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Chapter 21

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of North Carolina

The Lewis Publishing Company
Chicago and New York, 1919
Volume I by
R. D. W. Connor

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 23

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
p389
Chapter 22
Independence

"Moore's Creek was the Rubicon over which North Carolina passed to independence and constitutional self-government." Before that event the Whig leaders had rather dreaded than sought independence. They met with indignant denial the assertions of their enemies that they had aimed at it from the beginning of their dispute with the mother country. Perhaps they did not foresee as clearly as the Tories did the logical result of their contentions. At any rate, they approached independence slowly, through a long process of development, and finally adopted it, as emancipation was afterwards adopted, as a war measure. Officially North Carolina led the way with the first resolution adopted by any of the colonies authorizing their delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for independence. It seems proper, therefore, to trace briefly the rise and development of the sentiment for independence in North Carolina, and to point out what influence the action of the North Carolina Congress had in other colonies.

It cannot be said that the sentiment for independence "originated" in any particular place. It was a growth and was present, perhaps unconsciously, in the minds of political thinkers and leaders long before England's policy crystallized it into conscious thought. Academic discussions of the possibility of an independent American nation were not uncommon, either in Europe or America, for many years before the Revolution; but it is safe to say that the idea took no definite shape even in the minds of the most advanced thinkers until after the struggle over the Stamp Act. The principles upon which the Americans opposed the Stamp Act had been regarded in the colonies as so firmly fixed, both by the British Constitution and by the colonial charters, that they were astonished to find them seriously questioned. Adherence to their charters and resistance to their perversion were cardinal principles with North Carolinians throughout their p390colonial history, and their records for a hundred years before the passage of the Stamp Act are full of the assertions of the principles upon which the American Revolution was fought.

The ministry, therefore, no sooner asserted the constitutional authority of Parliament to levy internal taxes in the colonies than the people of North Carolina denied it. Their contest, however, before the outbreak of hostilities was for constitutional government within the British Empire, though a few far-sighted leaders soon began to think of independence as possibly the ultimate solution of their political troubles with the mother country. Among the leaders of North Carolina who foresaw it, first place must be assigned to William Hooper. On April 26, 1774, in a letter to James Iredell, Hooper made this remarkable forecast of the political tendencies of the time:

"With you I anticipate the important share which the Colonies must soon have in regulating the political balance. They are striding fast to independence, and ere long will build an empire upon the ruins of Great Britain, will adopt its constitution purged of its impurities, and from an experience of its defects will guard against those evils which have wasted its vigor and brought it to an untimely end."

In the same prophetic vein, Samuel Johnston, writing September 23, 1774, with reference particularly to the Declaratory Act and the Boston Port Bill, said: "It is useless, in disputes between different Countries, to talk about the right which one has to give Laws to the other, as that generally attends the power, tho' where that power is wantonly or cruelly exercised, there are Instances where the weaker state has resisted with Success; for when once the Sword is drawn all nice distinctions fall to the Ground; the difference between internal and external taxation will be little attended to, and it will hereafter be considered of no consequence whether the Act be to regulate Trade or raise a fund to support a majority in the House of Commons. By this desperate push the Ministry will either confirm their power of making Laws to bind the Colonies in all cases whatsoever, or give up the right of making Laws to bind them in any Case."

These utterances, however, expressed political judgment rather than sentiment, for neither Hooper nor Johnston at that time desired independence. Nor did their judgment express the general sentiment of the colony. This sentiment found more accurate expression in the proceedings of the local meetings which were held in the various counties during p391the summer of 1774 to elect delegates to the Provincial Congress, and to adopt instructions to them. They invariably required the delegates to take a firm stand for the constitutional rights of the colonists, but at the same time professed the utmost loyalty to the king; while in August the Provincial Congress spoke for the province as a whole when it resolved to "maintain and defend the succession of the House of Hanover as by law established," and avowed "inviolable and unshaken Fidelity" to George III. But while these expressions undoubtedly represent the general sentiment of the colony at that time, they are less significant than other utterances which point to the change unconsciously working in the minds of men. Significant were the instructions of Pitt County, whose delegates were directed to make "a declaration of American rights," and, while acknowledging "due subjection to the Crown of England," to make it equally clear that in submitting to the authority of the king, the Americans did so "by their own voluntary act," and were entitled to enjoy "all their free chartered rights and libertys as British free subjects." But surpassing all other resolutions in the clearness and accuracy with which they stated the American idea, and reaching the most advanced ground attained in North Carolina during the year 1774, were the instructions of Granville County, adopted August 15th. They declared "that those absolute rights we are entitled to as men, by the immutable Laws of Nature, are antecedent to all social and relative duties whatsoever; that by civil compact subsisting between our King and His People, Allegiance is right of the first Magistrate, and protection the right of the People; that a violation of this Compact would rescind the civil Institution binding both King and People together."

