The Executive Councils of Royal Governors



George Burrington

1731 to 1734

Gabriel Johnston

1734 to 1752

Nathaniel Rice

1752 to 1753

Matthew Rowan

1753 to 1754

Arthur Dobbs

1754 to 1763

William Tryon

1763 to 1771

James Hassell


Josiah Martin

1771 to 1775

Click Here for the Executive Councils during the Lord Proprietors Rule in North Carolina.

In 1731, Governor George Burrington began his second term, this time as a "Royal Governor," full of high hopes and promise to really make things happen in North Carolina. Although the Crown selected most members of his Executive Council, he was permitted to select two or three. Some never left England and he soon appointed new members after his arrival in the province. It was not long before things became quite contentious between Governor Burrington and most of the members of the Executive Council, and the Crown soon learned that they needed to replace him.

Similarly, the second Royal Governor, Gabriel Johnston, came to the province with great expectations. He inherited an Executive Council that seemed quite cordial and friendly - most were simply glad to be rid of Governor Burrington - again. But again, they soon learned that Royal Governors had much more desire to lead the colony than they had expected, and it took quite a while for "the executive branch" to begin to work fairly smoothly in North Carolina.

Governor Gabriel Johnston was not big on transmitting copies of his governmental records to London. From 1743 to 1747, only eight (8) of sixty-nine (69) known Executive Council meetings were sent across the sea. No minutes are extant from March 7, 1747 to March 21, 1748, yet it is almost certain that the Executive Council met during this period.

During George Burrington's tenure as a Royal Governor, he issued zero (0) new patents for land due to Crown instructions. In contrast, Governor Gabriel Johnston opened up a new Land Office soon after his arrival in 1734, and land could be acquired either by headright or purchased. It is estimated that from 1664 to 1768, there were some 11,000 grants of land in North Carolina, roughly equal to three million (3,000,000) acres parceled out to new settlers.

The Executive Council had no real existence without the Governor, who convened it when he saw fit and where he saw fit, and he presided over it, sometimes with a firmness that many resented. Conversely, the governor had very few powers of his own without the concurrence of his Executive Council. It was a two-way street often met with gridlock. Sound familiar?

The greatest amount of time spent by the Executive Councils was on "land issues." The Governor and Executive Council could issue Patents for new land grants, but only the Governor could sign/approve the final Warrant. As the population increased, more and more patents/warrants were necessary, and as things progressed there turned out to be quite a few conflicting claims, with the correction of many errors, and the corrections of more than a few bad surveys. The next largest time consumer for the Executive Council was in the appointing of civil officers for each precinct - men refused to serve, they died, or they abused their official powers and had to be replaced.

The Executive Council was also tasked to audit accounts, settle rates of exchange, concur on proclamations, establish fees, order prosecutions, and to adjudicate issues with estates and other probate problems.

Each Royal Governor's commission and instructions prescribed only a few rules for conducting Executive Council meetings. Since twelve (12) members were authorized, the number constituting a quorum was also specified. The governor was to allow the free flow of ideas and the freedom to debate and vote on specific issues without recriminations. Decisions of the Executive Council were to be read and approved in open meetings before being entered into the journals. And finally, a majority was required to affirm most civil office appointments.

The Crown did not specify the frequency of Executive Council meetings, rules of debate, or the details required to be included in each journal record. Vacancies could only be permanently filled by a "mandamus" - a warrant from the King. In 1735, William Forbes and James Innes were appointed by the Privy Council and Board of Trade, but they could not take their seats for over a year because they failed to get the proper mandamus. As in earlier times, a governor could appoint new Members of the Executive Council to reach a majority (seven), but these temporary appointments had to secure a mandamus to keep their seats permanently.

Over time, questions have been raised as to the reliability and completeness of Executive Council records found in the available journals. Opponents to Governor George Burrington alleged that he misrepresented many items contained in the Executive Council Journal in order to hoodwink officials in London. Henry McCulloch charged that Governor Gabriel Johnson kept several items of important information from being recorded.

At first, Governor Arthur Dobbs got along with his Executive Council and the General Assembly. By the late 1750s, things had definitely soured. (sound familiar?) His political appointments to family members and Irish cousins, including the Henry McCulloch clan, really irritated the locals. His enemies used the Enfield Riots to press their arguments that Governor Dobbs was unfit to lead the province, and he narrowly escaped a recall in 1760.

From 1755 to 1775, twenty-eight (28) men served on the Executive Council, which was required to have a full complement of twelve (12) men at any given point in time since the Crown took over in 1729. Of these twenty-eight (28) men, only about half were actually appointed by the Crown. The other half was appointed by governors, usually due to a member dying.

Governor Arthur Dobbs suspended John Rutherford and James Murray in 1757 for issuing illegal notes that they purported to be legal tender. He also suspended Francis Corbin in 1760 for non-attendance.

Due to terrible traveling conditions and relative great distances often separating members of the Executive Council from the named location for each meeting did little to encourage faithful attendance. It has been estimated that from 1755 to 1775, attendance in the Executive Council averaged only about 53%.

During the last Royal Governor's tenure - Josiah Martin - James Hassell, Alexander McCulloch, Thomas McGuire, John Sampson, and Samuel Strudwick proved to be either neutral or lukewarm to the Patriot cause. Governor Martin suspended William Dry for his Patriot leanings just days before the final Executive Council meeting was held - July 18, 1775 - on board the sloop HMS Cruizer. Those with definite Loyalist sympathies were Samuel Cornell, Lewis Henry De Rosset, Martin Howard, and John Rutherfurd. All later submitted claims for compensation by the British after the American Revolution.

Most of the information in this section comes from "Records of the Executive Council 1664-1734," "Records of the Executive Council 1734-1754," and "Records of the Executive Council 1755-1775," edited by Robert J. Cain, and published by the North Carolina State Archives between 1984 and 1994. These excellent books provide great details on most meetings of this long-standing group. Only summaries are provided in this website.
Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF file of the book, entitled "The Governor, Council, and Assembly in Royal North Carolina," by C.S. Cooke, published in 1912. This file also includes a short essay on "Land Tenure in Proprietary North Carolina," by L.N. Morgan.

© 2004-2024 - J.D. Lewis - All Rights Reserved