A Forgotten National Name
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Coordinates: 36.4807, -77.9974.
The coordinates place you in the lot at Buck Springs Park. If you like, walk to the tiny wooden building off the far-left side of the parking lot loop, Macon’s mostly reconstructed home on the original site.
A Rich Man’s Tiny Home
Here lived and died the most famous North Carolinian you never heard of. Nathaniel Macon was attending what now is Princeton University and serving in the militia there when the Revolutionary War broke out. He returned home and studied law for three years. Macon then joined the Warren County militia in his brother’s company as a private in 1780, refusing the offer of a higher rank. From a wealthy family, he also turned down pay, as well as a veteran’s pension when those were offered decades later.
Macon fought in the terrible American defeat at the Battle of Camden (S.C.) that year, but escaped capture. While encamped with the remains of the army afterwards, he received word he had been elected to the state senate at age 22. He refused to leave at first, but was eventually convinced to go. He was in the senate for the rest of the war.
Later he was a United States Congressman for 24 years, rising to Speaker of the House from 1801–7. He shepherded the bill to purchase a large chunk of North America including Louisiana from France in 1803. While opposing an 1820 compromise that blocked slavery in the northern part of that territory, he predicted the southern states would try to leave the U.S. someday. That happened 40 years later, leading to the Civil War.[a]
His fellow congressmen came to call him “Father of the House” for his role in organizing that body. Then he spent 13 years in the U.S. Senate, elected president pro tempore part of that time (the person who presides when the Vice President isn’t there). Macon had a reputation for voting against many bills, and “one of his colleagues is reported to have said that if Macon should happen to be drowned, he should look for his body up the stream instead of floating with the current.”[b]
Macon retired mid-term at age 70, keeping a promise he had made to himself. But he chaired a state constitution convention in 1835, where he is credited with leading the effort to prevent a religious test for holding office. Among other approved changes was election of the governor by the people instead of the legislature. But the new constitution also removed voting rights from free blacks they had since 1777, and in effect left the eastern counties, where Macon lived, in control of the assembly.[c]
A state historical report says: “It is somewhat ironic that the man who was North Carolina’s leading political figure in the early nineteenth century, and probably the most influential North Carolinian ever to sit in Congress, is so little known today. During his lifetime Nathaniel Macon enjoyed immense popularity among his constituents, even, towards the end of his life, a kind of veneration. As a national leader he was respected and admired by the political leaders of his day of all persuasions, by Thomas Jefferson, by James Monroe, by John Quincy Adams, by Martin Van Buren, by Andrew Jackson.” Unfortunately, a major part of his national fame came as a leading defender of slavery, hypocritical given that he was also noted as a defender of individual freedom (for males allowed to vote).
Macon resigned his public offices at 69 and retired here to his Buck Spring Plantation. He never built a typical plantation house. Any plans he had to build one died prematurely along with his wife in 1790, followed by their young son. Lumber already purchased for it was supposedly left to rot by his orders. When not in Washington, he lived in the log cabin here that had been built as an outbuilding for the larger house. It has one room below and above. An unusual feature inside was walls paneled with horizontal boards overlapping upwards to hold water. A 1923 article about the dedication of the memorial at his grave explains, “That was in the days when scalding water did duty as insect powder.” Nearby was a nearly identical kitchen and similar smokehouse, plus a granary and corn crib. A spring was down the hill behind it.
Macon died in the cabin at 78. By the time of his death he owned almost 2,000 acres and held 80 people captive as slaves. It seems fitting that when the monument was dedicated, the house was owned by an African-American couple.
The smokehouse and corn crib still exist. The former is to the right as you face the reconstructed house, and the corn crib is the mushroom-like building back along the driveway.
Go to the fenced area across the road from the end of the driveway.
One of Macon’s last requests was to have no tombstone, but merely a pile of rocks. As noted on a nearby marker, he requested no grief be expressed upon his death, but rather that his loved ones have dinner and grog and toss a stone on the grave. It remains a tradition for some people, hence the size of the pile.
Thomas Jefferson’s praise is etched on the 20th-Century monument: “Ultimatum Romanerum,” Latin for “Last of the Romans,” a reference to the Ancient Roman ideal of the public servant. Jefferson and Macon were political allies. Former Secretary of the Navy and publisher of The News and Observer in Raleigh, Josephus Daniels (a leading segregationist), spoke at the dedication ceremony attended by 1,200 people. Fort Macon near Morehead City, Randolph-Macon College, and towns in N.C. and Georgia are named for Nathaniel.
- Cathey, Boyd, Historical Research Report: Nathaniel Macon and Buck Spring (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1975) <https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p16062coll6/id/5699/rec/5> [accessed 29 April 2020].
- Cross, Jerry, Roanoke Valley: Report For The Historic Halifax State Historic Site, Part 1 (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1974) <https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p16062coll6/id/12819> [accessed 19 May 2020].
- Cunningham, Noble, ‘Nathaniel Macon and the Southern Protest Against National Consolidation’, The North Carolina Historical Review, XXXII.3 (1955).
- MacNeill, Ben Dixon, ‘Bronze Marker Unveiled at Nathaniel Macon’s Grave’, The News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C., 26 May 1923).
- Marker, Buck Spring Park, Warren County, N.C., 2020.
- Powell, William,North Carolina: A History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
- Wilson, Clyde, ‘Macon, Nathaniel’, NCpedia, 1991 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/macon-nathaniel-0> [accessed 11 May 2022].