Political sentiment in North Carolina, therefore, during the year 1774 reached this point: The people owe and acknowledge allegiance to the king, but in return for this allegiance the king owes protection to the people; if either violates the "civil compact" subsisting between them, the other is released from all obligations to maintain it; however, the acts of which the people now complain are not the acts of the king, but of a corrupt Parliament and a venal and tyrannical ministry; the people are convinced that the king, if only they could reach his royal ears with their grievances, would throw the mantle of his protection around them; and therefore they determined, in the words of the Granville resolutions: "Although we are oppressed, we will still adhere p392to the civil Obligation exacting our allegiance to the best of Kings, as we entertain a most cordial affection to His Majesty's Person."

A severe blow was dealt this position with the opening of the year 1775. In February the two houses of Parliament presented an address to the king declaring the colonies in rebellion, and assuring his majesty of their determination to support him in his efforts to suppress it; and the king returning his thanks for their loyal address, called for an increase of both the land and naval forces to be used in America. A few months later those who held that the king was not responsible for the acts of Parliament were still further shaken in their position by the announcement that he was hiring Hessians for service against the Americans; and in October they were driven completely from their ground by his proclamation declaring the colonists out of his protection.

The effect of these measures on the development of sentiment for independence is marked, first in the opinion of individual leaders, afterwards in the utterances of public assemblies. On April 7th, just after the adjournment of the second Provincial Congress and the dissolution of the last Assembly held under royal authority, Governor Martin, in a letter to Lord Dartmouth declared that the royal government in North Carolina was absolutely prostrate and impotent; that "nothing but the shadow of it is left," and that unless strong measures were taken at once "there will not long remain a trace of Britain's dominion over these colonies." Three months later Joseph Hewes urged Samuel Johnston to use his influence and example to "drive every principle of Toryism" out of every part of the province; he considered himself "over head and ears in what the ministry call Rebellion," but felt "no compunction" for the part he had taken, or for the number of "our enemies lately slain in the battle at Bunkers Hill." Another North Carolina Whig, writing July 31st to a business house in Edinburgh, declared that "every American, to a man, is determined to die or be free," and closed his letter with the warning: "This Country, without some step is taken, and that soon, will be inevitably lost to the Mother Country." Thomas McKnight, a Tory, believed there had been "from the beginning of the dispute, a fixed design in some peoples breasts to throw off every connection with G[reat] B[ritain] and to act for the future as totally independent." After the king's proclamation in October, Hewes at Philadelphia entertained "but little expectation of a reconciliation" p393and saw "scarcely a dawn of hope that it will take place"; and thought that independence would come soon "if the British ministry pursue their present diabolical scheme." The year 1775 closed in North Carolina with the publication of a remarkable open letter to "The Inhabitants of the United Colonies" by one who called himself "A British American." He declared that the salvation of the colonies lay in "declaring an immediate independency," in "holding forth, to all the Powers of Europe, a general neutrality," and in "immediately opening all our ports, and declaring them free to every European Power, except Great Britain." "We must separate," he concluded, "or become the laboring slaves of Britain, which we disdain to be."

Men of course are more radical in expressing their opinions in private than in public assemblies and official documents. It will be found, therefore, that during the year 1775 the sentiment of public assemblies, though much in advance of the sentiment of 1774, was more conservatively expressed than the private opinions of the leaders might lead us to expect. On April 6, 1775, the Assembly of the province, in reply to a message from the governor reminding them of their duty to the king, declared that "the Assembly of North Carolina have the highest sense of the allegiance due to the King; the Oath so repeatedly taken by them to that purpose made it unnecessary for them to be reminded of it"; at the same time, however, they called the governor's attention to the fact that the king "was by the same Constitution which established that allegiance and enjoined that oath, happily for his Subjects, solemnly bound to protect them in all their just rights and privileges by which a reciprocal duty became incumbent upon both."

This declaration was made before the people had heard of the address of Parliament in February and the king's reply declaring them in rebellion. How quickly they assumed that the withdrawal of protection by the sovereign released the subject from the obligations of allegiance is made manifest by the Mecklenburg Resolutions of May 31. "Whereas," so runs this striking document, "by an address presented to his majesty by both Houses of Parliament in February last, the American colonies are declared to be in a state of actual rebellion, we conceive that all laws and commissions confirmed by or derived from the authority of the King and Parliament are annulled and vacated and the former civil constitution of these colonies for the present wholly suspended;" p394therefore, it was resolved that "the Provincial Congress of each Province under the direction of the great Continental Congress is invested with all legislative and executive powers within their respective Provinces and that no other legislative or executive power does or can exist at this time in any of these colonies." Under these circumstances it was thought necessary to inaugurate a new county government, to organize the militia, and to elect officials "who shall hold and exercise their several powers by virtue of this choice and independent of the Crown of Great Britain and former constitution of this Province." These resolves and this organization were declared to be "in full force and virtue until instructions from the Provincial Congress regulating the jurisprudence of the Province shall provide otherwise or the legislative body of Great Britain resign its unjust and arbitrary pretensions with respect to America."1

The day after the meeting at Charlotte, the Rowan committee, which had declared a year before that they were ready to die in defense of the king's title to his American dominions, resolved "that by the Constitution of our Government we are a free People"; that the constitution "limits both Sovereignty and Allegiance," and "that it is our Duty to Surrender our lives, before our Constitutional privileges to any set of Men upon earth;" and referred any who might be of p395a different opinion to "the Compact on which the Constitution is founded." And, finally, in August, just before the meeting of the Provincial Congress, Tryon County resolved to bear true allegiance to the king, but only "so long as he secures to us those Rights and Liberties which the principles of Our Constitution require."

