The Provincial Congress of North Carolina met five times during the years 1774 and 1776 and are referred to in subtitles to this article as the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Provincial Congress. This article contains a summary of the events that took place at each.
R. W. D Connor details how the idea of a provincial congress came into being in an article on the Committees of Correspondence, a colony wide movement that also led to creation of the Continental Congress.
First Provincial Congress (August 25-27, 1774)
The First Provincial Congress met between August 25 and August 27, 1774. Cornelius Harnett was neither present at nor a member of the first Provincial Congress since he spent the summer of 1774 in the North and was carrying out duties for the Committee of Correspondence. This first Provincial Congress was held in New Bern, with seventy-one delegates from thirty-six counties and towns present. (Connor-1, p 82). According to historian R. D. W. Connor, the first Provisional Congress took the following action:
The Congress gave expression to the American position on the issues in dispute with the mother country in a series of spirited and clear-cut resolutions; declared for a Continental Congress, and elected Hooper, Hewes and Caswell delegates. John Harvey, the moderator, was authorized to call another Congress whenever he deemed it necessary. (Connor p. 82).
No more significant step had ever been taken in North Carolina than the successful meeting of this Congress. It revealed the people to themselves. They began to understand that there was no peculiar power in the writs and proclamations of a royal governor; they themselves could elect delegates and organize legislatures without the intervention of a king’s authority, and this was a long step toward independence. (Connor p. 83).
At this first congress committees of safety were authorized for the counties to act as an executive to enforce the executive authority of the Congress. This was a concept applied in practice to the selection of one committee in each county, each town, each military district and the province at large. Connor explains:
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. In all of 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. [emphasis added] (Connor p. 86).
Connor had this to say about the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety and its leader, Cornelius Harnett:
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 4, 1775 ‘to join and cooperate with the committee of the town,’ he was promptly placed at the head of the joint committee’. (Connor pp. 87-88).
Second Provincial Congress (April 3-7, 1775)
Governor Martin called for an assembly to meet at New Bern, April 4, 1775. Speaker Harvey called a congress to meet at the same place on April 3. There was a good deal of intrigue during the sessions that lasted from April 3-April 7, 1775. Connor described it this way:
Of the two bodies the Congress was the larger, but as a rule the members of the Assembly were also members of the Congress. Cornelius Harnett represented his old constituents in both bodies. The governor was furious and denounced Harvey’s action in a resounding proclamation. The Congress replied by electing Harvey moderator, and the Assembly by electing him speaker. The governor roundly scored both bodies, and both bodies roundly scored the governor. It was, indeed, a pretty situation. One set of men composed two assemblies, one legal, sitting by authority of the royal governor and in obedience to his writ; the other illegal, sitting in defiance of his authority and in disobedience of his proclamation. The governor impatiently called on the former to join him in dispersing the latter. The two assemblies met in the same hall and were presided over by the same man. ‘When the governor’s private secretary was announced at the door, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, Mr. Moderator Harvey . . .would become Mr. Speaker Harvey . . . and gravely receive his Excellency’s message.’ (Connor pp. 83-84).
This action was quite an insult to the Governor. At the end of the four day congress it adopted resolutions approving the Continental Association, thanking the delegates to the Continental Congress for their services and endorsing their election. Connor describes the governor’s reaction this way:
This was more than Martin had bargained for; his wrath boiled over, and on April 8, 1775, he issued his proclamation dissolving the Assembly. Thus he put an end to the last Assembly that ever sat in North Carolina at the call of a royal governor, and by its dissolution brought British rule in that province to a close forever. (Connor p. 85).
Third Provincial Congress (Aug. 20 – Sept 10,1775)
By the 2nd of June of 1775, Governor Martin had fled from his palace in New Bern and before the month was out he had fled from Fort Johnston to British battle ship Cruizer. As a consequence there was no official government in North Carolina. For the primary purpose of providing a governing body the Third Provincial Congress was called for August 20, 1775 in Hillsborough. 1 This call was finally made after constant urging by Howe, Harnett and Ashe to Samuel Johnston who succeeded Harvey after his death. Johnston had been reluctant to make the call. With the battle of Lexington and the pending attack on Fort Johnston, a state of war with Britain existed and the Congress needed to act and get ready. (Connor, p. 103).
The third Provincial Congress met in Hillborough, North Carolina from August 20 until September 10, 1775. At this congress one hundred and eighty-four delegates were present from and representing every county and borough town. This far exceeded the level of participation at the Second Provincial Congress at which only seventy-one delegates were present with five counties and three towns unrepresented. Samuel Johnston was elected “President”, a significant change from the old title of “Moderator”. He became the highest elected official in the State. (Connor, p. 104).
