Committees of Safety

With regard to establishment of Committees of Safety by the First Provincial Congress in North Carolina, historian R. D. W. Connor states:

In order to provide an executive authority to enforce its policy, the Congress of August, 1774, recommended that “a committee of five persons be chosen in each county” for that purpose.  The Continental Congress in October recommended a similar system throughout the thirteen colonies.  In North Carolina the plan as finally worked out contemplated one committee in each of the towns,  one in each of the counties, one in each of the six military districts, and one for the province at large.  1

These Committees of Safety were powerful as pointed out by Historian Connor:

In all our history there has been nothing else like these committees.  Born of necessity, originating in the political and economic confusion of the time they touched the lives of the people in their most intimate affairs, and gradually extended their jurisdiction until they assumed to themselves all the functions of government.  They enforced with vigor the resolves of the Continental and Provincial Congresses, some of which were most exacting in their demands and burdensome in their effects. (Connor p. 86)

They created and enforced what appears to be a combination of legislative, executive and judicial functions, including the role of defining crimes, acting as accuser, serving as jury in deciding guilt and as judge in fixing punishment, as appears from this statement Connor:

They conducted inquiries into the actions and opinions of individuals, and not only “determined what acts and opinions constituted a man an enemy of his country, but passed upon his guilt or innocence, and fixed his punishment.  (Connor p. 86)

The committees had not been selected by the Royal Governor and did not look to him for direction.  These committees were clearly the local executive authority.  Connor puts it this way:

They raised money by fines and assessments for the purchase of gunpowder, arms, and all the other implements of war.  The militia had to be enlisted, organized, equipped and drilled.  “Usurping some new authority every day, executive, judicial or legislative, as the case might be, their power soon became practically unlimited. (Connor pp. 86-87)

These actions did not go unnoticed by Royal Josiah Governor Martin (1771-1775).  Connor continues:

Governor Martin characterized them as “extraordinary tribunals.”  In every respect they were extraordinary, insurrectionary, revolutionary.  Illegally constituted, they assume such authority as would not have been tolerated in the royal government, and received such obedience as the king with all his armies could not have exacted.  Yet not only did they not abuse their power, they voluntarily resigned it when the public welfare no longer needed their services.  They were the offspring of misrule and rose and fell with their parent. (Connor p. 87)

Of the town and county committees throughout North Carolina,  the Wilmington-New Hanover Committe was clearly outstanding.  Of Harnett’s leadership as chairman of the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety, Connor made this observation:

The most active and effective of these committees were those of Wilmington and New Hanover.  Of these Cornelius Harnett was the master-spirit.  When the Wilmington Committee was organized, November 23, 1774, though he was then absent from the province, he was unanimously elected chairman.  When the New Hanover county committee was organized, January 1775, “to join and cooperate with the committee of the town,” he was promptly placed at the head of the committee. . . .  From the first, we are told, Cornelius Harnett was “the very soul of the enterprise, “the life-breathing spirit of liberty among the people, possessing their confidence “to an extent that seems incredible.” (Connor pp. 87-88)

It was from his position of Chair of the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety that Cornelius Harnett led the committee’s effort to taken control of Fort Johnston, an act that disgraced Royal Governor Josiah Martin.  This was pursuant to his orders for the military action on July 15, 1775.

The minutes of the Wilmington-New Hanover Safety Committee show that meetings began on November 23, 1774 and ended on February 9, 1776.  From the beginning Harnett was Chairman and the last meeting at which he served in that capacity was on October 5, 1775.  The last meeting at which he attended was on November 24, 1775 and the minutes show that John Ancrum was the Chairman on that date.  2  Between those two dates (October 5 & November 24, 1775), he was elected on October 18, 1775 as Chairman of the Provincial Council that met in Johnston County on that date.  (Connor, p. 106-107, 111-112).  This position was created by action of the Third Provincial Congress (Aug.20 – Sept, 10, 1775).  This Congress also reorganized the Committees of Safety into six district committees and local committees.  The local committees retained substantial powers but subject to control by the district committees with right of appeal to the Provincial Council.  (Connor pp. 106-107).  This brought to an end the powers prescribed for Committees of Safety initially created by the First Provincial Congress.

END  NOTES

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 http://books.google.com/; p. 86;  For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books“.

2.  McEachern, Leora H., and Isabel M. Williams, (hereafter McEachern), Wilmington-New Hanover Safety Committee Minutes. Wilmington, NC: American Revolution Bi-Centenial Commission, 1974. Print xxiv + 147; p. 65.

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