Thus it seems clear that when the Provincial Congress met in August, 1775, the entire province had reached the advanced ground on which Granville County stood in August of 1774. But just as these local assemblies were more conservative in expressing their sentiments than individuals, so the Provincial Congress was more conservative than the local assembly, though both were controlled largely by the same men. This Congress, September 8, unanimously adopted an address to "The Inhabitants of the British Empire," in which they said:

"To enjoy the Fruits of our own honest Industry; to call that our own which we earn with the labour of our hands and the sweat of our Brows; to regulate that internal policy by which we and not they [Parliament] are to be affected; these are the mighty Boons we ask. And Traitors, Rebels, and every harsh appellation that Malice can dictate or the Virulence of language express, are the returns which we receive to the most humble Petitions and earnest supplications. We have been told that Independance is our object; that we seek to shake off all connection with the parent State. Cruel Suggestion! Do not all our professions, all our actions, uniformly contradict this?

"We again declare, and we invoke that Almighty Being who searches the Recesses of the human heart and knows our most secret Intentions, that it is our most earnest wish and prayer to be restored with the other United Colonies to the State in which we and they were placed before the year 1763."

Soon after the adjournment of this Congress came news of the king's proclamation in October declaring the Americans out of his protection and commanding his armies and navy to levy war against them. After this nothing more is heard from public assemblies and conventions of loyalty to the Crown. Sentiment hastened rapidly toward independence. "My first wish is to be free," declared Hooper, a delegate in the Continental Congress; "my second to be reconciled to Great Britain." Eight days later, February 14, 1776, John Penn, also a delegate in the Continental Congress, urged the necessity of forming alliances with foreign countries although he foresaw p396that "the consequences of making alliances is perhaps a total separation with Britain." And Hewes, writing from Congress to Samuel Johnston, March 20, declared: "I see no prospect of a reconciliation. Nothing is left now but to fight it out. * * * Some among us urge strongly for Independency and eternal separation."

Thus spoke the three delegates in the Continental Congress; but in no respect were they in advance of their constituents. Samuel Johnston in March, 1776, thought it "highly probable * * * that the Colonies will be under necessity of throwing off their Allegiance to the K[ing] and P[arliament] of G[reat] B[ritain] this Summer," and replying to Hewes' letter of March 20th, said: "I have apprehensions that no foreign power will treat with us till we disclaim our dependancy on Great Britain and I would wish to have assurances that they would afford us effectual Service before we take that step. I have, I assure you, no other Scruples on this head; the repeated Insults and Injuries we have received from the people of my Native Island has [sic] done away all my partiality for a Connection with them." On April 12, 1776, eight days after the fourth Provincial Congress convened at Halifax, in a letter written from Petersburg, Virginia, the writer says: "From several letters I have received from North Carolina since that convention met, I find they are for independence. * * * Mr. ––––– was some little time at Halifax. He says they are quite spirited and unanimous; indeed, I hear nothing praised but 'Common Sense' and Independence."

On April 14, Hooper and Penn arrived at Halifax from Philadelphia to attend the Provincial Congress. Three days later Hooper wrote to Hewes, who had remained at Philadelphia, and Penn wrote to John Adams, describing the situation as they found it in Virginia and North Carolina. "The Language of Virginia," wrote Hooper, "is uniformly for Independence. If there is a single man in the province who preaches a different doctrine I had not the fortune to fall in his Company. But rapid as the change has been in Virginia, North Carolina has the honour of going far before them. Our late Instructions afford you some specimen of the temper of the present Congress and of the people at large. It would be more than unpopular, it would be Toryism, to hint the possibility of future reconciliation." Likewise wrote Penn: "As I came through Virginia I found the inhabitants desirous to be independent from Britain. p397However, they were willing to submit their opinion on the subject to whatever the General Congress should determine. North Carolina by far exceeds them occasioned by the great fatigue, trouble and danger the people here have undergone for some time past. Gentlemen of the first fortune in the province have marched as common soldiers; and to encourage and give spirit to the men have footed it the whole time. Lord Cornwallis with seven regiments is expected to visit us every day. Clinton is now in Cape Fear with Governor Martin, who has about forty sail of vessels, armed and unarmed, waiting his arrival. The Highlanders and Regulators are not to be trusted. Governor Martin has coaxed a number of slaves to leave their masters in the lower parts; everything base and wicked is practiced by him. These things have wholly changed the temper and disposition of the inhabitants that are friends to liberty; all regard or fondness for the king or nation of Britain is gone; a total separation is what they want. Independence is the word most used. They ask if it is possible that any colony after what has passed can wish for a reconciliation? The convention have tried to get the opinion of the people at large. I am told that in many counties there was not one dissenting voice."

