We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Martin, Alexander (1739/40–1807), revolutionary army officer and politician in America, was born at Lebanon, Hunterdon county, New Jersey, the eldest son of Hugh Martin (b. c.1700) and Jane, née Hunter (c.1720–1807). Martin's father was originally from co. Tyrone and his mother from co. Antrim. The two families left Ireland in the late 1720s, landed at New Castle, Delaware, and a short time later settled in New Jersey where Hugh and Jane met and were married. Alexander Martin's early years are not well documented, although a brother noted that he did not speak until the age of four. His father farmed, was a justice of the peace and a Presbyterian minister, and conducted an English school. Alexander was sent to Francis Alison's academy in New London, Connecticut, and to Newark College in New Jersey; he was enrolled at the latter during the administration of Aaron Burr, when it was moved to Princeton. Martin graduated in 1756 from Nassau Hall with the baccalaureate degree; three years later he was awarded the customary master's degree, followed in 1793 by the LLD. After leaving Princeton he moved to Cumberland, Virginia, where he was a private tutor as well as a schoolmaster. After a brief trip back to his childhood home, he settled permanently in North Carolina, and in time acquired large tracts of land in Rowan and Guilford counties—particularly along the Dan River, where his first grant was for 436 acres in 1761. For his twenty-seven months of service in the American War of Independence he was granted land warrants for 2314 acres. At his death he owned over 10,000 acres.

About 1760 Martin settled in Salisbury, where he became a merchant. Soon after he was made a justice of the peace, and in 1766 he became king's attorney for Rowan county. When royal governor William Tryon visited Salisbury on 19 May 1767 en route to establish a boundary line with the Cherokee Indians, Martin was spokesman for the inhabitants of the borough and delivered a cordial address of welcome. He also was one of the governor's early supporters during the unrest that led to the ‘war of the regulation’, a protest of inland counties against local corruption. Though physically mistreated and ‘severely whipped’ by rioting regulators, Martin negotiated an agreement to refund any excess fees that had been improperly collected by local officers and to adjust other disputes between the two sides. Governor Tryon did not appreciate these efforts and eventually suppressed the regulators by force.

Martin's brother Thomas, also a graduate of Princeton and an Anglican priest who lived in Orange county, Virginia, was tutor at Montpelier to the family of James Madison, the future president of the United States. In passing between North Carolina and New Jersey, Alexander Martin became acquainted with the Madisons, leading to a family friendship that survived for many years (Martin's mother, in fact, lived with the Madison family at Montpelier for several years after her husband's death). In 1773 Martin settled his mother and siblings on his own property along the Dan River at a site that he named Danbury, in the recently created Guilford county. Subsequently, instead of dividing his time among several places of residence, he began a long and eventful political career from that base. Danbury became a place to return to from his frequent and often distant travels.

The residents of the new county must already have been acquainted with Martin, since in 1773–4 he was chosen to represent them in the colonial assembly and was re-elected to serve in the next session. During these terms, which lasted less than two months, he introduced a bill to pardon the regulators and another to require British owners of property in North Carolina to pay their just debts. In the following year he was named judge of the temporary court of oyer and terminer by Governor Josiah Martin, a distant relative, who had succeeded Tryon in 1771. This court, which lasted for only a short time, heard and determined criminal cases early in the revolutionary period.

The rapid move towards a break with Britain led to the calling of a provincial congress to act on behalf of North Carolina when an elected legislature was not possible; Martin served in two congresses in 1775. This body created an armed force in North Carolina and organized it so that it could be easily transferred for service with similar organizations from elsewhere. Martin was commissioned lieutenant-colonel of the second regiment on 1 September 1775. He remained at this rank until 10 April 1776, when he was advanced to colonel. As an officer of the continental line he saw active duty; he was one of three joint commanders who led North Carolina troops into South Carolina in December 1775 to quell an uprising of loyalists. In February at the battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Martin helped halt loyalists in their march to Wilmington to join an expected British force. He was at Chadd's Ford in the battle of the Brandywine and at the battle of Germantown on 4 October. The defeat here ended Martin's military career. In a heavy morning fog American troops mistook each other for the enemy and exchanged fire, resulting in serious losses. Martin was charged with cowardice but was cleared by a court martial. Nevertheless, he resigned his commission on 22 November 1777 and returned home.

