Biography of Francis Lester Hawkes

The old saying, that North Carolina is a good place to start from, is the key-note to the greatness of her people, as well as a term of reproach as accepted by them. All great men must seek the large centers of civilization in order to give to the world their message, but the great principles of their lives come from the land of their birth. A State is to be measured by the number of its good and great men, and not by material or physical predominance. Even intellectual gifts and culture cannot make a people great, but may become the instruments of their ruin. There are men in every period who shape the life and mold the thought of their time, and among these were some who made higher achievements in particular lines of work, “but in all the elements which form a positive character, in that kind of power which sways the minds of other men, and which molds public opinion, few men of his age deserve to rank higher than Francis Lister Hawks.”

Dr. Hawks was born in New Bern, North Carolina, June 10, 1798. He was the second son of Francis and Julia Hawks. His father was of English and his mother of Irish descent. His grandfather, John Hawks, came to America with Governor Tryon, so well known in the early history of our State. They were warm friends in the old country and cane over together to try their fortunes in the new. He was the architect of Tryon palace in New Bern, where he submitted his accounts for building, to the governor’s council, June 29, 1771. During the revolution, however, he sided with the Americans. The maternal grandfather of Dr. Hawks was Richard Stephens, who came from Ireland, and, no doubt, was one of the stern old Scotch-Irish blood. Dr. Hawks was one of nine children, three of whom became ministers, and one of these a bishop.

The mother of Dr. Hawks was a remarkable woman. What her husband lacked in positiveness and individuality of character she supplied, combining the characteristics of her race with a reverence for religion and all that is best in life. The early training which she gave her son is all-important in estimating his life and character. Bishop Green, of Mississippi, who knew the family, says ‘The father of Dr. Hawks was of amiable disposition, but not of a high order of intellect,” so it is to the mother alone that the great character and intellectual qualities of Dr. Hawks is to be attributed.

He was graduated from Chapel Hill in 1815, at the age of seventeen, and at that early age he was remarkable for his graceful elocution, fluent composition and finely modulated voice, as displayed in the exercises of the College Literary Society. He was valedictorian, and thus the opportunity for pathos was given, for which he was afterward so distinguished.

Immediately after graduation he commenced the study of law under Judge William Gaston, of New Bern, and later he became a pupil at the law-school maintained by Judge Reeve and Judge Gould, at Lichfield, Connecticut. He spent six months there, together with thirty other young men, many of whom afterward became well known in political and judicial life. Among these he was noted for his frank, ingenious disposition, and for his devotion to study. Near Lichfield was a school for young ladies, managed by the Pierce sisters, which no doubt relieved any severity which might result from legal training. We know little of the discipline kept at this school, but it is not probable that a score of restless youths, preparing for a profession “in which audacity is a virtue,” would long remain ignorant of its attractions. The fair pupils were, perhaps, better studied than any page of Coke or Blackstone, and the lessons some of the young men learned by heart were better remembered. Here Dr. Hawks formed the acquaintance of Miss Emily Kirby, who, by her father’s failure in business, was forced to take up teaching, and as the South furnished the best opening for her chosen work, she applied timidly and respectfully to young Hawks to secure for her a position somewhere in that section. He was so pleased with her letter that he sought a correspondence, which finally resulted in marriage.

He was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-one, and soon took high rank among the best lawyers of the State. Shortly after graduation he received his first communion and began to take an active part in religious affairs. This was a bold step for a young man at that time, as religion was at a low ebb, there being then only one male communicant besides himself in New Bern parish. A worldly career of great promise lay open to him, but he would not compromise his Christian principles for the sake of worldly ambition. He became a candidate for the Legislature in 1821 from New Bern, where it was customary for a candidate to throw open his house for the entertainment of all who came, in which all kinds of vice and drunkenness were tolerated. Hawks would have none of this, and “with a moral heroism which knew no fear, he dared to respect his own conscience, and to abide the consequences.” However, he was elected in his twenty-third year.

About this time he removed to Hillsboro, Orange County, and took his place among such men as Wiley P. Mangum, W. A. Graham and Chief Justice Nash. During these years his fame for eloquence was growing, and whenever it was announced, “That little man is speaking,” the courtroom was soon filled with eager listeners. While connected with the bar at Hillsboro he became reporter for the Supreme Court of the State, and while in this position he prepared the “Reports of Decisions in the Supreme Court of North Carolina.” In his early youth Dr. Hawks had been inclined to the ministry, but influenced by the worldly and ambitious views of his father he had studied law. His heart, however, was not in the work, and one morning he came to Bishop Green, then pastor of Hillsboro, and said: “I have entered the courthouse for the last time.” The Bishop expressed his surprise and asked him what he meant. He replied: “I mean what I say ; I am no longer a lawyer; I wish to become a clergyman.” He read for a few months under Bishop Green, and removed to New Bern, where he completed his studies and was ordained by Bishop Ravenscroft.

