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Who was Cornelius Harnett?

Ben Steelman

Hailed as “The Samuel Adams of North Carolina” (by Josiah Quincy Jr.) and “the Pride of the Cape Fear,” Cornelius Harnett (1723-1781) was one of the most important Patriot leaders, not just in the region but in the American South. North Carolina’s Harnett County, New Hanover County’s Harnett Precinct and Harnett Street and Cornelius Harnett Drive in Wilmington are all named for him.

Born April 20, 1723 in Chowan County, N.C., near Edenton, Harnett was the son of Cornelius Harnett Sr., who immigrated from Dublin, Ireland, to North Carolina, where he acquired an estate worth 7,000 pounds sterling. In 1726, after the elder Harnett ran afoul of the colonial governor, the family relocated to Brunswick County, where the elder Harnett operated a Cape Fear River ferry and a tavern. In 1748, according to historian Alan D. Watson, young Cornelius seems to have joined the local militia to repel Spanish privateers who attacked Brunswick.

By 1750, Harnett had relocated to Wilmington, where he founded a number of business interests. He owned property in the Scotts Hill area, at what later became Poplar Grove Plantation; in 1773, with William Wilkinson, he operated a rum distillery between what are now Walnut and Red Cross streets. At various times, he owned mills, a wharf, a warehouse and a schooner.

Harnett also very quickly became involved in local politics. Almost as soon as he arrived, he was elected a Wilmington town commissioner, for the first of what seem to have been many terms. In 1751, he was named a justice of the peace for New Hanover County. In 1760, when Wilmington was promoted to borough status, he was named an alderman. He was Wilmington’s first delegate to North Carolina’s provincial Assembly, and he continued to serve in the Assembly, almost continuously, until 1775. In the Assembly, he was among the most active committeemen; in 1764, he, John Harvey and Maurice Moore were named to a committee to plan protests of the British Sugar Act and Stamp Act.

The Stamp Act crisis brought Harnett to the fore. He became chairman of the local Sons of Liberty. Along with Hugh Waddell and John Ashe, he led a citizens’ march in February 1766 to Gov. William Tryon’s residence at Russelborough, outside Brunswick Town, and he served as a spokesman in talks with the governor over the release of William Pennington, a stamp act collector, who was in Russelborough as a virtual prisoner. In 1770, he served on a local committee to enforce non-importation resolutions as a protest of the British Townshend Act duties. In 1773, he helped organize North Carolina’s Committee for Correspondence and Enquiry. When the Wilmington Safety Committee formed in November 1774, Harnett was elected its first president, and when the Wilmington and New Hanover committees of the safety merged in January 1775, Harnett was president of the new body as well.

Harnett was a delegate to North Carolina’s Second, Third and Fourth Provincial Congresses in 1775 and 1776, and he served as president of the Fifth Provincial Congress.

In April 1776, he chaired a committee which drafted what became known as the “Halifax Resolves,” instructing North Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress to seek independence from Great Britain. He also served on a committee that drafted the state’s first constitution; tradition credits him with authoring that constitution’s strong guarantees of religious liberty.

After the royal governor, Josiah Martin, fled North Carolina in 1775, Harnett was elected a delegate to the Provincial Council of Safety, to set up a new provisional government, and he served as its first president in 1775 and 1776 — making him, in effect, governor in all but name. Tradition holds that Harnett personally read aloud the Declaration of Independence when it was first presented to the people of North Carolina on Aug. 1, 1776 in Halifax, the provisional state capital. After the election of Richard Caswell as the state’s first non-royal governor, Harnett served as president of the seven-member Council of State, an elected advisory body.

Harnett’s importance to the Patriot cause was attested by the British general Sir Henry Clinton. On May 5, 1775, while off the coast of North Carolina, Clinton issued a proclamation offering a full pardon to all North Carolina citizens who would lay down their arms and submit to British authority. The only individuals excepted from this offer were Harnett and Robert Howe, a major general in the Continental Army.

Harnett served as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia from 1777 to 1780, helping to draft and ratify the Articles of Confederation. He returned home in February 1781, ill and nearly crippled by severe gout.

When the British under Maj. James Craig occupied Wilmington early in 1781, Harnett fled the town, carrying a large sum of cash for the state government. British soldiers pursued him, however, and finally captured him at the James Spicer plantation. He was returned to Wilmington, “thrown across a horse like a sack of meal,” and imprisoned, in winter weather, in an open blockhouse. His condition rapidly worsened and, although paroled by the British, he died on April 28, 1781.

Harnett was buried in the churchyard of St. James Church, where he had been a vestryman. It has been suggested, however, that Harnett was a Deist in his sympathies, like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — an assumption underlined by his epitaph: “Slave to no sect, he took no private road, / But looked through nature up to nature’s God” (a paraphrase of a couplet from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”). An active Mason, Harnett also served as deputy grand master of the grand lodge of North America.

Harnett’s home at his plantation, Maynard (renamed Hillton, and later Hilton, after his death), stood on the present site of the City of Wilmington’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. Photographs taken in 1892, shortly before its demolition, show it to have been a substantial, two-story Georgian manor house — and in remarkably fine condition up until the end.

No portraits survive of Harnett, but he was described by contemporaries as standing about 5 feet 9 inches tall, of slender build, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He and his wife, the former Mary Holt, apparently had no children.

A granite obelisk in Harnett’s memory was erected in 1906, in the median at Fourth and Market streets in Wilmington by the North Carolina Society of Colonial Dames.

In the 1960s, Harnett’s tombstone was severely damaged during a flawed restoration effort. Through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Charles G. Rose III and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, a matching slab of granite was located in Massachusetts, and a replica headstone was installed on Feb. 21, 1976 in St. James’ churchyard.

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4 Responses to “ Who was Cornelius Harnett?”

  1. On November 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm Maxville Burt Williams wrote:

    Good article
    Maxville Burt Williams author of First For Freedom

  2. On December 1, 2009 at 3:38 pm Maxville Burt Williams wrote:

    You have done a great piece of work for one of our great
    Patriots. You should be highly commended for your work.
    Maxville Burt Williams

  3. On January 1, 2010 at 6:57 am Kyle Harnett wrote:

    Did Cornelius Harnett have any siblings? My name is Kyle Harnett, born and raised is Tampa, Florida. I been interested as to any possible relationship for years. Is there any place where I might search?
    Happy New Year,

    Kyle Harnett

  4. On April 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm Phillip Ó'Baoighealláin wrote:

    Does anyone have a picture of this great patriot?
    If so I would like to see if we could add a photo to this thread so people know what the great man looked like.

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