The state faced a bleak future. Its continental forces had been lost with the fall of Charles Town and militiamen had left as their enlistments expired. The legislature created a board of war to assist the governor, and Martin was the most capable and efficient member in devising a programme to recruit troops and gather supplies; the board also offered encouragement to the generals. When the governor protested about the intrusion on his authority, the board for a time became a council-extraordinary. Martin continued to work, although in a less obvious manner. He was also a member of the state senate, representing Guilford county for eight terms between 1778 and 1788 and serving as speaker during five of them. No provision existed for filling a vacancy in the event of the absence of the governor, so when Governor Thomas Burke was captured by loyalists in September 1781, Martin, as speaker of the legislature, became acting governor for four months. His service to the state during these years of crisis undoubtedly contributed to his choice as governor on 20 April 1782 to succeed Burke and his re-election for two subsequent terms. Having served the permitted three one-year successive terms, he was followed by Richard Caswell for the next three years. Martin then was chosen governor for three more terms, serving from 1789 to 1792. In 1789 the University of North Carolina was chartered, and as governor Martin was chairman of the board of trustees; he continued to serve as a regular trustee for the remainder of his life. Martin's successor as governor was chosen on 11 December 1792, the same day that Martin was elected to the United States senate for service during the years 1793–9. At the end of the century, however, when he sought to return to the senate, he was denied that office. He returned home to Danbury, where his mother still lived and where he resumed the life of a distinguished countryman. Unable entirely to abandon politics, he again served his state in the senate for the terms of 1804 and 1805 in sessions that lasted just over two months.

Throughout much of his adult life Martin aspired to literary recognition. Some of his poetry, including odes on the death of several statesmen, appeared in newspapers in North Carolina and elsewhere. His most substantial piece, published in Philadelphia in 1798, was a new scene for a play by Thomas Morton, Columbus, or, A World Discovered. The play was produced a number of times in Philadelphia. A contemporary described him as being about 5 feet 9 or 10 inches in height, ‘well formed and fine featured’.

Martin died at Danbury aged sixty-seven on 2 November 1807; his ninety-year-old mother died six days later. He was never married, but with Elizabeth Strong he had a natural son, Alexander Strong Martin, whom he acknowledged. In his will he devised both land and slaves to this son and also land to Elizabeth Strong. Martin county, created in 1774, was named in honour of royal governor Josiah Martin; after the revolutionary war when the names were changed of other counties honouring colonial governors, this name was retained, it was said, to recognize Alexander Martin. Following his death Martin's body was placed in a brick vault on his plantation, but several decades later, during a period of unusually high water on the Dan River, the vault was flooded. The body floated out and was discovered a considerable distance away, where it was buried. The site is not now known.

William S. Powell

Sources  

C. D. Rodenbough, ‘Alexander Martin’, Dictionary of North Carolina biography, ed. W. S. Powell, 4 (1991), 222–4 · E. W. Yates, ‘The public career of Alexander Martin’, MA diss., University of North Carolina, 1943 · F. Nash, Presentation of a portrait of Governor Alexander Martin to the state of North Carolina (1909) · M. R. Williams, ‘Martin, Alexander’, ANB · R. M. Douglas, ‘Martin, Alexander’, Biographical history of North Carolina, ed. S. A. Ashe, 3 (1905), 274–80 · J. L. Cheney jun., North Carolina government, 1585–1975: a narrative and statistical history (1981) · W. S. Powell, J. K. Huhta, and T. J. Farnham, eds., The regulators in North Carolina: a documentary history, 1759–1776 (1971) · R. M. Douglas, The life and character of Governor Alexander Martin (1908) · H. F. Rankin, The North Carolina continentals (1971) · J. McLachian, Princetonians, 1748–1768 (1976) · R. Walser, ‘Alexander Martin, poet’, Early American Literature, 6 (spring 1971), 55–9 · Roster of soldiers from North Carolina in the American revolution (1932) · will of Alexander Martin, state archives, Raleigh, North Carolina

Likenesses  

oils, c.1793–1799, State Capitol, Raleigh, North Carolina