Alston, Joseph (c. 1779 - Sept. 10, 1816), lawyer, planter, and statesman, was the eldest child of Mary (Ashe) Alston, daughter of Gen. John Ashe of North Carolina, and of Col. William Alston (1756-1839), rice-planter of All Saints' Waccamaw, "sometime captain" in the command of Gen. Francis Marion, and founder of the single "1" branch of the Alston family of South Carolina (J. A. Groves, Alstons and Allstons, 1901, pp. 75-79). He was probably born in All Saints' Parish, South Carolina. Prepared for college, it appears, by private tutors, he entered the junior class of Princeton in 1795, but left the next year without graduating (Princeton College Faculty Minutes, 1795, 1796). He then studied law in the office of Edward Rutledge, but soon after being admitted to the bar abandoned the profession for planting and an active career in politics.
He entered the lower house of the South Carolina legislature in 1802, and continued, with the exception of the session of 1804, to occupy a seat in that body until 1812. For the greater part of the period from 1805 to 1809 he served as speaker. In 1812, after a bitterly contested campaign, he was elected governor and entered at once upon an administration, 1812-14, which was distinguished by its vigorous measures in support of the War of 1812. On Feb. 2, 1801, he had married Theodosia Burr [q.v.], the talented daughter of Aaron Burr. The influence of father upon son-in-law has been greatly overemphasized in what has been written about the former (e.g., J. Parton, Life and Times of Aaron Burr, 1864, I, 298), but it is not to be denied that the connection with the Burrs was in the end the determining factor in Alston's life. In 1806 he was drawn into "Burr's Conspiracy," a fact which his enemies never forgot (E. S. Thomas, Reminiscences of the Last Sixty-five Years, 1840, II, 69-82). If, however, Burr actually entertained thoughts of dismembering the Union, it is improbable that Alston was cognizant of them. It is true that in his haste to deny that he had been party to treasonable designs, he was led into a somewhat unbecoming repudiation of Burr (W. H. Safford, Blennerhassett Papers, 1864, pp. 227-30); but at the moment he had good grounds to suspect the latter of double-dealing, and he later made amends by zealously aiding the Colonel to establish his innocence. According to Harman Blennerhassett, whose fortune was swept away by the failure of Burr's schemes, Alston had guaranteed him against losses to the extent of $50,000 but later refused to reimburse him beyond the amount of $12,500 (Ibid., pp. 533-38). Blennerhassett, however, never produced convincing proof of his claim, though he several times threatened a public exposure. In June 1812 Alston's only child, Aaron Burr Alston, died; early the next year Theodosia perished at sea; and less than three years later Alston himself was dead.
[Sources of information concerning Joseph Alston are surprisingly few. There is slight possibility that any of his private papers are extant, and no adequate sketch of his life has ever been written. Nor is any portr. or other likeness of him known to exist. In the "Diary of Edward Hooker, 1805-08," Am. Hist. Ass. Reports, 1896, I, 842-929, is given a description of his personal appearance and an account of some of his activities in the S. C. Leg., by a contemporary observer. A few of his letters are to be found in such places as M. L. Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, 2 vols. (1836-37), and W. H. Safford, Blennerhassett Papers (1864), and at least three of his printed speeches are preserved. It is no longer to be doubted that Alston wrote the "Agrestis Pamphlet," which appeared during Burr's trial; his authorship is established by the Blennerhassett Papers (see pp. 337-41). The references to Alston in the general histories and in works dealing with Aaron and Theodosia Burr are for the most part inaccurate and prejudiced. An obituary was published in The Times (Charleston, S. C.), Sept. 16, 1816.]