Committees of Correspondence

This article describes how North Carolina and Cornelius Harnett became involved in the Committees of Correspondence that coordinated opposition to Britain by the American colonies.  It also describes how these committees led to formation of the Continental Congress for the colonies and a Provincial Congress for the colony of North Carolina.

At a session of the Royal North Carolina Assembly in January of 1773, an issue arose between the  Assembly [the peoples representatives] and the royal Governor over the issue of whether or not the Assembly could continue in effect a law that permitted a colonial court to attach the property owned in North Carolina by British merchants to satisfy a debt owed to North Carolina merchants.  Connor describes the problem as follows:

British merchants who transacted business in the province through agents without ever being here in person, became in course of time extensive landowners here.  The Tryon court-law continued a clause empowering the colonial court to attach this property for debts owed by such merchants to North Carolinians.  The merchants objected to the clause, but the king refused to veto the act because by its own provision it was to expire at the end of five years and he expected, when  a new bill was framed, to have the clause omitted without interfering with the business of the courts.  Accordingly he instructed Governor Martin not to pass any bill containing the attachment clause.  1.

This led to a conflict between the Assembly (representatives of the people) and the Council (advisors to the sovereign).  Cornelius Harnett was among the capable representatives who argued for passage of the law by the Council.  The council would not pass the Assembly’s version of the law allowing an attachment of property to collect a debt owed by a British merchant and by agreement the effect of the law was suspended until the pleasure of the King could be obtained and, accordingly, the issue was submitted for the King to resolve.  This occurred during the March 6, 1773 session of the colonial Assembly.

Less than a month after the attachment issue was sent to the King, a means of dealing with “the royal prerogative” was coming into being across the colonies.    The Committees of Correspondence throughout the colonies were becoming the means.  The work of these committees led to the Continental Congress.  Cornelius Harnett was contacted by Josiah Quincy, Jr. of Massachusetts for that purpose,  He spent the night of March 30 and 31, 1773 at the home of Cornelius Harnett and met with Harnett and Robert Howe there and over a period of five days met with other leaders in North Carolina.  Of these meetings Historian Connor says:

No other man whom he met in his travels, seems to have made such a strong impression on Quincy as Harnett. Though he talked and dined and wined with the leading men in the southern and middle colonies, ‘he nowhere else likens any one to his beau-ideal, Samuel Adams.’  At that time Adams was probably the most influential political personality on the continent.  Quincy was one of his ‘foster children;’ perhaps his most intimate political follower.  His conference with Harnett, therefore, was almost like a personal conference between Samuel, the pioneer of independence in the North and Cornelius Harnett, the pioneer of independence in the South.  (Connor pp. 79-80)

This was when the idea for a continental correspondence committee originated in North Carolina, a plan already circulating in Massachusetts and Virginia, and which came into being in December of 1773 by act of the Colonial Assembly.  As a result of hearing Harnett’s views at this meeting Quincy later referred to Harnett as the “Samuel Adams of North Carolina.”   (Connor, p. 79)

Samuel Adams was the father of the  Committees of Correspondence.  Connor states:

The ‘plan of continental correspondence’ was, of course, original with neither Quincy nor Harnett.  Samuel Adams had already put a system of provincial correspondence into operation in Massachusetts; and a few days before Quincy reached North Carolina, but too late for the news to have reached Wilmington, the Virginia Assembly had proposed to the other assemblies the organization of a system of inter-colonial committees to carry on a ‘continental correspondence.’  During the summer several of the colonies adopted the plan.  The decision of North Carolina had been practically settled at Wilmington in March, but as the Assembly did not meet until December, no committee was appointed.  (Connor p. 80)

By December 1773, the King decided the issue by rejecting the bill and instructed Governor Martin  to set up prerogative courts, meaning that the sovereign could ultimately decide matters on which a common law court failed to provide relief.  This struggle continued over two stormy sessions of the Assembly.  From this impasse, the Governor directed members of  the Assembly to consult with their constituents.  (Connor, pp. 71-72).

At the next session of the Colonial Assembly in March 1774, Cornelius Harnett gave the response to the King’s request to consult with the people.  Harnett, according to historian Connor, said this to the governor:

These facts  .  . . we have presented to them fairly, disdaining any equivocation or reserve that might leave them ignorant of the conduct we have pursued or the real motives that influenced it.  And we have the heartfelt satisfaction to inform your Excellency that they have expressed their warmest approbation of our past proceedings, and have given us positive instructions to persist in our endeavoures to obtain the process of foreign attachments upon the most liberal and ample footing.  (Connor p. 76)

As stated above, the idea of a provincial congress originated in Wilmington in March of 1773 after Harnett had met with Josiah Quincy with regard to the need for united action on the issue of continental administration.  Committees of Correspondence were to be the vehicle to accomplish this; however, the decision was not acted upon until December of 1773 at  a meeting of the Colonial Assembly called by Governor Martin.  By then the concept of  Committees of Correspondence throughout  the colonies was gaining acceptance.  (Connor p. 80)

In keeping with the correspondence movement a measure was adopted by the North Carolina Assembly creating a Committee of Correspondence in North Carolina.  Speaker John Harvey, Robert Howe, Cornelius Harnett, William Hooper, Richard Caswell, Edward Vail, John Ashe, John Hewes and Samuel Johnston were selected as members. This committee met and decided to cooperate with the sister colonies to “promote conformity and unanimity among the councils of America”. When these committees throughout the colonies came together there would be a congress speaking in the name of the country.  After a stormy meeting of the Colonial Assembly in March of 1774, Governor Martin decided to not call an Assembly into session. When the Governor’s Secretary told this to Speaker Harvey, Harvey determined to call for an assembly independent of the Governor, and after a mass meeting in Wilmington authorizing this action  on July 1774, the First Provincial Congress was called beginning on August 25, 1774.  (Connor pp 80-82)

This dispute over the attachment issue one of the grievances that  preceded the first Provincial Congress convening  in North Carolina on August 25, 1774 and the first Continental Congress convening in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774.  By the former North Carolina began to assert its sovereignty and by the latter North Carolina participated and united with other colonies and eventually became a nation.


1.  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  p. 70; For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books”.

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