolina and Georgia militias, and the Americans paid for this failure when Savannah was captured in December.

In September 1778 Major General Benjamin Lincoln took command in the South and attempted with insufficient forces to continue operations against the British; gradually the South was becoming the major theater of the war. In May 1779 the British again threatened Charleston but retreated therefrom, leaving a rear guard at Stono Ferry, South Carolina. General Lincoln was rebuffed in an attack there on 20 June, and Major Owen Roberts, Jackson’s mentor, in command of the American artillery was killed. On 9 October Jackson was promoted to Captain; he was then taking part in the Franco-American assault on Savannah which ended in the death of Casimir Pulaski and the allies’ retreat amid bitter recriminations against the French troops led by d’Estaing. Lincoln now fell back, yet again, to Charleston where Jackson was named his aide-de-camp with the rank of Major on the recommendation of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. On 12 May 1780 Lincoln was forced to surrender the city and the entire American force there. The British thereby gained some three thousand prisoners of war, the commanding general and his aides among them. They were exchanged on 9 November.

In the new year Colonel John Laurens was chosen as special envoy to the French Court by Congress, and Jackson accompanied him as his secretary when he sailed from Boston on 9 February 1781 aboard the Alliance, Captain John Barry [an Original Member of the Society]. The young agents were concerned primarily with obtaining greatly-needed military supplies in France and Holland. Jackson’s zeal in the matter may have greatly overcome his discretion, and he was brought into conflict with Benjamin Franklin who was unexpectedly presented with bills totalling some £50,000. The matter was resolved when Franklin’s counsel in the matter proved to be well-grounded, and Jackson sent him a handsome apology for some hasty words.

In February 1782 Jackson returned to the United States and was made his Assistant by Benjamin Lincoln, by then Secretary at War. He held the appointment only until October 1783 when he resigned to return to Europe on personal business but from which he soon returned. Lincoln, who perhaps by that time knew Jackson as well as any man, wrote him [in part] on 10 August 1784,

…We live in a world where all men do not act on the most liberal principles. I am afraid you will not be enough guarded; suffer me, with all the sincerity and affection of a father and friend, to tell you that generosity of temper, so conspicuous in you, must be kept within proper bounds. No one can relieve the necessities of all, and however we may feel for their distresses, yet we must remember what we owe to ourselves,…If you are not too generous, you must prosper; few of us, however, need this hint….

When the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania was organized in November Jackson signed their “Parchment Roll”, thus indicating his intention of identifying with Pennsylvania. He served as the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Society from 1785 to 1787, and in 1786 delivered the annual oration to that Society, published as An Oration, to Commemorate the Independence of the United States.

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May 1787 William Jackson was chosen as its Secretary on the nomination of Alexander Hamilton, thus achieving perhaps an apex in his career; as Secretary he had the honor of signing the document. By direction of the Convention its working papers were destroyed, and on 17 September 1787 Jackson wrote George Washington,

…Major Jackson, after burning all the loose scraps of paper which belong to the Convention, will this evening wait upon the General with the Journals and other papers which their [the convention’s] vote directs to be delivered to His Excellency.

On 9 June 1788 Jackson was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar.

When Washington became President of the United States he appointed Jackson one of his personal secretaries. He accompanied the President on his tours of the states, but in 1791 submitted his resignation in order to return to the law. Washington wrote him on 26 December 1791,

…your deportment, so far as it has come under my observation, has been regulated by principles of integrity and honor, and that the duties of your station have been executed with abilities, and I embrace the occasion your address has afforded me, to thank you for all your attentions, and for the services which you have rendered me,…

Notwithstanding, when the new establishment of the Army occurred in 1792 Washington offered the post of Adjutant General to Jackson who in December declined, saying,

…no other consideration but an engagement of the heart, involving the happiness of a most amiable woman,…would prevent a prompt and grateful acceptance of this additional, and highly respected mark of your esteem….

The lady in question was Elizabeth Willing, daughter of Thomas Willing, President of the Bank of North America. But the marriage did not take place as soon as Jackson may have led Washington to expect. Instead, Jackson returned to Europe as agent for the sale of lands belonging to William Bingham of Philadelphia, one of Pennsylvania’s most extensive and successful speculators – and also the husband of Elizabeth Willing’s sister Anne. It was not until Jackson returned to Philadelphia in 1795 that the marriage was performed, on 11 November, by Bishop William White. The guests included President and Mrs. Washington, Robert Morris, Benjamin Lincoln, Henry Knox, the Vicomte de Noailles and others of the most brilliant society of post-Revolutionary Philadelphia.

On 14 January 1796 Washington appointed Jackson Surveyor of Customs for the Port of Philadelphia, and he held that position until 1802 when the Jeffersonian displacement removed him and most of his fellow Federalists from such jobs. Also, in 1796 Jackson was elected Treasurer-General of the Society of the Cincinnati; he was succeeded in 1799 by his fellow-Pennsylvanian William McPherson [an Original Member of the Society], but was advanced that year to the post of Secretary General which he filled for thirty years. In 1800 Jackson was chosen to deliver a memorial speech on the birthday of General Washington, 22 February, the first since the general’s death. It was published as Eulogium on the Character of General Washington… later that year.

After being removed from his post as Surveyor, Jackson became for a time the editor of the Political and Commercial Register of Philadelphia, a Federalist organ. In 1818 Congress made its first major change in the pension laws governing veterans of the American Revolution. The changes were designed to assist the indigent, not, as previously, merely the invalids. Encouraged by this the surviving officers revived their claims to the half-pay for life promised them at the commencement of the war. Jackson was employed by the veteran officers to press their claims, but it was all without success and the matter was not finally settled until 1828. That same year Jackson died, on 18 December, and was buried in the Christ Church Burying Ground, Philadelphia. Mrs. Jackson survived him by many years and died on 5 August 1858 after having out-lived all of her family. The only son to reach manhood was William Jackson, Jr. who was born 11 August 1807. He succeeded his father as a member of the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania in 1829, was its Assistant Secretary from 1830 to 1837 and Secretary from 1837 to 1851. Simultaneously, he was Assistant Treasurer-General from 1838 to 1851. William Jackson, Jr. married Martha, daughter of Dr. Thomas C. James of Philadelphia but left no issue.