Harnett: Leader for Independence

The scene shown above represents an actual event in which Cornelius Harnett, de facto Governor of North Carolina, read the Declaration of Independence at Halifax.  1  This event followed its adoption by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

This presentation by Harnett was and is a clear symbol of his leadership for independence by the colony of North Carolina from Britain.

With regard to Cornelius Harnett reading the Declaration of Independence at Halifax, Professor C. Alphonzo Smith stated upon the occasion of the dedication of the monument to him at Wilmington:

Late in July the news had come that the example of North Carolina had been followed by all the other Colonies, that on the 4th of July the Declaration of Independence, prepared by Thomas Jefferson, had been adopted and signed by all the delegates of the thirteen Colonies.   The Council of Safety for North Carolina immediately resolved, “That Tuesday, the first day of August next be set apart for proclaiming the said Declaration at the Court House in the Town of Halifax”.  It is needless to say that when August 1st came, no question was raised as to who should read the great document.  There was one man, and only one, whose name in every hamlet in North Carolina stood as the supreme embodiment of independence.  Hardly four months had passed since he had read his own immortal declaration, and the declaration which he was now to read was but the enactment by a Continental Congress of what he had proposed to a Provincial Congress.  2

Since Royal Governor Martin had fled office after the Second Provincial Congress, Harnett became de facto Governor of North Carolina when he was named President of the Provincial Council by the Third Provincial Congress.  3  He continued as de facto Governor when he was named President of the successor Council of Safety during the Fourth Provisional Congress.  4

Apart from Harnett reading the Declaration  at Halifax, he led the effort in North Carolina to bring the  Declaration of Independence into being during the Fourth Provincial Congress.  At the Fourth Provincial Congress, he drafted the document that became known as the Halifax Resolves.  This document was passed and empowered delegates from the Fourth Provincial Congress to concur with delegates from the other colonies at the Second Continental Congress in declaring independence from Britain.  The document also claimed the sole and exclusive right of forming a constitution and laws for the colony of North Carolina.  5

Those gathered would have known that the Third Provincial Congress had in effect issued a “Declaration of War” with Britain by dividing the colony into six military districts from which two members from each were appointed to a Provincial Council headed by Cornelius Harnett as President.  6  Halifax, by its “Declaration of War” at the Third Provincial Congress,  had become the de facto rebel capital of North Carolina.

The onlookers would have also known that the Fourth Provincial Congress created the Council of Safety to succeed the Provincial Council and that Harnett continued as President. 7  The Council of Safety gave Harnett expanded powers over the previous powers he held as head of the Provincial Council.  It gave him the additional power to issue letters of marque and reprisal [authorization to seize property of an enemy in reprisal for an injury done], to establish courts and appoint judges of admiralty; and to appoint commissioners of navigation; to enforce the trade regulations of the Continental and Provincial Congresses.  8  When the Provincial Congress was not in session Cornelius Harnett was clearly the highest official in the rebel government.

During the time between April 12,1776 when the Halifax Resolves were adopted and July 4, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was finalized, Harnett had been and was clearly a North Carolina leader who exercised his skill as a legislator and executive in seeking Independence from Britain.

The drawing above is by illustrator Don Long.


1.  Connor, R. D. W. CORNELIUS HARNETT: AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY.  Raleigh, N. C., Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909.  1-209 Print (U Web. digitized after copyright expired by Google at http://books.google.com/ ,  pp. 170-172. For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books“.
2.  Addresses delivered under the auspices of The North Carolina Society of Colonial Dames of American 1900 – 1926, 192 pages, Press of Jackson & Bell Company, Wilmington, N. C. ”Our Debt to Cornelius Harnett”, pp 75-99,  delivered in 1906 by Professor C. Alonzo Smith, Ph. D, LLD, pp. 86-87.  A digital copy of this address, reprinted in 1907 from The University of North Press, has been located by Glenn Hood, co-sponsor of this Web Site.  It contains pages 379-408, with the specific quote above appearing at pages 392-393.  This digital  copy may be accessed under Resources/Addresses.
3.  Connor, Supra, p. 111
4.  Supra, pp. 153-154; p. 157
5.  Supra, pp. 143-145
6.  Supra, p. 111
7.  Supra, pp. 106-107
8.  Supra, pp. 153-154

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