This Month in North Carolina History
The lyrics to “The Old North State” were composed by Judge William Gaston in Raleigh in 1835. Judge Gaston had left his plantation in Craven County and was staying with a local family while the state Supreme Court was in session. After couple of the women in the household had attended a concert of bell-ringers visiting from Switzerland, they sang and played on the piano one of the tunes they had heard. Taken with the music, Gaston wrote out several verses of the now well-known song.
Though the words to “The Old North State” are appropriately patriotic, one line often stands out to people hearing or reading it for the first time: “Tho’ the scorner may sneer at, and witling defame her, Yet our hearts swell with gladness, Whenever we name her.” Who were these scorners and witlings? Gaston was writing at a time when North Carolina was one of the poorest states in the nation. The state was rapidly losing population as people emigrated, often to newly opened western territories, in search of more promising opportunities for themselves and their families. It was not unlikely then for local elites who were determined to stay in the state, such as Gaston, to feel a little bit defensive.
“The Old North State” received statewide attention during the 1840 Presidential campaign. At a Whig rally in Raleigh, supporters of William H. Harrison gathered from around the state for a day of speeches and entertainment, which included a choir of fifty young women singing Gaston’s song.
“The Old North State” has been published on many occasions, and while the words have remained true to Gaston’s original poem, the music has evolved over the years and probably little resembles the original air upon which it was based. The current version of the song, with which North Carolinians today are familiar, is from an arrangement prepared by Mrs. E. E. Randolph in Raleigh in 1926.
William Gaston (1778-1844) was a native of New Bern, N.C. He was educated at Georgetown (where he was the first student to enroll) and Princeton. He worked briefly as a lawyer, but was quickly swept up into state politics. Gaston served in both houses of the state legislature, and in the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1833 until his death, he sat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Charles H. Bowman, Jr. “Gaston, Willliam Joseph.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 2., ed. William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
“Our State Song: Carolina.” Undated and unsigned newspaper article in the North Carolina Subject Clipping File through 1975, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“The Old North State: A Patriotic Song. Written by the late Wm. Gaston of North Carolina and by him adapted to a German melody and arranged for the piano forte by R. Culver.” Philadelphia: George Willig, 1844. North Carolina Collection.