On the 22nd of March, 1765, the Stamp Act was passed. This act produced great excitement throughout the whole country, and no where was it more violently denounced than in North Carolina. The Legislature was then in session, and so intense and wide-spread was the opposition to this odious measure, that Governor Tryon, apprehending the passage of denunciatory resolutions, prorogued that body after a session of fifteen days. The speaker of the House, John Ashe, informed Governor Tryon that this law “would be resisted to blood and death.”
Early in the year 1766, the sloop-of-war, Diligence, arrived in the Cape Fear River, having on board stamp paper for the use of the province. The first appearance and approach of the vessel had been closely watched, and when it anchored before the town of Brunswick, on the Cape Fear, Col. John Ashe, of the county of New Hanover, and Col. Hugh Waddell, of the county of Brunswick, marched at the head of the brave sons of these counties to Brunswick, and notified the captain of their determination to resist the landing of the stamps. They seized one of the boats of the sloop, hoisted it on a cart, fixed a mast in her, mounted a flag, and marched in triumph to Wilmington. The inhabitants all joined in the procession, and at night the town was illuminated. On the next day, Col. Ashe, at the head of a great concourse of people, proceeded to the Governor’s house and demanded of him to desist from all attempts to execute the Stamp Act, and to produce to them James Houston, a member of the Council, who had been appointed Stamp Master for the Province. The Governor at first refused to comply with a demand so sternly made. But the haughty representative of kingly power had to yield before the power of an incensed people, who began to make preparations to set fire to his house. The Governor then reluctantly produced Houston, who was seized by the people, carried to the market house, and there compelled to take a solemn oath never to perform the duties of his office. After this he was released and conducted by a delighted crowd, to the Governor’s Palace. The people gave three cheers and quietly dispersed. Here we have recorded an act far more daring in its performance than that of the famous Tea Party of Boston, which has been celebrated by every writer of our national history, and
“Pealed and chimed on every tongue of fame.”
It is an act of the sons of the “Old North State,” not committed on the crew of a vessel, so disguised as to escape identity; but on royalty itself, occupying a palace, and in open day, by men of well known person and reputation.
Another event of great historic importance occurred during the administration of Governor Tryon. On the 16th of May, 1771, the battle of Alamance was fought. It is here deemed unnecessary to enter into a detail of the circumstances leading to this unfortunate conflict. Suffice it to say the Regulators, as they were called, suffered greatly by heavy exactions, by way of taxes, from the Governor to the lowest subordinate officer. They rose to arms–were beaten, but theirs was the “first blood shed” for freedom in the American colonies. Many true patriots, who did not comprehend the magnitude of their grievances, fought against them. But the principles of right and justice for which they contended could never die. In less than four years, all the Colonies were found battling for the same principles, and borne along in the rushing tide of revolution! The men on the seaboard of Carolina, with Cols. Ashe and Waddell at their head, had nobly opposed the Stamp Act in 1765, and prevented its execution; and in their patriotic movements the people of Orange sustained them, and called them the “Sons of Liberty.” Col. Ashe, in 1766, had led the excited populace in Wilmington, against the wishes and even the hospitality of the governor. The assembled patriots had thrown the Governor’s roasted ox, provided for a barbecue feast, untasted, into the river. Now, these patriotic leaders are found marching with this very Governor to subdue the “disciples of liberty” in the west. The eastern men looked for evils from across the waters, and were prepared to resist oppression on their shores before it should reach the soil of their State. The western men were seeking redress for grievances that oppressed them at home, under the misrule of the officers of the province, evils scarcely known in the eastern counties, and misunderstood when reported there. Had Ashe, and Waddell, and Caswell understood all the circumstances of the case, they would have acted like Thomas Person, of Granville. and favored the distressed, even though they might have felt under obligations to maintain the peace of the province, and due subordination to the laws. Herman Husbands, the head of the Regulators, has been denounced by a late writer, as a “turbulent and seditious character.” If such he was, then John Ashe and Hugh Waddell, for opposing the stamp law, were equally turbulent and seditious. Time, that unerring test of principles and truth, has proved that the spirit of liberty which animated the Regulators, was the true spirit which subsequently led to our freedom from foreign oppression.