Thus in letters, in conversations by the fireside and at the cross-roads, in newspapers, and in public assemblies, the Whig leaders worked steadily to mould public sentiment in favor of a Declaration of Independence. But the crowning arguments that converted thousands to this view were the guns of Caswell and Lillington at Moore's Creek Bridge in the early morning hours of February 27, and the black hulks of Sir Henry Clinton's men-of‑war as they rode at anchor below Brunswick. Moore's Creek Bridge, says Frothingham, "was the Lexington and Concord of that region. The newspapers circulated the details of this brilliant result. The spirits of the Whigs ran high. 'You never,' one wrote, 'knew the like in your life for true patriotism.' "2 In the midst of this excitement the Provincial Congress met, April 4, at Halifax. The next day Samuel Johnston wrote: "All our people here are up for independence," and added a few days later: "We are going to the Devil * * * without knowing how to help ourselves, and though many are sensible of this, yet they would rather go that way than to submit to the British Ministry. * * * Our people are full of the idea of independance. p398"Independence seems to be the word," wrote General Robert Howe; "I know not one dissenting voice."

To this position, then, within a year, the king had driven his faithful subjects of North Carolina and they now expected Congress to give formal and public expression to their sentiments. When Hooper and Penn arrived at Halifax they found that the Congress had already spoken. On April 8, a committee was appointed, composed of Cornelius Harnett, Allen Jones, Thomas Burke, Abner Nash, John Kinchen, Thomas Person, and Thomas Jones, "to take into consideration the usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of Britain against America, and the further measures to be taken for frustrating the same, and for the better defense of this Province." After deliberating four days, on April 12th, this committee, through its chairman, Cornelius Harnett, submitted the following report which the Congress unanimously adopted:

"It appears to your committee, that pursuant to the plan concerted by the British Ministry for subjugating America, the King and Parliament of Great Britain have usurped a power over the persons and properties of the people unlimited and uncontrouled; and disregarding their humble petitions for peace, liberty and safety, have made divers legislative acts, denouncing war, famine, and every species of calamity, against the Continent in general. That British fleets and armies have been, and still are daily employed in destroying the people, and committing the most horrid devastations on the country. That Governors in different Colonies have declared protection to slaves who should imbrue their hands in the blood of their masters. That ships belonging to America are declared prizes of war, and many of them have been violently seized and confiscated. In consequence of all which multitudes of the people have been destroyed, or from easy circumstances reduced to the most lamentable distress.

"And whereas the moderation hitherto manifested by the United Colonies and their sincere desire to be reconciled to the mother country on constitutional principles, have procured no mitigation of the aforesaid wrongs and usurpations, and no hopes remain of obtaining redress by those means alone which have been hitherto tried, your committee are of opinion that the House should enter into the following resolve, to wit:

"Resolved, That the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be impowered to concur with the delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming p399foreign alliances, reserving to this Colony the sole and exclusive right of forming a Constitution and laws for this Colony, and of appointing delegates from time to time (under the direction of a general representation thereof,) to meet the delegates of the other Colonies for such purposes as shall be hereafter pointed out."

"Thus," declares Frothingham, "the popular party carried North Carolina as a unit in favor of independence, when the colonies from New England to Virginia were in solid array against it."3 Comment is unnecessary. The actors, the place, the occasion, the time, the action itself, tell their own story. "The American Congress," declared Bancroft, "needed an impulse from the resolute spirit of some colonial convention, and the example of a government springing wholly from the people. * * * The word which South Carolina hesitated to pronounce was given by North Carolina. That colony, proud of its victory over domestic enemies, and roused to defiance by the presence of Clinton, the British general, in one of their rivers, * * * unanimously" voted for separation. "North Carolina was the first colony to vote explicit sanction to independence."4

A copy of the resolution was immediately dispatched to Joseph Hewes at Philadelphia to be laid before the Continental Congress. Its effect on the movement for independence was immediate and wide-spread. The newspapers gave it wide publicity. Leaders in the Continental Congress hastened to lay it before their constituents. "I hope it will be forthwith communicated to your honorable Assembly," wrote Elbridge Gerry, "and hope to see my native colony follow this laudable example." To a like effect wrote Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Caesar Rodney. On May 15th, Virginia followed North Carolina's lead, and on the 27th of the same month, just after Joseph Hewes had presented to the Continental Congress the resolution of the North Carolina Congress, the Virginia delegates presented their instructions. Virginia had gone one step further than North Carolina, for while the latter "impowered" her delegates to "concur" with the other colonies in declaring independence, the former "instructed" her representatives to "propose" it. Hence it was that Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, and not Joseph Hewes, of North Carolina, won the distinction of moving p400"that these United Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent States."

