Voices from the Past

A North Carolina History

During your study of the American Revolution, states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut will be mentioned again and again. So what about North Carolina? Where were North Carolinians while the seeds of revolution were being sown in the North?

The history you're about to read will show you not only how North Carolina contributed to the American Revolution, but also how North Carolina made her own strides towards independence…

 EPISODE 1: Speaking Out Against Taxes

Through the mid 1700s, America was considered Britain's "child." As more British people came to live in America, Britain began thinking of ways to get some money from them.

So in October 1763, Britain decided to make a new rule: they drew a line at the western edge of the east coast. Everyone who was inside the line would have to pay some new taxes.

The first taxes were for sugar and tea. North Carolinians didn't mind those too much, but when Britain imposed what they called "the Stamp Act," they were very angry. Under the Stamp Act, passed in March 1765, any legal document, newspaper, pamphlet, and even playing cards had to carry stamps, which, of course, the colonists had to pay for.

This tax affected North Carolina far more than the ones on sugar and tea. North Carolina had a major import industry, so they would have to buy stamps for their shipping documents. So in October, about 500 angry people gathered near Wilmington to protest the tax. They named themselves "The Sons of Liberty."

North Carolina's governor, William Tryon, begged the Sons of Liberty not to protest the Stamp Act. But they refused. They didn't want Britain to think they didn't mind the taxes.

EPISODE 2: What Did North Carolina's Government Look Like?

You might be wondering why the governor would try to enforce a British law. Before the Revolutionary War, the governor of the colonies was a British citizen, while the members of the General Assembly were American. So the General Assembly and the governor disagreed quite often. However, since America was considered Britain's colony, the British government felt that they had the right to make laws for the Americans.

So each state governor had more power than any other person in the American government. He didn't even have to ask the General Assembly's permission to do anything; he could just do whatever he wanted. And if the General Assembly didn't agree with him, he had the right to fire them.

Something else was going on in North Carolina's politics, as well as in the other states. The citizens were split into two groups: Tories, who were loyal to Britain and felt the states should follow the rules; and Whigs, who were more rebellious and really wanted to be able to decide things for themselves.

The Sons of Liberty in Cape Fear kept protesting the Stamp Act until one day in 1766 they gathered hundreds of people in Brunswick, where British authorities were keeping two ships from passing through the port because their papers did not have stamps. After boarding the British ship, the Sons of Liberty forced the captain to let the ships go. The next day, an angry mob stormed the governor's residence, demanding the resignation of the comptroller of customs, the person who enforced the Stamp Act. Two years later, Britain repealed the Stamp Act.

EPISODE 3: The Beginnings of Revolution

The Townshend Act was the next tax to make the colonists angry. This Act taxed imports like wine, tea, paper, glass and lead. In November 1768, Speaker John Harvey and the North Carolina General Assembly spoke out about how bad the Townshend Act was. Harvey asserted, "Free men cannot legally be taxed but by themselves or their representatives." Although Britain repealed all taxes except the one on tea, they continued to try to tax the colonies.

In May 1771, North Carolinians had had enough. Several men got together and formed a group called the Regulators, vowing to protest any tax that Britain imposed on them. They protested quietly at first, but no one noticed them. So they began starting riots, which got Governor Tryon's attention.

However, it wasn't the kind of attention they wanted—Governor Tryon put a military force together to squash the Regulation. In the ferocious Battle of Alamance, the militia defeated the Regulators, and several Regulator leaders were hanged some months later.

The final straw came in 1773, when the next governor, Josiah Martin, vetoed a property bill that the General Assembly wanted to pass. In fact, Governor Martin created a new group of courts to make sure the General Assembly did not pass any bill without his permission. The next year, when the new Continental Congress was choosing delegates, Governor Martin would not permit members of his General Assembly to join the Congress.

EPISODE 4: Steps Toward Independence

Furious, the NC General Assembly created the First Provincial Congress, consisting of 71 delegates and John Harvey as moderator. In spite of Governor Martin's several attempts to stop the new congress, members of the congress elected people to the Second Continental Congress and even established a Council of Safety, the first independent form of government North Carolina had known.

In 1775, the new government took more steps towards independence by drafting a Declaration of Independence in Mecklenburg. Since Governor Martin began to realize that the colonists were serious about opposing Britain, he left America and fled to Britain. And he was right. In July, Cornelius Harnett, John Ashe and Robert Howe led a group of minutemen to take Fort Johnston out of British control.

Even though North Carolina was taking serious steps toward independence, citizens were not sure they wanted to be completely free of their mother country. So when Benjamin Franklin proposed a colonial confederation, the Third Provincial Congress in North Carolina rejected it. However, they knew that war was coming, so they began putting a military force together.

But Governor Martin did not completely stay out of North Carolina's business. In January 1776, he approached Lord Charles Cornwallis to try to crush the rebellion in North Carolina.  In February, a large force loyal to the British prepared to invade North Carolina. At Moore's Creek Bridge, Whig forces defeated the British army, and North Carolina enjoyed some peace for about four years.

EPISODE 5: A New Government

In the meantime, North Carolinians began putting together a new government free of Britain's influence. In August 1776, the president of the Council of Safety read the North Carolina Declaration of Independence in public for the first time.

After the election of a Fifth Provincial Congress, the Whigs argued over what a new government in North Carolina should look like. Some wanted a strong executive branch and property limits to determine who could run for office; others wanted a strong legislative branch and no limits on who could run.

The new government had some aspects of both. The governor had virtually no power, and the only people who could vote or run for office were those that had property and were Protestant. That's why the governor did not have veto power until the General Assembly passed a Constitutional amendment a few years ago allowing him veto power.

The first General Assembly met on April 7, 1777 and elected Richard Caswell as the first true North Carolina governor.

EPISODE 6: Peace Ends in North Carolina

Between 1776 and 1780, North Carolina helped neighbors Virginia and South Carolina fight off the British. By helping them, they were also able to keep the British out of North Carolina.

However, in September 1780, the peace in North Carolina was over. Lord Cornwallis entered North Carolina, planning to march to Charlotte. Governor Martin, still interested in defeating the North Carolinians, declared a British victory after Cornwallis crossed the North Carolina border.

But his triumphant call was a bit premature. Cornwallis's armies were defeated first at King's Mountain and then at Cowpens. After Cowpens, Cornwallis proceeded to Guilford Court House, where he lost many men to North Carolina's forces led by Nathanael Greene. Nevertheless, Cornwallis said his army had beaten the North Carolina army as he and his forces retreated to Wilmington to recruit more men.

After Cornwallis left North Carolina on his way to Yorktown, Greene and other North Carolinians reclaimed several cities and ports from British control. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

The Revolutionary War was over, but North Carolina's troubles would go on for several years. Tory and Whig battles, in addition to political bickering, would plague North Carolina for quite some time.