While on a visit to her old home, his wife died at New Haven, Conn., and was buried by Rev. Harry Croswell, by whom the marriage was performed. This domestic relation between the two men led to the election of Hawks to be Dr. Croswell’s assistant in April, 1829. His eloquence and sincerity soon won for him a high place among the people of New Haven. While there he married Mrs. Olivia Hunt, formerly Miss Trowbridge, of Danbury, Conn., who survived him, and was a loving tender support to him all through his eventful career. His stay in New Haven was short, and in August of the same year he removed to Philadelphia, where he became Bishop White’s assistant at St. James’ Church. In the autumn of 1830 he was elected Professor of Divinity in what is now Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., and early in 1831 he became rector of St. Stephen’s Church, New York. In December he resigned this position to accept the Rectorship of St. Thomas’ Church, New York City, where he spent the best years of his life.

His eloquence and power soon drew around him a large congregation, which he held all through the years of his pastorate. The early training he had as a lawyer made his sermons more or less argumentative. He sought always to convince the judgment before appealing to the feelings, and’ in his greatest bursts of eloquence he kept Hamlet’s advice ; in the very torrent and tempest of passion he observed a temperance which gave his diction smoothness. It is said of him during this period—so wonderful was his voice and style of delivery—that had he taken Euclid’s Geometry into the pulpit, his audience would have listened gladly to the demonstration of its bare problems. Tie was called upon to preach many charity sermons, and in one of these, for the support of a Dispensary, the following humorous touch is found: “It has been objected to many charities,” said he, “that their beneficence is bestowed upon unworthy objects. This cannot, however, be alleged in the case of the institution whose claims I advocate; for the wretch is yet to be found who will wallow in the mire of dissipation for the express purpose of qualifying himself to become a recipient of your bounty, and enjoy the sublime privilege of taking physic without cost.”

In the summer of 1836, he visited England for the purpose of securing copies of such documents as related to the early history of the Episcopal Church in America. He was well received there, and brought back with him seventeen folio volumes of historical materials, accumulated from various sources, relating to the early history of the church in New York and in the other colonies.

A short time previous to this, in 1835, lie began a long series of literary works by the publication of several juvenile volumes, consisting chiefly of conversations between a very learned and sympathetic old Uncle Philip and his enquiring and, oftentimes, perplexed nieces and nephews. He loved children and took great delight in teaching them.

Immediately upon his return to New York from England Dr. Hawks began the work for which he had now such abundant materials, called “Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of the United States.” The first volume was published in 1836, on the early church in Virginia, and in 1839 the second volume, on the early church in Maryland, appeared. These works, though well received by the church, were severely criticized, and Dr. Hawks was so disgusted with the attack, that he abandoned the whole scheme of Church History. In 1837 he founded the New York Review, to which he contributed several strong articles. One especially is of interest to us, being a “Partial Estimate of Jefferson’s Character,” in which he attacks the principles and work of Mr. Jefferson. Another article was that on Aaron Burr.

While Rector of St. Thomas, he projected a plan for a, training school, which was to be a model in educational lines. By his enthusiasm and earnestness lie secured contributions to the scheme, and soon had a well organized school located at Flushing, Rhode Island, but a financial (crisis came on and the school was broken up for lack of funds. In consequence of this failure, Dr. Hawks became involved in debt, and his character was attacked for being so careless in the use of the school funds. On account of this he resigned the Rectorship of St. Thomas’ Church, and went to Holly Springs, Miss., where his daughter lived, with the view of retrieving his fortunes and paying off his indebtedness. He at once established a school there, and became Rector of the church. He remained there only a year, but during that time he was elected Bishop of Mississippi by the Philadelphia convention, before which he made his famous speech, proving his innocence of the charges against him. For various reasons he declined the appointment. From Holly Springs he went to New Orleans, where he was Rector of Christ’s Church five years. While there he drew the plans for the organization of the University of Louisiana, and was elected its first president.

In 1849 we find him again in New York as Rector of Calvary Church, where he remained until 1861. On his return to the city of his adoption, his friends made up a purse of $30,000, which relieved him of all indebtedness, and enabled him to pursue his life’s work without pecuniary embarrassment.

Though Dr. Hawks made no pretensions to poetry, his occasional verses found a place in a collection of “The Poetry of North Carolina.” They were all on simple topics, and some of them are instinct with poetic beauty. In his lines, “To an Aged and Very Cheerful Christian Lady,” the following beautiful verses occur:

“And yet thy cheerful spirit breathes
The freshness of its golden prime;
Age decks thy brow with silver wreaths,
But thy young heart still laughs at time

“Life’s sympathies with thee are bright,
The current of thy love still flows,
And silvery clouds of living light
Hang round thy sunset’s golden close.”.

