The Price of Leadership

From Jeffrey Crow’s Collection of articles entitled Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Pauline Maier described how Harnett became a British outlaw and names the distinguished company with whom he was associated. She writes:

Finally, southerners won the wrath of the British in equal measure with their northern peers. Just as John Hancock and Samuel Adams were excepted from General Thomas Gage’s Proclamation of Amnesty at Boston in 1774, Cornelius Harnett and his colleague Robert Howe were excluded from Sir Henry Clinton’s proclamation of May 1776 that offered pardon to all North Carolinians who would lay down arms and submit to British law.  1

Connor in his book, Makers of N.C. History, describes the price that Harnett paid for his outlaw status:

In January, 1781, the British captured Wilmington. The patriot leaders had to fly for their lives. There was none of them whom the British were so eager to capture as Harnett. Major Craige, the British commander, at once sent out a party of soldiers to take him. Harnett tried to escape, but after a few miles was so overcome with illness that he had to stop at a friend’s house in Onslow County.

There the British soldiers found him. They pulled him out of bed, and drove him on foot before them until he fell in the road. Then binding his hands and feet they threw him across a soldier’s horse ‘like a sack of meal,’ and so carried him into prison and kept him there until he was in a dying condition. In April, 1781, at the request of Harnett’s Tory friends, Craige released him. But it was too late to save his life. He never recovered from his cruel treatment, and died on April 28, 1781.  2

A brief and partial review of the acts that led him to being declared an outlaw are as follows:

He had confronted Governor Tryon in 1766 and became the “Pride of the Cape Fear” to his fellow citizens.  3  By March of 1773 he was recognized by Josiah Quincy, Jr. of Boston as the “Samuel Adams of North Carolina” and answered Quincy’s call to help bring a Continental Congress into being through Committees of Correspondence.  4

As head of the Wilmington New Hanover Committee of Safety in July of 1775 he had given an order that led to destruction of Fort Johnston, an act that embarrassed then Royal Governor Martin who had to abandon the Fort and flee to safety aboard the British Cruizer.  5  He headed the Provincial Council  6  and its successor Council of Safety  7  from October of 1775 to December 1776 as defacto Governor of North Carolina.

During this period of service by Harnett as chief executive officer of the rebel government, the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge was fought and won by the rebel militia under the command of Col. James Moore. Harnett not only led and directed the revolutionary war effort in North Carolina, he drafted the Halifax Resolves that was passed by the Fourth Provincial Congress, directing North Carolina delegates to vote for Independence from Britain.  8

These acts described above were believed by British leaders to be contrary to British Law.  To them he was an outlaw.  In North Carolina these same acts made him the “Pride of The Cape Fear.”  His capture and premature death was the price that he paid for providing leadership in helping found a nation.


1. Crow, Jeffrey, ed., The Southern Experience in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC; University of North Carolina Press, 1978. Print. Chapter 1, pp. 3-24, by Pauline Maier entitled “Early Revolutionary Leaders in the South and theProblem with Southern Distinctiveness. p. 7
2.  Connor, R. W. D., ed., Makers of North Carolina History. Raleigh, NC: The Thompson Publishing Company,      1923.  Print. Chapter VII, 77-90, “Cornelius Harnett”, pp. 88-89.
3.   Lefler, Hugh T., and Albert R. Newsoome, eds., The History of a Southern State. Revised Edition. Chapel Hill, NC; The University of North Carolina Press, 1954, 1958. Print. p. 184
4.  Connor, R. D. W. CORNELIUS HARNETT: AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY. [hereafter Connor], Raleigh, N. C. , Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909. 1-209. Print (& Web, digitized after copyright expired by Google at pp. 79-80.  For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books“.
5.  Supra, pp. 99-100
6.  Supra, p. 111
7.  Supra, pp. 154-154; p. 157
8.  Supra, pp. 143-145.  The full text of the Halifax Resolves begins on page 143.  By way of introducing the report which became known as the Halifax Resolves, Connor states:  “To Cornelius Harnett fell the task of drafting the committee’s report.  With great self-control, in a report remarkable for its calm dignity and restraint, but alive with suppressed emotion, he drew an indictment against the British ministry not equaled by any similar document of the Revolutionary period, except only the great Declaration itself.”

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