On the 24th of May, Tryon, after committing acts of revenge, cruelty and barbarity succeeding the Alamance battle, returned to his palace at Newbern, and on the 30th took shipping for New York, over which State he had been appointed Governor. Josiah Martin was appointed by the crown, Tryon’s successor as Governor of North Carolina. He met the Legislature, for the first time, in the town of Newbern, in November, 1771. Had he lived in less troublesome times, his administration might have been peaceful and prosperous. Governor Martin had the misfortune to differ very soon with the lower House of the Assembly; and during the whole of his administration, these difficulties continued and grew in magnitude, helping, at last, to accelerate the downfall of the royal government. In this Assembly we find the names of a host of distinguished patriots, as John Ashe, Cornelius Harnett, “the Samuel Adams of North Carolina,” Samuel Johnson, Willie Jones, Joseph Hews, Abner Nash, John Harvey, Thomas Person, Griffith Rutherford, Abraham Alexander, Thomas Polk, and many others, showing that, at that early date, the Whig party had the complete control of the popular House of the Assembly, in accordance with the recommendation of Governor Martin, the veil of oblivion was drawn over the past unhappy troubles, and all the animosities and distinctions which they created. The year 1772 passed by without a meeting of the Assembly; and the only political event of any great importance, which occurred in the Province, was the election of members to the popular House. Such was the triumph of the Whig party, that in many of the counties there was no opposition to the election of the old leaders, nor could the Governor be said to have a party sufficiently powerful to effect an election before the people, or the passage of a bill before the Assembly. The Assembly, however, in consequence of two dissolutions by the Governor, did not convene in Newbern until the 25th of January, 1773, and the popular House illustrated its political character by the election of John Harvey to the office of Speaker. To this new Assembly many of the leading members of the House in 1771, were returned. Thomas Polk and Abraham Alexander were not members; the former having been employed in the service of the Governor, as surveyor, in running the dividing line between North and South Carolina, and the latter not having solicited the suffrages of the people. The county of Mecklenburg was, in the Assembly, represented by Martin Pheifer and John Davidson.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Harvey, laid before that body resolutions of the House of Burgess of Virginia (1773) of the 12th of March last; also, letters from the Speakers of the lower houses of several other provinces, requesting that a committee be appointed to inquire into the encroachments of England upon the rights and liberties of America. The House passed a resolution that “such example was worthy of imitation, by which means communication and concert would be established among the colonies; and that they will at all times be ready to exert their efforts to preserve and defend their rights.” John Harvey, (Speaker) Robert Howe, Cornelius Harnet, William Hooper, Richard Caswell, Edward Vail, John Ashe, Joseph Hewes and Samuel Johnston were this committee. This is the first record of a legislative character which led to the Revolution.
During the summer of 1774 the people in all parts of the province manifested their approbation of the proposed plan of calling a Congress or Assembly, to consult upon common grievances; and in nearly all the counties and principal towns meetings were held, and delegates appointed to meet in the town of Newbern on the 25th of August, 1774.
On the 13th of August, Governor Martin issued a proclamation complaining that meetings of the people had been held without legal authority, and that resolutions had been passed derogatory to the authority of the King and Parliament. He advised the people to forbear attending any such meetings, and ordered the King’s officers to oppose them to the utmost of their power. But the delegates of the people attended on the day appointed without any obstruction from the “king’s officers.” The proclamation of Governor Martin availed nothing. (“Vox et praeterea nil”.) Excited at this state of affairs, Governor Martin consulted his council on the steps most proper to be taken in the emergency. They advised him that “nothing further could be done.” This first Assembly, or Provincial Congress, independent of royal authority, in Newbern, on the 25th of August, 1774, is an important epoch in our history. It was the first act of that great drama of revolutionizing events which finally achieved our independence.
