His Relationship with Mrs. Harnett

The relationship that Corneilius Harnett had with his wife Mary appears to have been close, even while he was serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  This becomes apparent upon a review of letters that he sent to his business associate William Wilkerson.  Eight letters to Wilkerson appear in the Colonial Records dated between June 13, 1777 and March 18, 1778. 1

Each of these letters that went to Wilkerson contained either a reference to her or a request to deliver to her a message or letter.  Expression such as “Let Mrs. Harnett know that I am well,” 2  or “I have no time to write to anybody but you and Mrs. Harnett,” 3 or “I only trouble you with a Letter to Mrs. Harnett” were typical.” 4  He indicated a second time that he was writing directly to his wife for in another letter he said to Mr. Wilkerson:  “I sent you, Mrs. Harnett, Mr. Hooper & Mr. MacLaine particular accounts of the Battles of Brandywine & German Town.” 5

A letter to Wilkerson dated July 20, 1777 is fascinating and indicated his concern for her:

I was Inoculated at Port Tobacco & had the Disorder very favourably–my arm continues very sore & inflamed, indeed so bad I can not wear a Coat, & has prevented my attending Congress tho’ I arrived here the 18th –Inclosed is a Letter for Mrs. Harnett which I must beg the favour of you to have well smoked with Brimstone as she is very fearful of the small Pox.  I put all my Letters in the Sun for an hour before I seal them and am very certain the infection cannot be conveyed in a letter so far but it is best to be cautious. 6

Another letter to Wilkerson dated December 28, 1777 inidicated his dependence on her.  He wrote to Wilkerson:

Tell Mrs. Harnett (for I forgot to mention it to her) that 2 or three Gallons of Pickled Oysters would be the greatest rarity she could send me.  I have not tasted one since I left home–also a few dryed fish of any kind a dozen or two, if they even stank, they would be pleaseing, I am heartily tired of eating the flesh of four footed animals. 7

Apparently Wilkerson’s nephew was with Harnett while he was in attendance at the Continental Congress in Philadephia when Harnett sent this message to Wilkerson, indicating that he was deferring to his wife regarding plans for the young man:

I shall bring your nephew home with me, as I do not think it prudent to leave him at present in this Country; indeed the schools in general are broke up — perhaps he may be sent to Mecklinburg, to be of advantage to him.  If Mrs. Harnett will consent I will send Nelly with him, but this we can conclude upon after my return. 8

The Colonial Records that form the basis for this article were not in the original handwriting of Harnett but were typewritten.  Even so  the reproduction shows a flow of language that is typical of hastily scrawled letters by a very busy man to his business partner.  While not the apparent main purpose, the letters do indicate that he had a close and good working relationship with his wife.  Unlike representatives of the 21st century who fly to the capitol on Monday and back home on Friday, delegate Cornelius Harnett was in Philadelphia for the duration of the Congress and was staying in touch with his wife.


1.  Documenting the American South [DocSou], “The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina”, State Records, 1776-1790, a digital collection, copyright 2004, by the University Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Letters from Cornelius Harnett to William Wilkerson,  Volume 11 (1776-1777 with supplement 1730-1776),  pages 729-730; 762-763; 785-786; 801-802, 808-810, 825-827;  Volume 13 (1778-1779), pages 381-382. http://doc.south.unc.edu/csr – As of 11 September 2013, this hyperlink could not be accessed.  Whether it was a subscription site when originally accessed is a likely issue.

2.  DocSou, supra, vol 11,  p. 730

3. DocSou, supra, p. 786

4. DocSou, supra, p. 801

5. DocSou, supra, p. 808

6. DocSou, supra, p. 741

7.  DocSou, supra, p. 827

8.  DocSou, supra, volume 13, p. 382

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