William Churchill Houston was a son of Archibald and Margaret Houston, and was born in Sumter District, South Carolina, in the year 1746. His parents removed to Mecklenburg county, North Carolina, when he was a small child, and his youth was spent under the austere tutelage of the early Scotch masters in the rude school houses on the extreme frontier of civilization, where the Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw Indians were still near and dangerous neighbors, being almost constantly at war with each other or with the white settlers. His early education was acquired in the log-cabin academy at Polar Tent, near his home, and at Sugar Creek, under Joseph Alexander, before mentioned, himself a native of Mecklenburg county. To the latter he doubtless owed the superior knowledge, for one of his age, that fitted him to become a teacher in the Grammar School at Princeton, New Jersey, when he matriculated at the College of New Jersey, there in 1764. There is a tradition among his descendants of an estrangement between William Churchill Houston, and his father, owing to the former’s determination to seek a college education at the North, and that he was given a horse and sufficient funds to carry him to his destination as his sole inheritance. Color is given to this theory from the fact that he never returned to his native home, though he had started to make the journey when taken with his fatal sickness at Frankford, Philadelphia, in 1788. The exigencies of the times however, in the Revolutionary War, which soon succeeded his graduation, and his prompt appointment as an instructor in his alma mater, furnish sufficient reason for the delay of what was an arduous journey at that date.
William Churchill Houston graduated with the highest honors at Princeton University, in the class of 1768, and was at once appointed senior tutor. He received on his graduation, a silver medal, which is still a prized possession by his descendants.
Dr. Witherspoon came to Princeton as president of that College in the year of Mr. Houston’s graduation, and the latter was for many years his most active assistant, counsellor and friend. He assisted Witherspoon in the introduction and arrangement of new courses, and raising the college to a higher plane, and when Dr. Witherspoon was called to active political duties in connection with the framing of the first constitution of New Jersey, and as a member of the Continental Congress it was to Mr. Houston he delegated the important affairs of the college. Mr. Houston was appointed professor of the department of mathematics and natural philosophy, on its creation as a separate department, September 25, 1771, and filled that position until 1779.
With the outbreak of the Revolutionary struggle, he became at once prominently identified with the patriot cause, seconding and assisting Dr. Witherspoon, in the measures and correspondence leading up to the establishment of State and National self-government, and the preparation for prosecuting the war. Mr. Houston was commissioned captain of a company in the Second New Jersey Regiment of Foot, from Somerset county, under Colonel Abraham Quick, and served for some months with this organization prior to his resignation on August 17, 1776, when he alleged that duties in connection with the college, in the absence of Dr. Witherspoon, prevented his active attendance on military affairs. He was a member of the Provincial Council of Safety, its treasurer, and one of the most regular in attendance at its meetings.
He, however, resumed his commission as captain in the New Jersey Militia, in November, 1776, and saw considerable active and arduous service. His company, in which were a number of Princeton students, as shown by the journal of one of them, was largely employed on scouting expeditions, and frequently in armed conflict with marauding parties of the enemy, as well as participating in the battles of Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth. It also served as part of the guard of Washington’s headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey. Captain Houston’s term of enlistment expired March 6, 1777, and he did not again enter the military service, his service being required in other positions which his eminent abilities, ardent patriotism and untiring industry, fitted him to fill.
On March 25, 1777, William Churchill Houston, was unanimously chosen Deputy Secretary of Continental Congress, and he immediately took charge of a large part of the correspondence, the transmission of resolutions of Congress to the different departments and states, the printing of the journals, and ably assisted the Secretary, Charles Thompson, in the administration of that most important office.
In the winter of 1778, William Churchill Houston returned to his duties as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Princeton, but still retained his position as Deputy Secretary of State. He was however elected to the New Jersey assembly in the fall of 1778, and reelected the following year. In this position he exhibited the same energy, patriotism, and industrious application to his duties that characterized his whole career. On July 9, 1779, he took his seat in the Continental Congress, alternating with Dr. John Witherspoon, with whom he had so long been closely associated. From that date he was most regular in his attendance and took a leading part in the proceedings of Congress; serving on the important committees of War, Foreign Affairs, Postal Service, and Finance. In the latter department, - a most trying one, - he was especially interested, and his correspondence, with Governor Livingston of his own state of New Jersey, among others, shows his activity in devising means of raising funds for the support and equipment of the army. In one of these letters he says, “A treasury without money, and an army without bread, is really alarming.” The expression of his views as to means of raising funds, shows that he had given the subject of national finances much thought and concern.
In December, 1779, with Governor Livingston and Robert Morris, he made himself responsible to the treasurer of the State of New Jersey, for seven thousand pounds, to be used for clothing Continental troops, should the legislature, when convened, fail to appropriate the amount. He was active in the public discussion of financial questions, and wrote in January, 1781, a paper entitled, “Detached Thoughts on the Subject of Money and Finance.” He also prepared the 1781 budgets of appropriations for Army and Navy Affairs. On September 24, 1781, he was elected by Congress, Comptroller of the Treasury, but declined the position in a letter dated October 13. He retired from Con~ gress in 1781, and devoted himself assiduously to the practice of law; and on September 28, 1781, was appointed clerk to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, a position he held until his death. He then returned to the duties of the professorship at the College of New Jersey, resigning in 1783, to devote his whole attention to political duties and the practice of law; was also receiver of continental taxes, from 1782 to 1785. He always kept up his interest in the College of New Jersey, serving as its treasurer until his death, and was one of the founders and first stockholders of the Trenton Academy.
He was selected as one of the commissioners appointed by Congress to settle the dispute between the states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, in reference to the lands and jurisdiction at Wyoming, and one of those who signed the final decree of adjudication, called the “Trenton Decree”, after a session of the commission lasting from November 12, to December 30, 1782. He was again elected to Congress in October, 1784, and reelected in October, 1785.
When the question of adopting a national constitution was first agitated, and a call for a convention to be held at Annapolis, Maryland, was issued, New Jersey was the first to name delegates, one of whom was William Churchill Houston, but only a few states sending delegates, nothing was accomplished, and he was again named as a delegate to the later successful convention held at Philadelphia.
He was one of the delegates named from the State of New Jersey to the convention that framed the United States Constitution in 1787, and took an active part in its deliberations. Other members of the New Jersey delegation to the Convention were Jonathan Dayton, William Livingston, William Paterson, and David Brearley.
He was the author of the motion to strike out the clause making the president ineligible to reelection.
Shortly after the Constitutional Convention, professional and political duties impairing his health, Mr. Houston, decided to seek rest in a long deferred visit to his old home and kindred in North Carolina, and started on the journey, but was taken seriously ill at an inn on Frankford Road, in Philadelphia, kept by a Mr. Geisse, and died there, August 12, 1788, and was buried in the church-yard of the Second Presbyterian Church, at the northwest corner of Arch and Third Streets, Philadelphia.
William Churchill Houston married Jane, daughter of Rev. Caleb Smith, of St. George’s Manor, Long Island, by his wife Martha, daughter of Jonathan Dickinson, of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, the first president of the College of New Jersey. Mrs. Houston, died in 1796, at the age of forty-one years and was buried at Lawrenceville Cemetery. They had five children: two sons, George Smith Houston, of whom presently, and William Churchill Houston, Jr., who settled in Philadelphia, and was prominently identified with the business interests of that city until his death; and three daughters, Elizabeth, Louisa Ann, and Mary.
- A Biography of William C. Houston 1746-1788
- Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania: Genealogical and Personal Memoirs, Volume 3