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Morton: Early death hurts Houston’s place in history

On this day (Aug. 13) in 1788, the president of the College of New Jersey (present-day Princeton University), Dr. John Witherspoon, learned of the Aug. 12 untimely death of one of his most gifted students, William Churchill Houston.

Houston, at the time of his premature demise, already was a renowned educator, a successful lawyer, and a well-regarded state and national politician. Born in 1746 into the family of Archibald and Margaret Houston in the Poplar Tent District of Cabarrus County, N.C., young William was provided by his parents with an excellent education that would, they hoped, allow their precocious son to rise above them socially and economically.

Upon enrollment in the struggling college in Princeton, N.J., the studious Houston soon became one of Witherspoon’s most prized students. Under Witherspoon’s direct supervision, Houston became thoroughly conversant with Greek, Latin, history, moral philosophy and Calvinist theology.

The scholarly Houston, after his graduation in 1768, stayed on as a tutor, becoming a professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (science) in 1771. When the British briefly occupied Princeton in 1776, Witherspoon closed the college and served as a delegate to the Continental Congress (where he was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) while his professorial colleague, Houston, joined the Somerset County, N.J., militia, where, as an elected captain, he saw limited combat action in and around Princeton.

When the British withdrew from New Jersey in 1777, Witherspoon reopened the college, and Houston returned to his teaching position. From 1777 to 1787 (when he was appointed a New Jersey delegate to the Constitutional Convention), Houston, while continuing to teach at the college, served on a number of local political and legal committees. He also served from 1779-1781 and 1784-1785 as a delegate to the Continental Congress, studied law, was admitted to the bar, opened a law office in Trenton, and served as clerk of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

With this extensive educational, political and legal experience, Professor Houston was expected to play an important role at the Constitutional Convention. He was one of the better educated among the 55 attendees.

Unfortunately, illness greatly limited his attendance in Philadelphia to only a couple of weeks. He was in attendance on May 25 (the first official session), but because of a severe case of tuberculosis, was forced to leave June 6, never to return.

During his brief stay at the convention, Houston, as a small state nationalist, allied himself with John Dickinson (Del.), George Read (Del.), Oliver Ellsworth (Conn.), and others who favored the creation of a “true federal” system of government, which would allocate political power almost evenly between the states and the newly created national government.

His lamentable illness and early departure deprived the “Grand Convention” of the services of an intelligent and articulate voice. Had he been in attendance on Sept. 17, 1787, he surely would have joined his four fellow New Jersey delegates in signing the Constitution – a document that included many of his known political views.

However, at the young age of 42, Houston succumbed to tuberculosis on Aug. 12, 1788, in Frankford (now part of Philadelphia), leaving his wife, Jane, to raise their two daughters and two sons. He was buried at the Second Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Philadelphia.

It can be said of William Churchill Houston that his life was one of unfulfilled promise.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for tutoring, talks and workshops on American history.

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