Birth of a Revolutionary

Lord Bute or Lord Boot

As in other colonies, demonstrations against the Stamp Act took place in the colony of North Carolina in late 1765 and early 1766.  The Stamp act had been passed earlier in that year by the British Parliament.  In protest, an effigy or likeness of Lord Bute, prime minister under King George III, was hanged by 500 demonstrators in Wilmington, North Carolina and later burned.  Historian Lefler indicated (see the quote that appears below) that Lord Bute, a Scotsman by the name of John Stuart, whose likness appears on the left above, had nothing to do with passage of the Stamp Act.  In North Carolina, it can be argued that burning his likeness was better treatment of Lord Bute than what may have occurred elsewhere in the colonies where Lord Bute was represented by a boot with a devil coming out of “him” as shown above.  1

Before January of 1766, there is no indication in the accounts of NC Historians Lefler and Newsome that Cornelius Harnett had played a leadership role in numerous demonstrations that were taking place in the port city of Wilmington and in the Royal Capital of Brunswick.  2  Given his emergence as a revolutionary leader after January 1766 it is inconceivable that he was not involved in the series of demonstrations taking place before then.

Historians Lefler and Newsome reported the following demonstrations in late 1765:

The first significant demonstration against the Stamp Act in North Carolina occurred at Wilmington on the evening of October 19, when about five hundred people assembled, hanged the effigy of Lord Bute – whom they erroneously blamed for the passage of the hated law — and burned in in a large bonfire of tar barrels near the courthouse, called the gentlemen of the town from their homes to the celebration, where amid cheers they drank toasts to “Liberty, Property and No Stamp Duty”, and “otherwise disported themselves until midnight.”

On the evening of October 31, which was Halloween, and also the day before the Stamp Act was to become effective, another large Wilmington crowd marched to the doleful music of the muffled town bell and a drum draped in mourning toward the churchyard for the burial of an effigy of Liberty carried in a coffin.  At the grave a final examination revealed a faint pulse-beat in the effigy.  Rejoiced that Liberty still lived, the crowd bore the effigy to a large bonfire, placed it comfortably in  an armchair, and spent the evening in celebration.

On November 16 when Stamp Master William Houston visited Wilmington “three or four hundred Sons of Liberty, with drums beating and flags flying, escorted him to the courthouse where he signed a resignation of his office and then treated the crowd ‘to the best liquors that could be had.”

“By November 28, 1765 the British sloop Diligence arrived at Brunswick with an assignment of stamps and stamped paper, but as there was no stamp Master in the province, the stamps remained aboard ship.”

It is clear from historians Lefler and Newsome’s account that action against Stamp Master Houston was taken by the Sons of Liberty. It is highly probable that most if not all of these demonstrations were by the Sons of Liberty as well.

Up to this point there was no indication that a show of arms were involved in these demonstrations. That was about to change.

The situation became more acute in January, 1766, when two merchant ships, the, Dobbs and the Patience, arrived at Brunswick and were seized by Captain Lobb of the British Viper, because their clearance papers were not stamped.  Indignant at this seizure the people of Wilmington refused to sell supplies to the King’s ships, seized a ‘contractor’s vessel,’ and threw its crew into jail.  The attorney generals’ decision in February that Lobb’s seizures were legal and that the two vessels which he had detained should be sent to Nova Scotia for legal proceedings was the signal for armed resistance (Lefler).

What happened next demonstrates a clear intent in writing by a certain group, including Cornelius Harnett, to oppose the Stamp Act and take that issue directly to Governor Tryon

On February 18 in Wilmington of “the principal gentlemen, freeholders, and inhabitants” of several counties who signed the following agreement:  ”We will at any risque . . . unite . . .in preventing entirely the operation of the Stamp Act.” Among the leaders were Hugh Waddell John Ashe, and Cornelius Harnett. The next day several hundred armed patriots marched to Brunswick, posted a guard around the Governor’s residence and after an altercation with him, broke open the collector’s desk and took the papers of the seized vessels, and so threatened Fort Johnston that its guns were spiked (Lefler).

The next action resolved the Viper seizure of the merchant vessels, not in Nova Scotia, but along the waters of the Cape Fear River at Brunswick, across from Fort Johnston with its then disabled canons:

On February 20, after armed reinforcements had augmented their forces to nearly 1,000 men, a group of ‘insurgents’ boarded the Viper and compelled the captain to release the seized merchant vessels. Thenceforth ships entered and cleared the Cape Fear without hindrance – and without stamps (Lefler)

The very next day, February 21, 1766, Cornelius Harnett emerged as the primary leader.  See the article entitled “Harnett Confronts Governor Tryon.” (Lefler).


1.  The photo of Lord Bute on the right shown at the heading to this article was taken from the Newport News and shown in the “freerepublic” Web site which indicated that it was from”photos taken at the National Museum of History (part of the Smithsonian Institution).”

2. Lefler, Hugh T., and Albert R. Newsome, eds. The History of a Southern State. Revised Edition. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1954, 1958. pp. 182-184. Print.

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