It was probably Houston's connection with the College and John Witherspoon that drew him into politics as the Revolution approached. John Adams, who met him in 1774, applauded him as among the Sons of Liberty, and in the winter of 1775, he had traveled to Boston, possibly for the Continental Congress. In February of 1776, the New Jersey Council of Safety recorded his election as an officer in the Somerset County militia; he resigned that summer, to return to the College, but apparently took up his commission again in the fall, when British forces moved on Princeton, and may have seen active combat during the winter campaigns in central New Jersey.
Houston's most significant contributions to rebellion came not as a soldier, however, but as public official in New Jersey and in the revolutionary confederation government. In March of 1777 he was elected to the position of Deputy Secretary of the Continental Congress, serving under Charles Thomson, and continued in the post until September, when Somerset County sent him to the New Jersey General Assembly as one of its three representatives. He remained active in the Assembly, gradually gaining greater and greater committee responsibilities, until May of 1779, when he and Abraham Clark were elected as New Jersey representatives to the Continental Congress (replacing Frederick Frelinghuysen and Elias Dayton). He played a particularly active role in Congress through July of 1781, when he became seriously ill, and then served intermittently, through the winter of 1785.
Given Houston's professorship in mathematics and the natural sciences, it is not surprising that his most significant responsibilities were in dealing with the financial problems of the Confederation. Lacking the power to tax to raise revenue for the war effort, the Continental Congress printed ever larger quantities of paper money, offered bonds issues, and authorized agents to seize goods and pay in federal certificates. All these issues depreciated rapidly, and by the time Houston arrived at the Continental Congress, the Confederation faced a financial crisis as representatives desperately tried to find a way to continue paying for the war. Houston directed his energies to the financial crisis. He helped draft a report to the Congress in March of 1780 on the repayment of Loan Office certificates, and in May of that year, brought in a recommendation to allow certificates, issued by agents of the Commissary General for the seizure of provisions, to be used to pay taxes. In September 1781, Congress recognized his contribution by electing him Comptroller of the Treasury, a position he declined; and then in April of 1782, Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance, appointed him receiver of Continental taxes in New Jersey. Congress had authorized Morris to appoint state receivers to coordinate the collection of money paid by the States to Congress and in anticipation of authorization, that never came, to levy direct taxes. Houston held the position from 1782 to 1785, and judging from his papers, devoted a considerable amount of time to his responsibilities.
As the crisis of 1780-1781 subsided, and the victory of the revolutionaries seemed more assured, Houston, like many of those who had struggled to maintain the war effort and had become increasingly disillusioned with what they perceived in their fellow citizens as a corrupt pursuit of self-interest, became less active in the Continental Congress. His decision may have been quickened by poor health and by the fact that about this time he married Jane Smith, with whom he had five children. He had also taken up the study of law with Richard Stockton, and in 1781 was admitted to the bar and appointed clerk of the New Jersey Supreme Court. The next year he resettled in Trenton, became a leader in the local Presbyterian church, and began to practice law, litigating cases in the Hunterdon, Burlington, and Monmouth County courts. In 1782, he was among the lawyers who supported the East Jersey proprietors in their dispute before the New Jersey Assembly with the West Jersey proprietors over location of the division line between the two sections of the state. Still a member of Congress, but now less active, he was also appointed in 1782 to a commission to resolve the conflicting claims of Connecticut and Pennsylvania to the Wyoming Lands (the commission resolved the dispute in favor of Pennsylvania), and in his last term in Congress, took some interest in John Fitch's efforts to promote his plans to build a steamboat.
During the early 1780s, Houston wrote a number of brief essays on political and economic topics; some were probably crafted for law cases; others may have merely been private reflection on matters with which he was dealing in Congress. None were ever published. Among them were "Detached Thoughts on the Subject of Money and Finance" from January 1781 (arguing against paper money and price controls); "Whether it would be a good Policy to Erect Corporations of any kind in the State and if so of what kind?" from January 1782 (arguing against civic corporations); an "Essay on Taxation" from May 1782 (which denounced slavery and proposed greater taxes on
luxury goods); and an extended opinion on free speech from March of 1784 (that argued that a statement was libelous only if it was intentionally false and clearly malicious.)
Houston was among the representatives sent by New Jersey to the Annapolis Convention of 1786 to consider how the States might cooperate in trade policy. From the Annapolis meeting came the call for a new convention to consider amending the Articles of Confederation, and Houston, along with David Brearly, William Paterson, and John Neilson, was appointed to the New Jersey delegation for the Philadelphia Convention of 1787--but now very ill, he left little mark on the meeting. (William Livingston and Abraham Clark replaced Houston and Neilson.) Shortly thereafter, Houston died from tuberculosis. His personal estate, land excluded, was inventoried at a modest but comfortable 355; he died owning a substantial law library and a young slave woman.
In sum, Houston was a second-rung public leader during an era of extraordinary circumstances. In the revolutionary politics and the state-building activities of that era, his accomplishments were not on the same order as those of New Jersey leaders such as William Paterson, John Witherspoon, or William Livingston--but he played key roles in guiding the College of New Jersey through difficult times and serving in the Continental Congress. While he left little in the way of a written legacy, Houston shared the sentiments, borne of his wartime experience, of those who worked to create a stronger, more centralized national government, and presumably, if he had lived longer, would have found a home in the Federalist Party.
Paul G. E. Clemens
The only extended biography of Houston is Thomas Allen Glenn, William Churchill Houston, 1746-1788 (1903), but this should be supplemented by the essay on Houston in James McLachlan, ed., Princetonians, 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary (1976), pp. 643-647. Houston's schooling is mwntioned in William Henry Foote, Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical, Illustrative of the Principles of a Portion of Her Early Settlers (1846). On the question of Houston's service at the Philadelphia Convention, compare Glenn with Richard P. McCormick, Experiment in Independence: New Jersey in the Critical Period, 1781-1789 (1950), which is also extremely useful for placing Houston's many activities in the context of New Jersey politics. The Princeton University Library has the most significant collection of his papers; these deal with his legal practice, his activities as receiver for Continental taxes, and the settlement of his estate. Additional papers are at the New Jersey Historical Society, Trenton; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; and the Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick. Houston's activities can be traced in several document collections: Edmund Cody Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, 8 vols. (1921-1936); Carl E. Prince, et al., eds, The Papers of William Livingston, 5 vols. (1979-1988); E. James Ferguson, et al., The Papers of Robert Morris, 1781-1784, 6 vols. (1973-1984); as well as in the Journals of the Continental Congress, 34 vols. (1904-1937); and Votes and Proceedings of the New Jersey General Assembly.