One of the important tasks of this congress was the organization of the Army. As a preliminary matter, the Congress issued what might be called a declaration of war. The state was divided into six military districts for purposes organizing a militia and determining membership on the Provincial Council. According to Connor, it was resolved, among other important supporting actions, that:
‘. . . this colony be immediately put into a state of defense.’ Two regiments of 500 men each were ordered ‘as part of and on the same establishment with the continental army.’ Colonel James Moore was assigned to the command of the first, Colonel Robert Howe to the second. (Connor pp. 105-106).
A second task was the formation of a government. According to Connor, the executive and judicial function was vested in a Provincial Congress, six district committees of safety, and the local committees of safety. It established the means by which delegates were selected and set the limits of their power. (Connor pp. 106-107).
The executive power was vested in the committees of safety and these were defined by the Congress. These powers were subject to the powers of a 13-member Provincial Council, with 2 members elected from each of the six military districts and one by the Congress for the Province. Cornelius Harnett was elected its President. He thus became the highest elected official of the state when the provincial congress was not in session. (Connor pp. 106-107).
Fourth Provincial Congress (Apr 4 – May 14, 1776)
Connor says “Moore’s Creek was the Rubicon over which North Carolina passed to independence and constitutional self-government.” (Connor p. 120). He of course is referring to the defeat of the Highlanders at Moore’s Creek Bridge on February 26, 1776 and the effect that it had on the attendees at the Fourth Provincial Congress.
Eight months after the Third Provincial Congress, this meeting of the Fourth Provincial Congress took place in Halifax. Samuel Johnston was still President. The congress met from April 4 until May 14, 1776. A seven person committee headed by Cornelius Harnett approved a report that came to be known as the Halifax Resolves. It was presented to and adopted by the Congress on April 12, 1776 and read as follows:
It appears to your committee, that pursuant to the plan concerted by the British ministry for subjugating America, the King and Parliament of Great Britain have usurped a power over the persons and properties of the people unlimited and uncontrolled; and disregarding their humble petitions for peace, liberty and safety, have made divers legislative acts, denouncing war, famine, and every species of calamity, against the continent in general. That British fleets and armies have been, and still are daily employed in destroying the people, and committing the most horrid devastations on the country. That governors in different colonies have declared protection to slaves who should imbue their hands in the blood of their masters. That ships belonging to America are declared prizes of war, and many of them have been violently seized and confiscated. In consequence of all which multitudes of the people have been destroyed, or from easy circumstances reduced to the most lamentable distress.
And whereas the moderation hitherto manifested by the United Colonies and their sincere desire to be reconciled to the mother country on constitutional principles, have procured no mitigation of the aforesaid wrongs and usurpations, and no hope remain of obtaining redress by those means alone which have been hitherto tried, your committee are of the opinion that the House should enter into the following resolve, to wit:
Resolved, That the delegates for this colony in the Continental Congress be impowered to concur with the delegates of the other colonies in declaring independence, and forming foreign alliances, reserving to this colony the sole and exclusive right of forming a constitution and laws for this colony, and of appointing delegates from time to time (under the direction of general representation thereof,) to meet the delegates of the other colonies for such purposes as shall be hereafter pointed out. (Connor pp. 143-145).
Not only did Cornelius Harnett present this document for adoption to the Congress, (Connor p 144), he wrote it: Of that act by Harnett, and the significance of this document that he wrote, Connor states:
Officially North Carolina led the way, and Cornelius Harnett wrote the first resolution adopted by any of the colonies authorizing their delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for independence. (Connor p. 120).
This resolution known now as the Halifax Resolves was presented by North Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress on May 27, 1776.
During this Congress the term Provincial Council was changed to Council of Safety. (Connor p 153). Considerable authority was extended to the Council of Safety. Rather than meeting once in every three months it was to meet continuously. Added to the Council of Safety’s authority ” . . .was the authority to grant 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.” There were many changes in the members but Harnett and Nash remained as members of the newly named Council of Safety from Wilmington. (Connor p. 153-154). Harnett remained as head of the newly named Council of Safety. (Connor p. 157).
As we’ll see in the following article, it is quite obvious that Cornelius Harnett, as President of the Council of Safety, exercised far greater power than the power granted by the Fifth Provincial Congress in the Constitution for the newly created office of Governor.