Lee's motion was made June 7th, but no vote was taken on it until July 1st. On June 28th, John Penn who had recently returned to Philadelphia from Halifax wrote to Samuel Johnston: "The 1st of July will be made remarkable. Then the question relative to independence will be agitated, and there is no doubt but a total separation from Britain will take place." Accordingly on July 1st, the Congress, meeting in committee of the whole, took a vote with New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia voting in the affirmative. The New York delegates personally favored the Declaration and believed that their constituents also favored it, but they were bound by an old instruction of the previous year against independence; accordingly they withdrew from Congress, declining to vote at all. Delaware's two delegates were divided and the vote of that colony was lost. Only South Carolina and Pennsylvania voted against it. It was known, however, that the New York Convention which was to meet soon would repeal the old instruction and declare for independence; and that certain delegates from Delaware and Pennsylvania who favored it but were absent when the vote was taken would attend next day and carry their colonies for it. Thus South Carolina was alone in opposition. Therefore when the committee of the whole arose and reported the resolution to Congress, Edward Rutledge, the senior delegate from South Carolina, "requested the determination might be put off to the next day, as he believed his colleagues, though they disapproved of the resolution, would then join in it for the sake of unanimity."5 The request was granted. The next day a third member from Delaware and members from Pennsylvania who favored the Declaration attended. New York still declined to vote. When Congress met on July 2, therefore, South Carolina "for the sake of unanimity" changed her vote and joined with her sister colonies in declaring the United Colonies "free and independent States." The final draft of the Declaration was laid before Congress on July 4th and formally adopted. It was signed in behalf of the State of North Carolina by William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and John Penn.

After adopting the resolution of April 12th, the Congress p402of North Carolina, proceeding as if independence were an accomplished fact, immediately took up the task of reorganizing the government. On April 13th a committee was appointed "to prepare a temporary Civil Constitution." Prominent among the members of this committee were Johnston, Nash, Harnett, Burke, and Person. Hooper was afterwards added. They were men of political sagacity and ability, but their ideas of the kind of constitution that ought to be adopted were woefully inharmonious. Heretofore in the measures of resistance to the British ministry remarkable unanimity had prevailed in the councils of the Whigs. But when they undertook to frame a constitution faction at once raised its head. In after years historians designated these factions as "Conservatives" and "Radicals." These terms carry their own meaning, and need no further explanation, but perhaps it may not be out of place to say that while both were equally devoted to constitutional liberty, the Radicals seem to have liad the greater emphasis upon "liberty," the Conservatives upon the modifier "constitutional." Of the members of the committee, Thomas Person was the leader of the former, Samuel Johnston of the latter. As the lines between the two factions at that time were not sharply drawn, it is not always possible to assign prominent politicians to either; indeed, many of them would not have admitted that they belonged to any faction, or party, for agreeing with some of the views of both, they agreed with the extreme views of neither.

(p401)

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William Hooper

Joseph Hewes

North Carolina Signers of the Declaration of Independence
(There is no authentic portrait of John Penn, the other signer from North Carolina)

The committee worked hard at its task. Its discussions were not always tempered with good feeling. "I must confess," wrote Johnston, April 17, "our prospects are at this time very gloomy. Our people are about forming a constitution. From which I can at present collect of their plan, it will be impossible for me to take any part in the execution of it." In fact, the next day he withdrew from the committee in disgust, though later he was persuaded to reconsider his action. It should be remembered that many political policies which we now regard as elementary were then in their experimental stage. Should suffrage be universal, or should a property qualification be required? Should there be one, or two houses of legislation? Should the representatives of the people be chosen annually, and what check should be imposed upon their power over the rights of the people? How should the executive branch of the government be constituted? How should the governor and other "great officers" be chosen and for what terms? Should the judges be elected by the people? Or p403chosen by the legislature? Or appointed by the executive? And what should be their tenure? Such were the questions that puzzled and divided our first constitution-makers.

The more they discussed them, the more hopeless became their divisions. Congress finally found that no agreement could be reached, while continued debate on the constitution would consume time that ought to be given to more urgent matters. Accordingly on April 30th, the committee was discharged and a second committee appointed to frame "a temporary form of government until the end of the next Congress." This committee brought in a report on May 11th, which the Congress promptly adopted. But few changes were made in the plan already in operation, but these changes were not without significance. The district committees of safety were abolished. The term "Provincial" was thought to be no longer appropriate and "Council of Safety" was accordingly substituted for "Provincial Council." No change was made in its organization. The Provincial Council had been required to sit once in every three months; the Council of Safety was to sit continuously, and its authority was considerably extended. All the powers of its predecessor were bequeathed to it, while among its additional powers was the authority to grant letters of marque and reprisal; to establish courts and appoint judges of admiralty; and to appoint commissioners of navigation to enforce the trade regulations of Continental and Provincial Congresses.

The election of the members of the Council of Safety revealed the growth of factions. Willie Jones, chief of the Radicals, defeated Samuel Johnston for member at large. Other changes in the membership were as follows: in the New Bern District, John Simpson in place of Abner Nash; in the Halifax District, Joseph John Williams in place of Willie Jones; in the Hillsboro District, John Rand in place of John Kinchen; in the Salisbury District, Hezekiah Alexander and William Sharpe, both new members. Two only of the six districts retained their same members, Edenton District reelected Jones and Hill; Wilmington District, Harnett and Ashe. The other members who retained their seats were Coor, Eaton and Person.

