Provincial Council

The Provincial Council was created by the Third Provincial Congress (August 20 – September 10, 1775) when it created a new government to succeed the local committees of safety system that had operated on the local level while both the Assembly (royal) and the Provincial Congress were in existence.  The local Committees of Safety, like the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety led by Cornelius Harnett, continued under the newly created provincial  government but each was subject to a district committee of safety from one of six military districts, which in turn was subject to the newly created Provincial Council.  1

According to historian Connor:

The Provincial Council was the chief executive authority of the new government.  It was to be composed of thirteen members, one elected by the Congress for the province at large, and two from each of the military districts.  Vacancies occurring during the recess of Congress were to be filled by the committee of safety for the district in which the vacancy fell.  Military officers, except officers of the militia, were ineligible for membership.  The members were to qualify by subscribing the oath prescribed for members of Congress.  The Council was to meet once every three months, and a majority of the members was to constitute a quorum.  (Connor, p. 109)

The power of the Provincial Council to act on behalf of the North Carolina Colony was extensive.  Connor details the power granted to it by the Congress as follows:

Authority was given to them to direct the military operations of the province, to call out the militia when needed, and to execute the acts of the Assembly that were still in force with respect to the militia.  They could issue commissions, suspend officers, order courts-martial, reject officers of the militia chosen by the people, and fill vacancies.  But their real power lay in a sort of “general welfare” clause which empowered them “to do and transact of such matters and things as they may judge expedient to strengthen, secure and defend the colony.”  (Connor, p. 109)

Connor points out the clear chain of command that led back to the people’s representatives, the Provincial Congress, and not to the British King  or his minions:

To carry out their powers, they were authorized to draw on the public treasury for such sums of money as they needed, for which they were accountable to Congress.  In all matters they were given an appellate jurisdiction over the district committees, and in turn were subject to the authority of Congress.  Their authority continued on during the recess of Congress and Congress at each session was to review and pass upon their proceedings.  (Connor p. 109-110)

“Such was the government that was to organize, equip and direct military forces raised by Congress and to inaugurate the great war was about to burst over the colony” (Connor p. 110).  At the organizational meeting of the Provincial Council, Connor describes the ascent of Cornelius Harnett to the office of President of the Council as follows:

On October 18th, the Council held its first session at Johnston Court House.  ‘Among its members,’ says Bancroft, ‘were Samuel Johnston; Samuel Ashe, a man whose integrity even his enemies never questioned, whose name a mountain county and the fairest town in the western part of the commonwealth keep in memory; Abner Nash, an eminent lawyer, described by Martin as ‘the oracle of the committee of New Bern, and a principal supporter of sedition;’ but on neither [sic] of these three did the choice of president fall:  that office of peril and power was bestowed unanimously on Cornelius Harnett, of New Hanover, whose earnestness of purpose, and disinterested, unquenchable zeal had made him honored as the Samuel Adams of North Carolina. (Connor p. 111)

The defeat of the Tories at Moore’s Creek Bridge occurred on February 26, 1776.  Historian Connor points out that  General McDonald and the Tories who were to link up with Clinton and Cornwallis forces at the Cape Fear were defeated at Moore’s Creek Bridge before they reached their destination.   Connor points out that this was a defeat for royal Governor Martin who had designed the plan:

The victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge was the crowning achievement of The Provincial Council.  But for the sleepless vigilance and resourceful energy of President Harnett and his colleagues in organizing, arming and equipping the troops, McDonald’s march down the Cape Fear would have been but a holiday excursion.  As it was, Governor Martin again measured strength with the people, and again was beaten.  Clinton and Cornwallis came with their powerful armaments, but finding no loyalist force to welcome them at Cape Fear, they sailed away to beat in vain at the doors of Charleston.  (Connor p. 118)

Before Harnett became President of the Provincial Council on October 18, 1775, he, acting as head of the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of safety, had organized the action that led to Governor Martin abandoning Fort Johnston for safety on the British vessel Cruizer before Colonel Robert Howe set the fort on fire.  The orders to destroy Fort Johnston were issued by Cornelius Harnett as head of the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety.  (Connor pp. 159-160).  This was before the government was reorganized and when local committees of safety could act on their own.  After Governor Martin abandoned his office and upon Harnett’s election as President of the Council on October 18, 1775, the state was without a governor.   Harnett therefore became  the de facto Governor of North Carolina since he held the highest office in the state  when the Provincial Congress was not in session.  It is a matter of record that the Provincial Congress was a body that met for for only 109 days during the three year  period 1974-76 or just over 36 days a year.  Understanding the defeat of Governor Martin at Fort Johnston, coupled with Harnett’s successful leadership in North Carolina seeking independence from Britain, helps in understanding why Governor Martin was embarrassed and recommended that Harnett be proscribed [declared an outlaw].  (Connor pp. 100-101 & 159-160)


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, pp. 104-106.   For additional information on how to access this digital version, see reference to this book under menu item “Resources/Books“.

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