Ashe, John Baptista
- Tim Vanderburg
Ashe, John Baptista (1748–27 November 1802), member of the Continental Congress and U.S. Congress, soldier, and state politician, was born in Rocky Point, New Hanover County, North Carolina, the son of Samuel Ashe, a jurist, and Mary Porter. His grandfather John Baptista Ashe, for whom he was named, served on His Majesty’s Council of North Carolina; his father was assistant attorney for the Crown, the first judge for the state of North Carolina, and later governor. Ashe, who grew up on the “Neck,” his father’s tobacco plantation, learned about tobacco cultivation and received his education from a private tutor. There is no indication that he pursued a college education.
Ashe’s first military service came in May 1771, during the Regulator insurrection. Regulators were residents of several backcountry (western) counties who worked to end corruption among local officials between 1766 and 1771. Having lost faith that the colonial government in the East would address their grievances, backcountry residents worked to “regulate” the conduct of local government officials themselves. Regulators refused to pay taxes, disrupted courts, and used violence to redress their grievances against corrupt officials. Ashe served as a lieutenant in the New Hanover militia and was captured and beaten by the Regulators. The Regulator movement ended when Governor William Tryon sent 1,185 colonial militia and defeated a Regulator force of more than 2,000 at Alamance on 16 May 1771. At the beginning of the Revolution Ashe fought with Colonel Alexander Lillington’s militia during the patriot victory at Moore’s Creek, North Carolina, on 27 February 1776. On 16 April 1776 he was promoted to captain of the Sixth Regiment, North Carolina Continental Line. By early 1777 he had achieved the rank of major and served at Valley Forge during the agonizing winter of 1777–1778. In June 1778 the Sixth Regiment merged with the First Regiment. The following year Ashe married Elizabeth Montfort, daughter of Joseph Montfort, former North American grand master of Masons. They had one child. In 1780 Ashe’s regiment surrendered at Charleston to the British forces under General Cornwallis. Fortunately, Ashe was not with the unit at the time.
In January 1780 Ashe was promoted to lieutenant colonel and served in Wilmington, North Carolina, acquiring supplies for the troops. With 300 soldiers under his command, he was detached to South Carolina in July 1781 to join the forces of Major General Nathanael Greene. As commander of a battalion he fought at the battle of Eutaw Springs on 8 September 1781; his unit’s severe mauling of a British regiment drew the praise of General Greene.
Shortly before Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Ashe resigned from the Continental army and accepted 4,457 acres of land for his sixty-five months of military service. He served in the North Carolina Society of Cincinnati and later became its president. His career in politics began when he served in the North Carolina House of Commons for three terms (1784–1786); he was chosen Speaker of the House of Commons in 1786.
On 16 December 1786 Ashe was elected for a one-year term to the Continental Congress, which he attended from 28 March to 10 May and from 13 August to 29 October 1787. His correspondence with Governor Richard Caswell of North Carolina highlighted his concerns and those of his fellow North Carolina delegates to Congress. Writing for the delegation in a letter dated 18 April 1787, Ashe communicated their concern for navigation on the Mississippi, a request from the North Carolina legislature for Congress to send troops to Davidson County to quell Indian troubles, and the “infractions of the Treaty of peace with Great Britain,” which included the British refusal to abandon forts in the northwest territory and to return slaves confiscated by their troops during the revolutionary war. Ashe sought to protect North Carolina’s land claims in the West. In a letter to the governor dated 16 August 1787, Ashe wrote of his and William Blount’s attempt in Congress to correct the Hopewell Treaty. This treaty granted land claimed by the state of North Carolina to the Indians for a hunting ground. On 25 April both Blount and Ashe presented their case for North Carolina’s ownership of the disputed land; however, Congress judged their claim insufficient. Ashe believed that the forfeit of the state’s claim would be “flagrantly abusive in its consequences.” Though reelected to the Continental Congress beginning in November 1788, Ashe declined to serve.
Ashe served as a member of the North Carolina convention, which met in Fayetteville in November 1789 to consider ratification of the Constitution. He served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole and voted with the majority for ratification. In 1789 he served in the state senate as Speaker pro tempore and chairman of the Finance Committee.
After North Carolina joined the union, Ashe was elected to represent Halifax County in the First and Second Congresses, which met in New York and Philadelphia, respectively. A Democratic-Republican, he opposed the financial plans of Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington’s secretary of the treasury. Hamilton sought to restore the credit of the new nation and gain the loyalty of creditors through the federal government’s assumption of state debts, funding the national debt through the selling of government securities, raising revenue with an excise tax on liquor to pay on the debt, and the creation of a national bank to hold federal funds and expand credit. Ashe, along with Fellow Democratic-Republicans, believed that Hamilton’s financial programs greatly expanded the power of the federal government beyond its role authorized by the Constitution. In addition, Ashe opposed assumption because North Carolina was well on its way to paying off its wartime debt and assumption would seem to reward states that had a large debt remaining. Ashe served on committees that dealt with the merchants of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Quakers of North Carolina, and navigation. He served in Congress from 24 March 1790 through 3 March 1793.
Following his congressional service, Ashe returned to his farm and family in Halifax. Two years later the Halifax electorate returned him to the North Carolina House of Commons. His final elective office was the governorship, to which he was elected on 20 November 1802. Ill at the time of his election, he died at his Halifax home before he took office.
Ashe was a planter of some means. His slave holdings increased from forty-eight in 1785 to sixty-three in the year of the federal census of 1790. In recognition and honor of the important contributions made by the Ashe family, the towns of Asheville and Asheboro, along with Ashe County, North Carolina, were named for Samuel Ashe, and Ashe’s Island, offshore in Onslow County, North Carolina, was named for John Baptista Ashe.
There exists no collection of John Baptista Ashe’s papers. His surviving correspondence is scattered among the William Blount Papers at the North Carolina State Achives in Raleigh and the Richard Caswell Papers at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For Ashe’s work with the Society of Cincinnati, see the General Society of Cincinnati Archives, Library of Congress, North Carolina folder. Some correspondence is in Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, ed. Edmund C. Burnett, vol. 8 (1936). Some general sketches of Ashe appear in W. C. Allen, History of Halifax County (1918); Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, vol. 8 (1917); and John Hill Wheeler, Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851 (1851). For Ashe’s military service, see Walker Clark, ed., Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, vols. 17–21 (1889–1903), and C. L. Davis and H. H. Bellas, A Brief History of the North Carolina Troops … in the War of the Revolution (1896). Ashe’s work in the First Congress is recorded in the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789–1791, vol. 3: House of Representative Journal, ed. Linda Grant Depauw (1977). Ashe’s obituary is in the Raleigh Register, 30 Nov. 1802.
- Ashe, Samuel (1725-1813), judge and governor
- Tryon, William (1729-1788), British army officer and governor of North Carolina and New York
- Greene, Nathanael (1742-1786), general in the American Revolution
- Caswell, Richard (1729-1789), revolutionary militia general and state governor
- Blount, William (1749-1800), territorial governor and U.S. senator
- Hamilton, Alexander (11 January 1757?–12 July 1804), statesman and first secretary of the treasury
- Washington, George (1732-1799), first president of the United States