Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> First-Person Narratives, The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

Lemuel Sawyer, 1777-1852
Autobiography of Lemuel Sawyer: Formerly Member of Congress from North Carolina
New York: Published for the Author, 1844.


"So far as my course has become a part of the history of the country," wrote Lemuel Sawyer in his 1844 autobiography, "a personal memoir may be justifiable as a small link in the intricate chain of national affairs" (p. 3). The mildly self-congratulatory tone that Sawyer takes in this opening statement is fleeting, as the rest of his literary self-portrait is rarely flattering. While he does mention his successes as both a legislator and an author, he devotes greater attention to an unflinching discussion of his personal failings, which include loneliness, poor health, and financial woes. Sawyer ultimately concludes that his "life has proved unfortunate and unhappy," describing himself as "a solitary pillar in the desert, tottering on its base, ready to tumble amidst the ruins that surround it" (p. 3). Such language has led scholar Richard Walser to declare Sawyer's autobiography "one of the most self-condemning documents in all American letters" (para. 5).

No matter the period of his life Sawyer is recounting, the state of his health remains a constant and, at times, overwhelming concern in the narrative. For example, Sawyer explains that his transfer from North Carolina country schools to New York's Flatbush Academy had more to do with his health than his education. Referring to himself in the third person, Sawyer writes that he made the move while "afflicted with a tertian ague, following a bilious fever" and that his family "hoped that the sea voyage, with the change of air to a more salubrious climate, with good medical treatment would, by their benign influence, conquer this most obstinate form of chronic fever" (p. 4). Sawyer includes similar catalogues of his illnesses repeatedly throughout the narrative. Taken as a whole, these recurring obsessions about his health are representative of Sawyer's tendency to fixate on his perceived shortcomings.

In addition to brooding over his health, Sawyer also castigates himself for his financial profligacy. He traces the origin of his inability to resist spending money back to his first trip to Philadelphia, where he visits a brother-in-law in May 1796. Swept up in the cosmopolitan glamor of the city, Sawyer is "ushered at once into gay and fashionable society, and his brother-in-law's purse being almost forced upon him, he spent more in six months than he had the whole time he was [in school] at Flatbush" (p. 4). According to Sawyer, this sudden rush of spending teaches him the "habits of extravagance and recklessness in money matters," which cause him "many bitter pangs and vain regrets" throughout his life (p. 4). Later in the autobiography Sawyer mocks himself by reprinting a speech that he made on the floor of The House of Representatives in 1817 in which he argues against rash Congressional spending. Reflecting on this speech, Sawyer concludes that it "is a good joke, to hear me thus talk about economy, and to witness my wonderful care and sharp vigilance over the people's money," because he is personally "reckless and short-sighted in money matters" (p. 19).

Poor health and financial mismanagement are Sawyer's two most frequently recurring problems, but they are not his only causes for regret. Elsewhere in his memoir, Sawyer admits to distributing liquor to potential voters during an election and recalls another campaign in which a political rival exposed his romantic "connection with a woman of bad fame" in Washington, D.C. (p. 24). At the top of Sawyer's list of transgressions, however, is his absence from home when his first wife dies in childbirth in 1812. Looking back over "the black catalogue of a long life of sin and shame," Sawyer fears that he will never "be able to clear [his] conscience of the stain of cruelty, inhumanity, and a want of conjugal affection in thus abandoning [his] wife at such a critical moment" (p. 11).

Still, Sawyer remains proud of his work promoting polar exploration in Congress and his success selling copies of his 1824 play Blackbeard to Congressmen. Sawyer earns "a clear gain in the sale of about four hundred copies" of the comedy, which Walser identifies as the first play ever written by a native North Carolinian (p. 27). These high points in Sawyer's autobiography combine with his strikingly candid description of other, less illustrious moments, to provide a complex and unvarnished portrait of an early American legislator who participated in both North Carolina and federal politics.

Works Consulted: "Sawyer, Lemuel, (1777-1852)" in Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, online database, (United States Congress, publication date unknown); Walser, Richard, "Lemuel Sawyer: 1777-1852," in The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, edited by William S. Powell, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979-1996.

Harry Thomas

Document menu