Fifth Provincial Congress. (Nov. 12 to Dec. 23, 1776)
The fifth Provincial Congress also met at Halifax. Cornelius Harnett was elected as a delegate from Brunswick, after he relinquished his hold on the Wilmington borough in favor of his friend William Hooper. The Congress elected Richard Caswell as President. Harnett arrrived two days after the convention began on November 12, 1776 and was elected to a committee to frame “a Bill of Rights and form a Constitution for the government of this State” (Connor, p. 173-174).
With regard to the committee’s role in framing a Constitution, Connor gave this description of Harnett’s role opposing an effort to establish The Church of England as part of the new State government:
The debates on the Constitution have not been preserved and contemporary documents bearing on the subject are few and meager. But little, therefore, is known of the contributions made to it by individuals, and that little is chiefly a matter of tradition rather than of record. Tradition, supported by an occassional contemporary record, attributes Harnett a large share in the shaping of the Constitution. His contributions present him in the charateristic role of opposing religious and intellectual bigotry, and advocating a broader political freedom. He threw himself vigorously against the efforts of Samuel Johnston and his immediate followers to secure the establishment of the Church of England as part of the new State government. Tradition ascribes to him the authorship and adoption of the thirty-ninth article which declared “that there shall be no establishment of any one religious church or denomination in the State in preference to any other, but all persons shall be at liberty to exercise their own mode of worship” (Connor p. 174).
The strong effort by Harnett to eliminate a religious test for public office has been described as follows:
In keeping with this spirit was his attitude toward the famous thirty-second article. As originally drawn by Thomas Jones this article declared any person incapable of holding any office of trust or profit in the State who denied “the truth of the Protestant Episcopal Church or religion.” Harnett led the fight against this clause, but prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church was so strong that he could do no more than secure the rejection of the words “Episcopal Church” . More than half a century passed before religious toleration in the State reached the point where the word “Protestant” was discarded for the broader term “Christian,” and a still longer period, before Harnett’s views prevailed and the Constitution was purged altogether of religious bigotry. In 1776 such views were regarded as so extremely liberal that strict sectatrians among his contemporaries thought of Harnett as little better than an infidel. (Connor pp. 174-175).
After pointing out that neither the people nor the Assembly had control over the Royal Governor, Connor pointed out that he was really a representative of the Crown and not of the people or their representives. Connor then makes this observation about the powers to be granted to the Governor under the State Constitution:
In consequences of this system the people felt hampered in the only branch of the government in which they had a direct share, and chafed impatiently under the restriction. Accordingly when they came, under the leadership of Cornelius Harnett, to define the powers of their chief executive in the new State government, they were in a decidedly reactionary frame of mind. “What power, sir,” inquired one of Hooper’s constituents, “were conferred upon the governor?” “Power, replied Hooper, “to sign a receipt for his salary.” In truth the legislative branch now had the upper hand and the pendulum swung to the other extreme. (Connor p. 175-176).
Connor explains the extent of “the upper hand” of the legislative branch:
Not only was the governor shorn of most his most important powers; with every power conferred on him the Constitution coupled a restriction. He could take no important step without the advice and consent of the Council of State, and in the selection of counselors he had no voice. (Connor pp. 176-177).
Caswell was appointed Governor pursuant to the Constitution adopted by the Provincial Congress and expressed this displeasure in writing according to Connor:
Harnett had urged that spirited measures be adopted to fill up the State’s regiments for the spring campaign of 1778. ‘”My good friend, Mr. Harnett,” replied Caswell, in a letter addressed to Penn and Harnett, “knows that by the Constitution of this State, nothing can be done by the executive power of itself towards this most desirable purpose and that the General Asembly is not to meet until the month of April. (Connor p. 177)
It can certainly be argued that Harnett’s reaction to the abusive power of the Royal Governor, power that he had personally confronted, probably had led to his desire for severe restrictions on the powers of the Governor under North Carolina Constitution.
1. Connor, R. D. W. CORNELIUS HARNETT: AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY. Raleigh, N. C. : Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909. 1-209. [hereafter (Connor)] Print (& Web, digitized after copyright expired by Google at http://books.google.com/. For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books“.For an an expanded text describing how the first Provincial Congress came into being and action taken, pp. 77-83.
2. Wilmington-New Hanover Safety Comittee Minutes, 1774-1776, Ed. Leora H. McEachern and Isabel M. Williams, copyright 1974, Foreword by Lawrence Lee, the Citadel, p. xx.
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