Hawxhurst was born on January 24, 1817, in Queens County, New York, and was the son of Townsend Hawxhurst and Rebecca Searing Hawxhurst, members of the Westbury Monthly Meeting, Society of Friends. Few details of his family life are available in part because Quakers ceased recording information about him sometime before 1840 when he married Jane Kissim outside the fellowship. They had two sons born in New York and two sons and one daughter born after they moved to Virginia in 1846. A photograph taken in 1867 shows him as a relatively tall man with dark hair and a graying bushy beard.
In February 1846 Hawxhurst purchased 470 acres of land on Difficult Run in Fairfax County for $2,000, taking out a $1,600 mortgage. Two years later he sold a half interest in it to his younger brother Job Hawxhurst who had also moved to Virginia, enabling him to pay off the mortgage. During the 1850s they took out several additional mortgages on the land to raise capital and sold much of the land. Hawxhurst resided there until the Civil War and identified himself to the census enumerator in 1860 as a miller and merchant. In 1859 the brothers purchased a small adjacent tract of land to improve access to their mill on the property.
A known opponent of both secession and slavery (he later described himself as an original abolitionist), Hawxhurst fled his home in May 1861 fearing that secessionists would arrest him. On June 1 loyal men in Fairfax County chose him to represent them in the state convention of Unionists that met in Wheeling from June 11 to 25. The convention declared vacant all state offices whose occupants endorsed secession and appointed a new governor and other officials. President Abraham Lincoln recognized that reformed government as the legitimate government of the loyal people of Virginia who had thereby restored the state to the Union.
The governor of the Restored government issued a proclamation calling a special session of the General Assembly to meet in Wheeling, and on July 2, 1861, some loyal Fairfax residents elected Hawxhurst to a two-year term in the House of Delegates, the incumbent having won reelection in the spring to the assembly of the Confederate state. Hawxhurst was appointed to the Committees on Banks and on Privileges and Elections. He also attended the assembly’s regular session in Wheeling in the winter of 1861–1862 and extra sessions in May 1862 and the winter of 1862–1863. In the summer of 1862 Hawxhurst took a job as federal tax commissioner in Alexandria. His job was to collect federal tax on property, and in the failure of the owner to pay the tax to confiscate the property and sell it for the benefit of the government. Hawxhurst and his fellow commissioners confiscated numerous properties, including the Lee family’s.
Whenbecame a new state, the loyal government of Virginia moved to Alexandria, where in December 1863 the General Assembly called a constitutional convention to revise the state’s 1851 constitution and abolish slavery in the state. On January 21, 1864, Hawxhurst won election to the convention by garnering most of the 172 votes from those men loyal to the United States in Fairfax County. The convention met in Alexandria from February 13 through April 11, 1864. Appointed to the Committee on the Legislative Department, he was not among the most active delegates, but he introduced the provision in the new constitution to bar from public office men who had held office “under the so-called Confederate government, or under any rebellious State government.” Hawxhurst spoke and voted in favor of the abolition of slavery in Virginia. He opposed the convention’s decision to put the new constitution into effect without submitting it to the voters for ratification or rejection, which may be the reason he voted against the constitution on April 7. Hawxhurst nevertheless signed the official enrolled parchment. The convention’s journal does not record whether he was present on the convention’s last day when the members endorsed Lincoln’s reelection.
Hawxhurst and his brother became leaders among the county’s loyal residents, who elected Job Hawxhurst to succeed him in the House of Delegates in 1863. (Reference works have incorrectly identified John Hawxhurst as the Fairfax County delegate for that term.) They became closely associated with some of the most radical white men in northern Virginia during the war. John Hawxhurst resided in Alexandria during most of the war and remained in the city afterward.
In June 1865 he was a vice president of a radical political meeting that demanded an amendment to the new state constitution “to confer the right of suffrage upon and restrict it to loyal male citizens of the State, without regard to color”; and his brother later complained that former secessionists and Confederates should be prevented from retaking control of the state’s government. Testifying before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction on January 31, 1866, Hawxhurst told the congressmen that former Confederates in Virginia resented their defeat in the war and their diminished social status afterward. He regularly participated in Republican Party affairs and was always identified with its radical wing. Hawxhurst called to order the April 1867 state convention of the Republican Party in the First African Baptist Church in Richmond and was elected president. He was also a member of the biracial federal grand jury that assembled in Richmond the following May 6 and anticipated indictingfor treason. The federal government did not seek an indictment, however, and the court granted Davis parole.
That spring Congress required Virginia and most of the other former Confederate states to write new state constitutions. Congress also required for the first time that African Americans be allowed to vote and be candidates for the conventions. Following a series of raucous ward meetings in Alexandria that pitted rival radical Republicans against one another, Hawxhurst prevailed and won the nomination for the city’s seat in the constitutional convention that met in Richmond from December 3, 1867, through April 17, 1868. With a total of 1,484 votes of African Americans and 64 votes of white men, he won election to the convention on October 22. At a caucus of radicals as the convention began, Hawxhurst unsuccessfully challenged Republican federal judge John C. Underwood to be the radicals’ candidate for convention president.
A consistent radical reformer and the only delegate who had also served in the Convention of 1864, Hawxhurst used his legislative and convention experience to be more active and influential than he had previously been. As chair of the important Committee on the Basis of Representation and Apportionment, he argued for unrestrained adult manhood suffrage and asserted that the right to vote was “a great God-given right which, under a Republican government, no man or any set of men have the right to take away.” He nevertheless continued to favor disfranchising former Confederates, at least until they begged pardon for starting the Civil War and for fighting against the United States. Hawxhurst proposed a provision in the new constitution, derived from the state’s 1866, to enable children born to one or more enslaved parents (who could not have been legally married while enslaved) to inherit property from their natural parents as if born legitimate. He also urged that agents of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands not withdraw from the state while doing work that benefited Virginians. Hawxhurst voted for the reforms adopted as parts of the new constitution, including suffrage for African American men, disfranchisement of unrepentant former Confederates, a homestead exemption, reformation of local government on a more democratic model, and creation of a .
Late in March, several weeks before the convention completed its work, Hawxhurst created a sensation by publishing a letter charging that Underwood had tried to enlist him in a bribery scheme. He asserted that in 1867 Underwood wanted him to assist in raising money for the state Republican Party to entice Virginia delegates to the national convention in 1868 to support Salmon P. Chase for president. Hawxhurst charged that Underwood wanted to influence or gain control of federal patronage in the state or perhaps succeed Chase as chief justice of the United States. Hawxhurst and Underwood fought for control of the Republican delegation to the party’s national convention that year. Hawxhurst also aspired to the party’s nomination for governor, but a fellow Republican resident of Alexandria,, the state’s provisional governor, received the nomination without opposition at the state convention in 1869.
Hawxhurst did not run for office again, but continued to participate in local political meetings in the 1870s. He resumed his prewar business career, and in 1868 borrowed money to purchase a portable steam engine and sawmill, which he operated on the Potomac River as late as August 1874, when he attempted to secure it from his creditors by claiming a homestead exemption for the equipment. He had estimated his net worth in 1870 at $8,000, but he was in financial difficulty by the middle of the decade and was described early in 1875 as bankrupt. Hawxhurst remained in business and received a contract from the Alexandria city government early in 1878 to furnish timber for repairs to a wharf. By 1880 he had moved to Falls Church and continued to operate a sawmill. John Hawxhurst died at his home there on April 17, 1881, and was buried at a cemetery near the courthouse in Fairfax. His widow died in Brooklyn, New York, in January 1895, and his brother died in Falls Church on February 7, 1906.