Such was the personnel of the Council that was to put into execution the measures of the Congress for the defense of the province. This was the most important business that came before Congress. Clinton with a large force of British regulars was at Cape Fear awaiting the arrival of Sir Peter Parker's fleet with Cornwallis' army. "Our whole time," p404wrote Thomas Jones, May 7, "has been taken up here in raising and arming men, and making every necessary military arrangement. The word is war, or as Virgil expresses it,a bella, horrida bella. Two thousand ministerial troops are in Cape Fear, 5,000 more hourly expected; to oppose the whole will require a large force." The Congress, accordingly, in addition to the troops already in the field, ordered the levying of four continental regiments, the enlistment of three companies of light-horse, the drafting of 1,500 militia, and the organization into five companies of 415 independent volunteers. The light-horse were offered to the Continental Congress and accepted; the military were ordered to Wilmington "for the protection of this province;" and the independent companies were directed to patrol the coast against the ravages of small armed vessels which were accustomed in this way to secure fresh supplies for the troops below Wilmington.

It was comparatively an easy matter to raise these troops; to clothe, feed and equip them was another problem. It is of course unnecessary to say that this was a problem that was not solved at all during the Revolution, either by the United Colonies or by any of them; but perhaps North Carolina came as near to it as the former, or as any of the latter. This was the work which, during the year 1776, was entrusted to the Council of Safety. The Council held its first session at Wilmington, June 5, and unanimously elected Cornelius Harnett president. Harnett served until August 21st when he resigned and was succeeded by his colleague, Samuel Ashe who resigned in September and was succeeded by Willie Jones. Jones served until the meeting of the Constitutional Convention in December which superseded the provisional government with a permanent government.

An attempt to follow in detail the numerous problems presented for the consideration of President Harnett and his colleagues would doubtless make but a dull and lifeless narrative. Yet upon the proper disposition of these matters depended the execution of laws, the administration of justice, the preservation of order, and the success of armies; and when we consider these facts, we may well doubt whether in subordinating such details to more dramatic and striking events, the narrative does not lose in instructiveness what it may gain in interest. The fidelity with which the members of the Council attended to the details of these problems is a good index to their characters and patriotism. Nothing less than p405boundless faith in the justice of their cause and in its ultimate success could have sustained them in the discharge of their delicate and exacting duties. There was nothing in the character of their labor, such as the soldier finds in the excitement of the campaign, to lighten fatigue or banish anxiety. Nor were they, like the soldier, inspired by the hope of glory and renown; on the contrary their duties were of such a nature that to discharge them with fidelity and impartiality, would more likely invite criticism and denunciation than applause and popularity. There was no popular applause to be gained by even the strictest attention to the commonplace details incident to the detection, apprehension and punishment of rioters, counterfeiters, traitors and other malefactors. Little popularity was to be expected from efforts, however successful, to adjust disputes among army officers over their relative ranks; to pass impartially upon applications for military and civil commissions; to hear and determine justly appeals for pardon and prayers for mercy; to enforce rigid discipline among a mutinous soldiery; to execute martial law against former friends and neighbors whose only crime was refusal to join in rebellion and revolution; to enforce without an adequate police obedience to a confessedly revolutionary government among those who denied its moral or legal right to rule. Whatever glory was to be won by successful military achievements all knew well enough would go to the soldiers in the field, not to the councilors in the cabinet who, by grinding out their spirits and lives over the details of organizing and equipping armies, made such success possible. Nevertheless day and night, week in and week out, President Harnett and his associates with unfailing tact, patience and energy, and with remarkable success, gave conscientious and efficient attention to a thousand and one details as uninspiring as they were necessary.

The chief problems of the Council related to defense. The Indians on the frontier, the Tories of the interior, and Clinton on the coast threatened the province with attack from three directions. A few days before the Council met, Clinton withdrew from the Cape Fear River, but nobody knew where he had gone nor what his plans were, and all apprehended that his movement was but a change of base for an attack on North Carolina. Clinton did contemplate such a movement, but was frustrated by the activity of the committees and the Council. The Council's problem was to organize and equip the troops ordered to be raised by the Congress. The organization p406was more tedious than difficult, but it required much time and labor. A harder task was to equip them. Even the utmost exertions of the Council could not keep the several arsenals sufficiently supplied to meet the constant calls on them for arms and ammunition. The Council continued to press into public service arms found in private hands; they appointed commissioners to purchase warlike supplies; they imported them from other states; they manufactured them; they purchased them in the North through the delegates in the Continental Congress; and they chartered vessels which they loaded with cargoes of staves and shingles to be exchanged for military supplies. The Polly, the Heart of Oak, the King Fisher, the Lilly, the Little Thomas, the Johnston, and other fast sailing vessels slipped through the inlets of Eastern Carolina, ran down to the West Indies, sold their cargoes of lumber, and eluding the British cruisers which patrolled those waters returned safely to Ocracoke, Edenton, and New Bern with cargoes of small arms, cannon, gunpowder, salt, clothes and shoes. Their enterprising crews, the prototypes of the more famous blockade-runners of later days, continued this work throughout the Revolution, and made no inconsiderable contributions to the cause of American independence. The Council issued letters of marque and reprisal to the Pennsylvania Farmer, the King Tammany, the General Washington, the Heart of Oak, and the Johnston; and they organized courts of admiralty and appointed judges. They set up iron works for casting cannon and shot, and salt works for supplying the necessary article. In one way or another they managed to put into the field equipped for service 1,400 troops to aid in the defense of Charleston, 300 militia to aid Virginia against the Indians, and an army of 2,400 riflemen for a campaign against the Creeks and the Cherokee beyond the Alleghanies.

