Council of Safety

The Council of Safety came into being in this way.

After the Halifax Resolves passed on April 12, 1776 by the Fourth Provincial Congress, which among other provisions, reserved the sole and exclusive right to form a constitution, there was much division among the committee charged with drafting a new constitution for the North Carolina Colony.  This committee was dissolved and a special committee was named.   Instead of a Provincial Council the special committee recommended a  temporary solution which changed the name of the Provincial Council to  Council of Safety, abolished the District Committees of Safety [bodies with intermediate appellant authority over actions by local committees of safety], assigned the powers of the  Provincial Council to the new Council of Safety and granted additional powers to it.  This recommendation was adopted by the Provincial Congress on May 11, 1776.  As a result of the divisions that emerged only two of the six military districts carried over the same membership from the Provincial Council to the Council of Safety.  Cornelius Harnett remained one of the members  from the Wilmington military distirct along with Samuel Ashe.  1  On June 5, 1776 at the first meeting of the successor Council of Safety, Cornelius Harnett was continued as President.  (Connor, p. 159)

The additional powers transferred from the Provincial Council to the Council of Safety were described by historian  Connor as follows:

No change was made in its organization.  The Provincial Council had been required to sit once in every three months; the Council of Safety was to sit continuously, and its authority was considerably extended.  All the powers of its predecessor were bequeathed to it, while among its additional powers was the authority to grants letters of marque and reprisal; 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.  (Connor p. 154)

The War for Independence from Britain was clearly underway when Harnett assumed enhanced duties as President of the Council of Safety.  Raising and outfitting an army was a principal duty for him.  Connor puts the problem in perspective:

It was comparatively an easy matter to raise these troops; to clothe, food and equip them was another problem.  It is of course, unnecessary to say that this was a problem that was not solved at all during the Revolution, either by the Continental Congress or by the North Carolina Congress; but perhaps the latter came as near to it as the former, or as any of the States.  This was the work in which Cornelius Harnett was most actively concerned. (Connor pp. 155-156)

With regard to preparation that Harnett had for his duties as President of the Council of Safety, Connor continues:

In the Congress at Halifax he served on committees to ascertain the amount of gunpowder in the province; to form an estimate of the expense of supporting the troops; to draw up regulations for the commissary department; to devise measures for defense of the coast; and to draft a form of commission for privateers.  But his most important work was on a committee ‘to take into consideration the most practical and expeditious method of supplying the province with arms, ammunition, warlike stores and supplies, and also the expediency of erecting works for the making of saltpeter, gunpowder and purifying sulphur.’ (Connor p. 156)

Making gunpowder is one of the uses of saltpeter.  2

Connor continues:

This committee recommended the erection at Halifax of a plant for the manufacture of saltpeter; the erection somewhere in Halifax county of a powder mill; the establishment of salt works in various places; the erection of a gun factory in each of the six military districts; and the purchase or rental of certain furnaces and iron works for casting pieces of ordinance, shot and other warlike material.  The report was adopted by the Congress; how its provisions were to be carried into execution was a matter for the Council of Safety. (Connor pp. 156-157)

As to results of the Council of Safety and its predecessor Provincial Council Connor states the case for North Carolina’s contribution to the American or common cause:

Their effectiveness must be judged by their results.  Certainly they fell short of what was desired, yet during the summer of 1776, they saved North Carolina from invasion, they enabled the troops of the province to participate with credit in the defense of Charleston, and they were sufficient to crush the Indians on the western frontier.  If to these results we add the overthrow of the Highlanders at Moore’s Creek Bridge, and the impetus given to the cause of Independence by the Resolution of April 12, it will appear at least during the spring and summer of 1776 North Carolina was not backward in the common cause.   (Connor p. 157)

As for Harnett’s leadership of the Provincial Council before May 11, 1776 and his leadership of the Council of Safety thereafter, Connor sums up the role played by Harnett during this critical phase of the Revolution as follows:

While these events were occurring, Cornelius Harnett was at the head of the provisional government.  We may almost say that they occurred during his administration, for certainly no man contributed more to these results than he.  In the Congress he served on more committees concerned in devising measures of defense than any other man.  He wrote the Resolution of April 12th.  He was president of the Provincial Council and of the Council of Safety to which were entrusted the execution of ordinances and the direction of armies, and as such he guided the affairs of both with such a measure of success that the the enemy attributed to him more than to any of his colleagues the downfall of the royal government and the spirited conduct of the Revolutionary program. (Connor pp. 157-158)


1.  Connor , R. D. W. CORNELIUS HARNETT: AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY. [hereafter (Connor) in the text] Raleigh, N. C. : Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909. 1-209. Print (& Web, digitized after copyright expired by Google at, p. 153-154.  For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books“.

2.  See Web site for uses of salpeter:

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