His lines to N. P. Willis, of Boston, are beautiful in thought and imagery:


“I know thee not,
And yet I feel as if I knew thee well;
The lofty breathings of thy tuneful lyre
Have floated round me; and its witching notes,
With all thy bright and bold imaginings,
Stealing and winding round my inmost soul,
Have touched with gentlest sweep its trembling chords,
And waked a thrill responsive to thy melody.”
While connected with the New York Historical Society, Dr. Hawks did his greatest work for North Carolina. This society, instituted in 1804, was revived in 1836, chiefly through his influence, and for several years he continued to deliver lectures before its members. Among those interesting to us was I ‘The Career of the Indian Maid and Matron, Pocahontas,” followed by another on “Captain John Smith and the Settlement in Virginia.” In a subsequent course he delivered a graphic lecture on ‘ I Sir Walter Raleigh,” in which he gave a narrative of the great adventurer’s fortunes and an analysis of his character, together with that of the leading statesmen of Elizabeth’s court and of the queen herself. Dr. R. H. Battle says of this lecture: “I heard him deliver his lecture on ‘Sir Walter Raleigh,’ to the delight of a large commencement audience, though he took two and a half hours in its delivery. His voice was as deep as the low tones of an organ, and he used it with wonderful effect, while his delivery was exceedingly graceful and impulsive.” This lecture was afterward incorporated into the first volume of his history of North Carolina. At another time his subject was the Revolutionary History of North Carolina, in which he discussed his favorite theme, the ‘ “Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.” He was a firm believer in the declaration of May 19 and 20, 1775, and made some strong points in its favor. The style of this lecture is clear, smooth and attractive, showing throughout his patriotism and love for his native State.

Among his works, the most valuable to us is his history of North Carolina in two volumes. The first was issued at Fayetteville in 1857, and embraces the period between the first voyage to the colony in 1584 to the last in 1591. It consists of various original documents and letters concerning the early voyages to the colony, together with a kind of running commentary by the author on the characters and events of the stirring times of Elizabeth. He closes the first volume with the following expressive sentence: “And so after the toil and suffering of years, the expenditure of much precious treasure and the loss of still more precious life, the waves of Albemarle rolled, as of old, their ripples up the deserted island beach, and the only voice heard was that of the fitful winds, as they sighed through the forests of Roanoke, and broke upon the stillness of Nature’s rough repose. The white man was there no longer.” The second volume, embracing the period of proprietary government from 1663 to 1729, was published, also at Fayetteville, the following year. This consists of a series of chapters on such subjects as “The Law and Its Administration,” “Agriculture and Manufactures,” ‘”Religion and Learning,” “Manners and Customs,” etc. Somewhat peculiar, it is true, but carrying out his idea that “the real history of a State is to be read in the gradual progress of its people in intelligence, industry, wealth and civilization,” and that “the public events that transpire are but the exponents of the condition of the inhabitants, in these and other particulars.”

Dr. Hawks took great delight in the study of antiquities, and was a prominent member of the American Ethnological Society. He was especially interested in the earliest life of the American Aborigines, and in 1857 he delivered three lectures on the “Antiquities of the American Continent,” at Hope Chapel, New York City. As the result of his studies in this department, he published a volume on “The Monuments of Egypt,” and later, one on “Peruvian Antiquities.”

In 1852 be was offered the Bishopric of Rhode Island, making the third time that the Episcopate was offered him, and, in 1859, he was invited to the Chair of History in the University of North Carolina. This he declined also.

An event now took place which placed Dr. Hawks in a position ill-suited to his nature. Always outspoken in his views, he felt that he could no longer hold a position among people whose sympathies were so different from his own, so he resigned and went to Baltimore, where there were many strong southern sympathizers. Approaching three score and ten, he gave up the best position he ever had, a position won by a life of honest exertion, in order to be true to his convictions. “He did not forget the land of his birth, the grave of his mother, the kindred and friends whose happy, peaceful homes were so soon to feel the fury and devastation which were poured out upon them.” At the close of the war he was invited to New York, and preached there for a short time, but his health was failing. His last public act was the short address on laying the cornerstone of his new church in Twenty-fifth street, September 4, 1866. His great work was ended. After a short illness he gathered his robes about him and stept out calmly and peacefully into the great unknown. He was buried at Greenwich, Conn., where a tomb and monument were prepared for him.

Nature seems to have endowed Dr. Hawks with the elements of greatness, giving him a powerful intellect, a “physical constitution of great endurance, an eye steady, dark and penetrating, and a voice tuned to eloquence.” His independence, moral courage and warm southern sensibility, made him a natural leader, and “had he pursued a political career, North Carolina might have sent to the Senate an orator to rank with Clay and Calhoun.” He loved simplicity in all things, and in all his public life he was thoroughly simple and perfectly natural. He fulfilled his great mission as a preacher, and at the same time was a leader in all that pertained to the life and true progress of the age in which he lived. Wheeler says of him all that need be said of any North Carolinian: “He was true to North Carolina and proud of her glorious history.”


Extracted from Trinity College Historical Society




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