The efforts to secure the neutrality of the Indians had failed. In the spring of 1776, while Clinton was on the coast, Cameron determined to stir up the Cherokee on the frontier. Under his leadership, the warriors of the Upper and Middle towns, with some Creeks and Tories of the vicinity, took up arms and laid waste the border far and wide. Aroused by their common danger, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia determined to strike a blow at the Cherokee that would compel them to remain passive during the struggle with England. Accordingly, during the summer of 1776 four expeditions were simultaneously launched against them from p407four different quarters. The North Carolina expedition of 2,400 men was under command of General Griffith Rutherford. Crossing the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap in August he struck the first Indian town, Stikayi, on the Tuckasegee, and acting with vigor destroyed in rapid succession every town on the Tuckasegee, Oconaluftee, the upper part of the Little Tennessee, and on the Hiwassee to below the junction of Valley River. The Indians attempted resistance but were everywhere defeated. Their most determined opposition was offered while Rutherford was passing through Waya Gap of the Nantahala Mountains. The invaders lost more than forty men, killed and wounded, before they put the red men to flight. Unable to offer further resistance the Cherokee fled to the fastnesses of the Great Smoky Mountains, leaving their crops and towns at the mercy of the enemy. All told Rutherford destroyed thirty-six towns and laid waste a vast stretch of the surrounding country. In the meantime Colonel Andrew Williamson with an army of 1,800 men from South Carolina was pushing up from the south through the Lower Towns, and on September 26, reached Hiwassee River, near the present town of Murphy, where he effected a junction with Rutherford; while Colonel William Christian, of Virginia, with a force of about 1,700 Virginians and 300 North Carolinians, was advancing from the north.

The effect upon the Cherokee of this irruption of more than 6,000 armed men into their territory was paralyzing. More than fifty of their towns were destroyed, their fields laid waste, their cattle and horses driven off, hundreds of their warriors killed, captured and sold into slavery, and their women and children driven to seek refuge in the recesses of the mountains. From the Virginia to the Chattahoochee the destruction was complete, and the red men were compelled to sue for peace. Accordingly, at De Witts Corners in South Carolina, May 20, 1777, was concluded the first treaty ever made by the Cherokee with the new states. By its terms the Lower Cherokee surrendered all of their remaining territory in South Carolina except a small strip along the western border. Two months later, July 20, at the Long Island in the Holston, Christian concluded a treaty with the Middle and Upper Cherokee by which they ceded everything east of the Blue Ridge, together with all the disputed territory on the Watauga, Nolichucky, upper Holston and New rivers.

While Rutherford was engaged with the red men on the frontier, the Council of Safety were wrestling with a strong p408and energetic domestic enemy in the very heart of the State. The Tories of North Carolina, as the Council declared, were "a numerous body of people * * * who, although lately subdued, are only waiting a more favorable opportunity to wreak their vengeance upon us." The Tories hoped and the Whigs feared that this opportunity would come through a British success either at Wilmington or at Charleston. Moore's Creek Bridge had warned the former of the folly of an uprising without the co-operation of the British army, and the result at Charleston dashed their hopes of an immediate insurrection. Nevertheless they regarded this as only a temporary setback which necessitated a postponement but not a surrender of their plans. Though forced to work more quietly, they seized every opportunity to undermine and counteract the work of the Council. The Council, therefore, were compelled to devote a large part of their time to the detection and punishment of these domestic enemies. Their active leaders were arrested and brought before the Council on such general charges as denouncing the Council and the committees for exercising arbitrary and tyrannical powers; as uttering "words inimical to the cause of liberty"; as endeavoring "to inflame the minds of the people against the present American measures"; as using their influence to prevent the people from "associating in the common cause." More specific charges were correspondence with the enemy; refusal to receive the continental currency; and efforts to depreciate both the continental and provincial bills of credit. The Council dealt with each case upon its individual merits. In a general way, however, they permitted those who were willing to subscribe the test and submit to the revolutionary government to remain at home unmolested. They "naturalized" prisoners captured in battle who expressed a willingness to take the oath of allegiance, and admitted them to the privileges of free citizens. Persons suspected of disaffection, but who had committed no overt act, were required to give bond for their good behavior. Those whose presence among their neighbors was regarded as dangerous were taken from their homes and paroled within prescribed limits; while the most active leaders were imprisoned, some in North Carolina, some in Virginia and some in Philadelphia. The last two methods of punishment in some cases worked real hardships and moving appeals were made to President Harnett for relaxations of the restrictions.

