The American Revolution in North Carolina

President Cornelius Harnett



Date should be April 28, 1781

Cornelius Harnett was born on April 20, 1723 in Chowan Precinct, NC, the son of Cornelius and Elizabeth Harnett. Soon after he was born, his parents moved to New Hanover Precinct not long after settlement was first authorized in the mid-1720s. They settled in what later became Brunswick County, NC.

Cornelius Harnett purchased a plantation in Wilmington and became a leading merchant there. He was also involved in farming and milling, and he owned and operated the first ferry across the Cape Fear River, connecting Brunswick Town with Wilmington.

In 1750 Harnett became involved in public affairs when he was elected Wilmington Town Commissioner. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace for New Hanover County by Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston.

Cornelius Harnett was first elected to represent the town of Wilmington in the North Carolina House of Burgesses, replacing Lewis Henry DeRosset, who was appointed to the Executive Council. He took his seat on the:
- 13th General Assembly - at the start of the second session on February 19, 1754
- 14th General Assembly that met from 1754-1760
- 15th General Assembly that met in 1760
- 16th General Assembly that met in 1761
- 17th General Assembly that met in 1762
- 18th General Assembly that met in 1762
- 19th General Assembly that met in 1764
- 20th General Assembly that met in 1765
- 21st General Assembly that met from 1766-1768
- 22nd General Assembly that met in 1769
- 23rd General Assembly that met from 1770-1771
- 24th General Assembly that met in 1771
- 25th General Assembly that met in 1773
- 26th General Assembly that met from 1773-1774
- 27th General Assembly that met in 1775

In 1765, Cornelius Harnett became the chairman of the Sons of Liberty, and was a leader in the resistance to the hated Stamp Act.

On February 19, 1766, one thousand armed "Sons of Liberty" men, led by Cornelius Harnett, marched to Brunswick Town and confronted Royal Governor William Tryon in protest of the Stamp Act.

In 1775, Cornelius Harnett was also once again elected to represent the town of Wilmington in the:
- 2nd Provincial Congress that met in April of 1775
- 3rd Provincial Congress that met in August of 1775
- 4th Provincial Congress that met in April of 1776

In 1776, Cornelius Harnett was elected to represent Brunswick County in the:
- 5th Provincial Congress that met in November of 1776

In 1775-1776, he served as the first President of the North Carolina Provincial Council, or Council of Safety, essentially the chief executive of the revolutionary state, although with limited powers. In 1776 he was excepted by Sir Henry Clinton from his proclamation of general amnesty. In August of 1776, he was succeeded by President Samuel Ashe.

As the Revolutionary War progressed North Carolinians wanted to explore further measures that should be taken to defend the state against the British. The North Carolina Provincial Congress established a committee, with Cornelius Harnett at the helm, to review the issue and steer North Carolina in the right direction. On April 12, 1776, the committee submitted the Halifax Resolves to the Provincial Congress. With a unanimous vote, North Carolina adopted the Resolves and then sent them to the Continental Congress.

In the fall of 1776, the fifth Provincial Congress of North Carolina convened with the purpose to write a state constitution for the new independent state. Harnett assisted in the drafting the constitution and its bill of rights. Although each of the colonies drafted versions of their own state constitutions, it was still important that they maintained unity. The Continental Congress continued to meet, and in the summer of 1777, Cornelius Harnett was chosen to be one of three North Carolina delegates sent north.

Harnett’s reputation as a revolutionary leader in his state preceded him, and with excitement many delegates anticipated Harnett’s arrival at the Continental Congress. Harnett soon wielded his influence on weighty matters. The Continental Congress focused attention on whether the thirteen colonies should formally unite and form a Confederation. Thomas Burke, one of the other North Carolina delegates, supported cooperation between states but disliked any formal unity among them. Harnett, however, encouraged states to create a formal union before making any foreign alliances. Such agreements, he predicted, were going to be vital in winning the War for American Independence.

In November of 1777 the Articles of Confederation was completed and sent to each of the states for ratification. In March of 1778, Cornelius Harnett sent the Articles along with a note urging Governor Richard Caswell and the North Carolina General Assembly to adopt the Articles lest there be continental confusion. In just one month, on April 24, 1778, the NC General Assembly ratified the Articles of Confederation.

Meanwhile, Harnett had been losing his personal battle with a severe case of gout. In December of 1779, he resigned from public life and returned to his plantation in Wilmington.

In 1781 he was captured by the British upon their occupation of Wilmington in January. His health steadily declined while imprisoned. He died April 28, 1781, shortly after being released on parole. He was buried in St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC.


Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF file of the book, entitled "Cornelius Harnett An Essay in North Carolina History," by R.D.W. Connor, published in 1909.

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