It’s a significant chapter in our sometimes colourful local history.
It’s the dodransbicentennial of Gaston County—its 175th anniversary—commemorating the date of Dec 21, 1846, when it was carved out of Lincoln County and named for famed jurist, philanthropist and former congressman William Gaston. Gaston County is one of the largest in the state, both in size and population. Gastonia, too, is named for him, of course, amongst a number of other things.
As for Gaston the man, when he was born in 1778, his hometown of New Bern was North Carolina’s capital. He immortalised his love for the Tarheel State in the poem, “The Old North State,” set to music in 1926 and the official state song since 1927.
According to historian Ronnie Faulkner, Gaston was a graduate of what later became Princeton University. By his 0early 20’s, he was already known as a consummate lawyer. Later serving on important congressional committees, he rightly opposed the unjust, unnecessary War of 1812 (“Mr Madison’s War,” which America actually lost, being embarrassingly drubbed by Canada; the British burned Washington, and many doubtless wish they’d come back and do us the same favour to-day).
An Irish Catholic, Gaston was descended from the Normans, who first came to Ireland more than eight centuries ago (hence the family’s French surname, pronounced “ga-STAWN,” en français). As a lawmaker, he was instrumental in getting North Carolina’s anti-Catholic laws stricken off the books, not 190 years ago. The state’s constitution had thitherto contained discriminatory anti-Catholic laws, including forbidding them from holding office. But thanks to Gaston, all that was changed.
“Hey, ole Bill’s a purty good guy, so if he’s all right, they must be all right,” folks seemed to say of one accord, back then, and so those laws were summarily gone with the wind.
Alas, the same could not be said of slavery back then. It’d be another generation before America’s original sin was finally dealt with. And Black History Month is a fine time for an honest assessment of Gaston’s views. Like Jefferson, Gaston condemned slavery, passionately, publicly and at length. But also like the third president—oddly, perhaps, as it seems now—he never seemed to know quite what to do about it himself. This surely was his greatest failing as a human being.
Still, in a public speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1832, he called for its abolition, arguing that it was morally corrupting, bad for industry and the economy and that it degraded both master and slave alike. As a lawmaker and a lifetime justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, he defended the rights of black freemen, and he curtailed the rights of slaveowners, re their treatment of the people they kept in bondage, according to Stephen Klugewicz, writing in The Imaginative Conservative, in 2013:
“Labelling the taking of a slave’s life ‘a grievous crime,’ Gaston rejected the notion that the master’s power over his slave was absolute. ‘It is certain that the master has not the right to slay his slave,’ he asserted, ‘and I hold it to be equally certain that the slave has a right to defend himself against the unlawful attempt of his master to deprive him of life.’ But Gaston ruled that this was the only limitation on the master’s authority. In a later case, however, he went further, ruling that a slave’s defiant behavior did not justify an excessive beating.”
Gaston also argued—far ahead of his time—that all blacks, both free and slaves, were legally citizens of North Carolina. They were thus entitled to the requisite protection of the laws of the day.
But it still wasn’t enough. It’s a sad irony. According to Klugewicz, Gaston once successfully defended the right of Henry Jacobs, a Jew, to sit in North Carolina’s state legislature. Such a man as Gaston, many would say, ought thus to have been more forward-thinking. Yet in his lifetime, it appears he freed only one of his 40 slaves.
Still, men are unhappily prisoners of their own times. And it’s just not possible to take them out of the context of those times and attempt to view them through a modern lens. Try to do that, and you’ll invariably get them wrong.
A staunch Federalist, Gaston believed in a strong, centralised government, according to Faulkner. In a lengthy speech, he once lavishly praised George Washington (another of Gaston’s faults, to be quite honest). But to his credit, he correctly opposed the evil, racist, belligerent, Anglophobic and genocidal Andy Jackson, the notorious bane of Amerindians (rather like Bloody Bill Sherman, who tried to exterminate them outright).
And though he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, Gaston declined a nomination to the Senate (senators were elected by state legislatures, not by popular vote, in those days). He likewise declined a nomination to serve as attorney general under William Henry Harrison.
Thrice married (two wives predeceased him), Gaston had five children. He had two lovely homes: Elmwood in Raleigh and the Coor-Gaston House in New Bern.
And in New Bern, Gaston and his neighbours funded the construction of St Paul’s Catholic Church, which remains the oldest Catholic chapel in North Carolina. Still in use, it has a striking architectural style, as it was built in 1841. Alas, like most so-called “Catholic” churches throughout the West, thanks to the deforming of the satanic Second Vatican Council, it is, objectively speaking, not truly Catholic at all. It mistakenly refers to “reconciliation,” not “confession,” just to cite one example amongst a host of things it gets thumpingly wrong, and Joe Biden mouth-diapers are required at all of its so-called “Masses”—the evident norm throughout all Novus Ordo “churches.”
That is a disgrace and an abomination unto Almighty Christ Himself, in more ways than one. William Gaston—who only ever knew the Real Mass (the Tridentine Latin Mass, to be used for all time, as irrevocably declared by Pope St Pius V) and the Real Church (pre-Vatican II)—would vomit with disgust and shame, could he but see such a “church” to-day.
Gaston’s legacy lives on with St Joseph’s Catholic Church, abandoned for more than 50 years but still standing near Mount Holly. When Gaston donated the money to make its construction possible in 1843, the land was then in Lincoln County. But the great man never saw it. At the age of 65, he died in Raleigh on Jan 23, 1844.
Like all of us, Gaston was a mixed bag. And like all great men, he was flawed. Yet the path he trod trended upward, and those who came after him only saw further because they stood upon the collective shoulders of such men as he. He deserves to be remembered and respected, and he has earned his place amongst others in the pantheon of those who have shaped our nation for the better.