The sketch shown above illustrates the confrontation between Cornelius Harnett and Royal Governor Tryon over enforcement of the Stamp Act.
Captain Lobb of the British Vessel Viper had seized the merchant ships Dobbs and Patience in January 1766. After “insurgents” boarded the Viper at Brunswick in January 1766 and compelled Captain Lobb to release the merchant vessels seized by the Crown, Cornelius Harnett confronted Royal Governor Tryon in Brunswick, seat of the Colonial Governor. This was the transformational event elevating Harnett as hero and “Pride of the Cape Fear.” It involved “inhabitants in arms” (Sons of Liberty) with Harnett as their leader and spokesman. Historians Lefler and Newsome reported the confrontation as follows:
On the morning of February 21, a large armed body approached the Governor’s house to secure Comptroller Pennington, who had taken refuge there – supposedly under Tryon’s bed. At first Tryon declined to part with his guest, but Cornelius Harnett, courageous leader of the Patriots and the “Pride of the Cape Fear,” standing face to face and eye to eye with the Governor,declared that the people would take Pennington by force if he were longer detained (emphasis added). Tryon was firm, but Pennington resigned his office, went with Harnett and the “inhabitants in arms” into the main part of town, and in a circle of cheering patriots took oath, along with all other public officials, there, except the Governor, that he would never issue any stamped paper in North Carolina. 1
This confrontation with Governor Tryon, with armed Sons of Liberty at the ready, transformed Harnett from a respected merchant, town, county, and state leader to a heroic leader truly worthy of the title, “Pride of the Cape Fear.”
To an onlooker Harnett certainly would have appeared to be the leader of this armed group. After all he was the one, with the armed force behind him, who actually confronted Governor Tryon and declared that the people [obviously referring to the armed people behind him] would take Pennington by force.
R. D. W. Connor in his book on Revolutionary Leaders of North Carolina named Cornelius Harnett as one of four such revolutionary leaders. Of Cornelius Harnett and the confrontation over enforcement of the Stamp Act with Governor Tryon, he wrote:
Throughout this contest the conduct of no man stands out so conspicuously as that of Cornelius Harnett. From the announcement of the British ministry’s intention to levy a stamp duty in America, he was among the foremost in opposition; and it is stating nothing more than the records will bear out to say that when the struggle closed, no man could justly claim more credit for the failure of the Stamp Act in North Carolina than he. At the beginning of the struggle there were several strong, forceful men in Wilmington and Brunswick capable of leading the opposition, but none of them stood so conspicuously above the others that he can be designated as the leader; but as the contest progressed the opposition centers more and more around Cornelius Harnett, until at its climax he and Tryon stand face to face, the acknowledged leaders of their respective causes. 2
Consider the courage of Harnett in that event! Unlike participants in the famous Boston Tea Party that occurred seven years later, Harnett came neither in stealth nor disguise. Face to face with one of King George’s most competent governors, Harnett was clearly the “Out Front” leader of the rebellion.
1. Lefler, Hugh T., and Albert R. Newsoome, eds. The History of a Southern State. Revised Edition. Chapel Hill, NC; 756 pages,The University of North Carolina Press, 1954, 1958. Print., p. 184.
2. Connor, R, D, W., REVOLUTIONARY LEADERS OF NORTH CAROLINA. Ed. W. C. JACKSON. RALEIGH, N. C.: North Carolina State Normal & , Industrial College Historical Publications, 1916. Chapter III, “Cornelius Harnett”, 49-79. Reprint by The Reprint Company, Spartanburg, S. C.; Print. pp. 54-55.