While a majority of the cases that came before the Council involved the conduct of individuals only, a few instances were p409reported in which something like general disaffection appeared in a community. In such cases the Council acted with determination and vigor. Those whom they believed to have been led into disaffection through ignorance they undertook to instruct in "their duty to Almighty God," and to "the United States of America." But to those "who had been nursed up in the very bosom of the country," and yet "by their pretended neutrality declare themselves enemies to the American Union," the Council offered but one course, — the pledge either of their property or their persons for their good behavior. On July 4, 1776, they directed the county committees to require under oath from all suspected persons inventories of their estates, and ordered the commanding officers of the militia to arrest all who refused and bring them before the Council for trial. This order going forth simultaneously with the news of Clinton's defeat at Charleston, carried dismay into the ranks of the Loyalists. "This glorious news [Clinton's defeat], with the Resolve of Council against the Tories," wrote James Davis, the public printer, "has caused a very great Commotion among them. They are flocking in to sign the Test and Association." By these vigorous measures the Council dealt Toryism in North Carolina a serious blow, and saved the province during the summer of 1776 from the horrors of civil war. It must of course be confessed that these measures, though taken in the name of liberty, smacked themselves of tyranny; their justification lies in the fact that they were in behalf of peace and the rights of mankind.

On July 22d, while the Council were in session at Halifax, came the welcome news that the Continental Congress had adopted a Declaration of Independence. The Council received the news with great joy. No longer rebellious subjects in arms against their sovereign, they were now the leaders of a free people in their struggle for constitutional self-government. The Council, therefore, immediately resolved that by the Declaration of Independence the people "were absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown," and therefore "the Test as directed to be subscribed by the Congress at Halifax [was] improper and Nugatory." The first clause of this test — "We the Subscribers professing our Allegiance to the King, and Acknowledging the constitutional executive power of Government" — was accordingly stricken out, and the amended test, which contained no allusion to the king, was signed. The Council also directed that members of courts martial should p410be required to take an oath to try well and truly all matters before them "between the Independant State of North Carolina and the prisoner to be tried."

At Halifax the people of North Carolina gave the first official utterance in favor of a national declaration of independence. Cornelius Harnett was their mouthpiece. At Halifax the Declaration of Independence was first officially proclaimed to the people of North Carolina. Again, Cornelius Harnett was their mouthpiece. One incident was the logical outcome of the other, and the two together enriched our annals with a dramatic story. The first entry in the Council's journal for July 22, is a resolution requiring the committees throughout the State upon receiving the Declaration of Independence to "cause the same to be proclaimed in the most public Manner, in Order that the good people of this Colony may be fully informed thereof." The Council set the example, and set apart Thursday, August 1, "for proclaiming the said Declaration at the Court House in the Town of Halifax; the freeholders and Inhabitants of the County of Halifax are requested to give their Attendance at the time and place aforesaid." The people were profoundly interested. On the first day of August an "immense concourse of people" gathered in the county town to hear President Harnett make official proclamation of their independence. The ceremony was simple enough. At noon the militia proudly paraded in such uniforms as they could boast, and with beating drums and flying flags escorted the Council to the court-house. The crowd cheered heartily as President Harnett ascended the platform. When the cheers had died away he arose and midst a profound silence read to the people the "Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America." As he closed with the ringing words pledging to the support of that Declaration their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, the people with shouts of joy gave popular ratification to the solemn pledge their representatives had made for them. In the exuberance of their enthusiasm the soldiers seized President Harnett and, forgetful of his staid dignity, bore him on their shoulders through the crowded streets, applauding him as their champion and swearing allegiance to American Independence.


The Author's Notes:

1 An attempt twenty-five years later to reproduce these resolves from memory resulted in the document famous in the controversial literature of the Revolution as the "Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence" of May 20, 1775. It is not necessary to refer to this controversy here further than to vindicate the statesmanship of the Mecklenburg patriots from the suspicion of having promulgated so absurd a declaration. For what, indeed, could be more absurd than a declaration of independence and assertion of sovereignty by a single county while in the same breath acknowledging its subordination to a Continental Congress which at that very moment was sincerely protesting the utmost loyalty to the Crown and earnestly exerting itself to restore the colonies to their former relations to the mother country? When the time came to act, even the Provincial Congress did not venture to declare the province itself independent but referred the question to the Continental Congress where it properly belonged. It is no credit to either the patriotism or the statesmanship of the Mecklenburg patriots, representing a mere artificial administrative unit dependent for its very existence upon the provincial authority, to suppose that in such a grave matter they would assume to do what the Provincial Congress did not consider itself competent to do. On the other hand the course which they actually pursued, viz., the setting up of a county government to take the place of that which had been annulled until the proper authority, the Provincial Congress, should provide otherwise, was a wise and statesmanlike procedure which reflects credit upon their wisdom and patriotism alike.

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2 Rise of the Republic, p503.

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3 Rise of the Republic, p504.

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4 History of the United States, ed. 1860, Vol. VIII, p345‑352.

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5 Jefferson's Notes in Works, Memorial Edition, Vol. XV, p199.


Thayer's Note:

a Aeneid, VI.86.


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