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Background: The Man

William Joseph Gaston was born to Dr. Alexander Gaston and Margret Sharpe in New Bern, North Carolina in 1778, the most prominent city of the state at the time. As a result of the Revolutionary War, and his father’s involvement in it, Gaston was raised by his pious Catholic mother – a sentiment he retained throughout his life.(Schauinger 1945, 395-396) His Catholicism was an integral feature of his life, from which he seemed to draw much inspiration and much of his moral reasoning. Later in his life he entertained traveling bishops and celebrated masses in his parlor, as no structure for Catholics yet stood in New Bern until he and other fundraisers were able to establish one in 1840.(Sanders 1997, 13) Throughout his life he fathered five children, a son and four daughters, with three marriages.(Sanders 1997, 13)

Gaston was initially educated at the Catholic college of Georgetown in Maryland, but a prolonged illness forced him to become the college’s first dropout in addition to its first student.(Schauinger 1945, 399) Upon his recovery, Gaston furthered his education at New Bern Academy and Princeton, receiving highest honors at both institutions. He gave the valedictory address at New Bern and graduated at the head of his class at Princeton.(Schauinger 1945, 399, 401) He chose law as his profession and studied under François Martin before being admitted to the Bar. It was not long before he was admitted to practice law before the Superior Court in Carteret County.(Sanders 1997, 2) It was here that Gaston starts his ascent up the bench.

In the meantime, as he was practicing law, Gaston was elected to the state Senate in 1800 and again ten more times in his twenty-two year state senator career.(Sanders 1997, 3) He was also elected to the United States Congress twice in 1813 and 1815 where he sat in opposition to the new war against Britain. (Sanders 1997, 4) During his times as a state legislature he sought internal improvements that favored education and agriculture, asking that the state not withdraw financial aid from the University of North Carolina and a big proponent of public schools for all counties of North Carolina.(Sanders 1997, 4) In addition to his role establishing and defending the creation of the state supreme court, Gaston was also instrumental in reframing the state constitution.(Sanders 1997, 4-6) It was this past as a Catholic and legislator that created in him a need to change the status of slave-hood.