After the adjournment of this Provincial Congress Governor Martin visited New York, ostensibly for the “benefit of his health,” and, perhaps, for the benefit of his government. The tumults of the people at Newbern, that raged around him, and which threatened to overthrow his power, were, by his own confession, “beyond his control”; but he hoped the influence of Governor Tyron, who still governed New York, might assist him in restoring peace and authority in North Carolina. Vain, delusive hope, as the sequel proved!
The year 1775 is full of important events, only a few of which can be adverted to in this brief sketch. In February, 1775, John Harvey issued a notice to the people to elect delegates to represent them in a second Provincial Congress at Newbern on the 3rd of April, being the same time and place of the meeting of the Colonial Assembly. This roused the indignation of Governor Martin, and caused him to issue, on the 1st of March, 1775, his proclamation denouncing the popular Convention.
In his speech to the Assembly, Governor Martin expressed “his concern at this extraordinary state of affairs. He reminded the members of their oath of allegiance, and denounced the meeting of delegates chosen by the people, as illegal, and one that he should resist by every means in his power.” In the dignified reply of the House, the Governor was informed that the right of the people to assemble, and petition the throne for a redress of their grievances was undoubted, and that this right included that of appointing delegates for such purpose. The House passed resolutions approving of the proceedings of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia (4th of Sept. 1774) and declared their determination to use their influence in carrying out the views of that body. Whereupon, the Governor, by advice of his council, dissolved the Assembly, by proclamation, after a session of four days.
Thus ceased forever all legislative action and intercourse under the Royal government. Indeed, from the organization of the first Provincial Congress or Convention, in Newbern (Aug. 25th, 1774) composed of delegates “fresh from the people” the pioneers in our glorious revolution, until Governor Martin’s expulsion, North Carolina was enjoying and exercising an almost unlimited control of “separate governmental independence”. After the dissolution of the Assembly on the 8th of April, 1775, Governor Martin lingered only a few days, first taking refuge in Fort Jonston, and afterwards, on board of the ship of war, the Cruiser, anchored in the Cape Fear River. Only one more frothy proclamation (8th of Aug., 1775,) appeared from Governor Martin, against the patriotic leaders of North Carolina, issued this time, not from “the palace,” at Newbern, but from a “cruising” source and out-look, and on a river, whose very name typified the real origin of his departure, and present retirement.
These glimpses of the colonial history of North Carolina, necessary to a proper understanding of the following sketches, will serve to illustrate, in a limited degree, the character of her people, and their unyielding opposition to all unjust exactions, and encroachment of arbitrary power. While these stirring transactions were transpiring in eastern Carolina, the people of Mecklenburg county moved, in their sovereign capacity, the question of independence, and took a much bolder, and more decided stand than the Colonial or Continental Congress had as yet assumed. This early action of that patriotic county, effected after mature deliberation, is one of the ever memorable transactions of the State of North Carolina, worthy of being cherished and honored by every lover of patriotism to the end of time. The public mind had been much excited at the attempts of Governor Martin to prevent the meeting of the Provincial Congress at Newbern, and his arbitrary conduct in dissolving the Assembly, when only in session four days, leaving them unprotected by courts of law, and without the present opportunity of finishing many important matters of legislation. In this state of affairs, the people began to think that, since the proper, lawful authorities failed to perform their legitimate duty, it was time to provide safe-guards for themselves, and to throw off all allegiance to powers that cease to protect their liberties, or their property.
A late author has truly said, “Men will not be fully able to understand North Carolina until they have opened the treasures of history, and become familiar with the doings of her sons, previous to the revolution; during that painful struggle; and the succeeding years of prosperity. Then will North Carolina be respected as she is known.” ((Foote’s Sketches Of North Carolina, P. 83.))