All who signed the Articles of Confederation are rightly considered Founding Fathers of the United States. In an article entitled “Cornelius Harnett: Revolutionary Leader and Delegate to the Continental Congress,” 1 Historian David T. Morgan points out that Harnett was more than a mere signer of that document. He provided leadership to overcome forces reluctant in North Carolina to its adoption and, in so doing, was a leader among the forces in the Continental Congress for adoption of the Articles.
Historian Morgan, noting that Josiah Quincy, Jr., of Massachusetts, after meeting with Harnett at his home in North Carolina and becoming aware of his anti-British activities, labeled Harnett as the “Samuel Adams of North Carolina”. Professor Morgan provides this lament:
Yet, outside of North Carolina few people have heard of Cornelius Harnett, while every American grammar school student has been told of Sam Adams. A generation ago R. D. W. Connor, the first archivist of the United States and later Kenan Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, became convinced that Harnett was a statesman of great stature. 2
Morgan notes that even Connor–a well known admirer of Cornelius Harnett–in speaking of Harnett’s services in the Continental Congress, had made the following questionable statement: “The truth is Harnett entered the Continental Congress too late to add to his own fame or to render any conspicuous service to his country.”
Commenting on the above quote by Connor, Morgan presents a different view of Harnett ‘s contribution while serving in the Continental Congress:
This comment indicates that Connor was misled by Harnett’s relatively quiet approach in the performance of his duty. Although Harnett’s accomplishments as a member of Congress were not as significant as his activities during the resistance, he did, while serving in that capacity, make valuable contributions which give him a reasonable claim to the title of minor American statesman. 3
Professor Morgan is careful to keep the accomplishments of Harnett in perspective:
It cannot be argued that Harnett was a Benjamin Franklin or a Thomas Jefferson, but it can be argued that his accomplishments as an American–and not merely as a North Carolina–statesman were significant. And surely the man who was called “the Samuel Adams of North Carolina” in the days of the resistance and then went on to serve his country well during the American Revolution deserves more recognition that he has been given. 4
So, what was Harnett’s relatively “quiet approach?” Morgan puts it this way:
As a North Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress for nearly three years, he exerted a salutary influence on his fellow delegates from North Carolina and did signal service for both his state and the thirteen American states. Lacking the oratorical talent and flamboyance of Thomas Burke, his outspoken and extremely provincial colleague in the North Carolina delegation, Harnett remained in the background. But he had good judgment, something that Burke sometimes failed to display. Although Burke successfully insisted upon the inclusion of Article II –the state sovereignty provision–in the Articles of Confederation, he was slow in becoming completely reconciled to the idea of any union–even the weak confederation–which bound an individual state in any respect. Thus, when the crucial question of a union for the American states was decided, Harnett made a significant contribution to the American cause by offsetting Burke’s opposition to the confederation with a firm stand for union. Harnett’s meritorious service in Congress provided a fitting climax to a long and distinguished public career. 5
Harnett, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, looked out for the interest of all thirteen states. It is important to remember that Harnett had served as Chairman of the Committee of Correspondence in pre-revolution days and spent a year traveling in northern states carrying out the duties of the committee. This gave him a broad perspective of needs in the states. Not surprisingly, he was for ending jealously among the states, enacting price controls to prevent inflation, seeking foreign alliances to help win over Great Britain, enacting taxes like other states and reducing the circulation of money issued under crown authority. Professor Morgan put it this way:
As a delegate to the Continental Congress Harnett did far more than keep a watchful eye on the interests of his home state. He also took statesmanlike positions on numerous important questions which affected all of the American States. He deplored friction between the states, especially the ‘ridiculous jealousy’ that marred attempts at cooperation between North Carolina and South Carolina. On behalf of the common cause he called upon his state to collect taxes to prevent “the ruin of the prodigious quantity of paper money . . . in Circulation.” He wanted the state legislatures to enact price controls because “the villanous (sic) practice of raising the price of all the Necessaries & Conveniences” was “spreading all over the Continent”. In his judgment inflation was more dangerous than two British Armies. Besides recognizing the perils of internal friction and financial instability, Harnett also saw value in seeking foreign alliances. He firmly believed that the United States with the help of European allies could win easily over Great Britain. But each state would have to do its part, and he earnestly hoped that his state would be cooperative. He expressed the desire that North Carolina would open the courts for the recovery of debts, levy taxes like the other states, and call in all paper money issued under the authority of the crown. Congress recommended these steps, and to Harnett the existence of Americans as a free people depended on the acceptance of them by all the states. 6
Professor Morgan distinguishes between Harnett’s general support for the Articles of Confederation and its particular provisions. With regard to Harnett’s general support for the Articles, Morgan writes:
Harnett was on the right side of many questions, but his most important stand was that of giving his full support to the confederation. The need for some kind of union between the thirteen American states was imperative, but the North Carolina delegation and perhaps the North Carolina Assembly might well have opposed the confederation if Harnett had not taken a forthright stand for it. Burke, who wanted to keep all rights of sovereignty vested in the individual states, looked upon the confederation as “a chymerical Project.” But Harnett, like other farsighted members of Congress, believed that the confederation had to come before diplomatic recognition would be granted by the European powers. Moreover, he was afraid that without a confederation the states would be fighting among themselves after the war with England ended. 7
The “quiet approach” of Harnett becomes apparent in the way Harnett presented the particular provisions of the proposed Articles of Confederation in North Carolina. Morgan puts it this way:
Apparently to make the political leaders back home feel that they had a part in creating the union, he asked their advice. He wanted to know the sentiment of the North Carolina General Assembly on the plan to give each state only one vote. Virginia opposed the arrangement, but Harnett indicated that he favored it. He also asked for some indication of the assembly’s view on the three proposed methods of arriving at tax quotas for each state: (1) by “Poll,” (2) by assessing land value, (3) by assessing property in general. Harnett believed that the third method was the “most equitable,” but before he voted he wished to know the sentiments of the body which had sent him to Congress. Harnett never asked if the North Carolina politicians favored the idea of union, for to that idea he was firmly committed. 8
Harnett was a leader in the American Revolution [see Historically Important Events], and a very early leader as shown in the article “Harnett Confronts Governor Tryon,” a couageous stand in 1765 that led to his title of “Pride of The Cape Fear”by his peers in North Carolina and one of the many reasons for his title of “Outlaw” by the British. This alone is sufficient for him to have a prominent place among the heroes of the American Revolution. The additional fact that he provided leadership that encouraged other government leaders in North Carolina to become a part of the initial union is also very important. His vote for the articles while serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress, while firmly insisting to and persuading his fellow delegates to do the same, is just another reason why Harnett deserves more than a footnote or passing comment in the history books of this state and nation.
The lament of Professor Morgan that ” . . . outside of North Carolina few people have heard of Cornelius Harnett” is a call for more voices to join his and add Cornelius Harnett as a name heard among many in the United States, beginning with our school children.
Editor’s Note: A biographical sketch of David T. Morgan, author of the book cited in end notes below, may be accessed under the menu items “Resources”, subheading “Biographies” or by clicking on the hyperlink of his name in this note.
1. Morgan, David T. “Cornelius Harnett: Revolutionary Leader and Delegate to the Continental Congress.” The North Carolina Historical Review LXIX.3 (1972): 229-241. Print. For digital version, select: Morgan-NCHR-July72
2. supra, p. 229
4. supra, p. 230
5. supra, p. 230-231
6. supra, p. 237-238
7. supra, p. 238