If fortune had smiled more brightly at her, North Carolina, rather than Virginia, might have been the first of the permanent British colonies in America. In 1584 Queen Elizabeth I issued a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in America. “[F]ull authoritie, libertie and power” was conferred upon Raleigh and his heirs and assigns to colonize America. Expressly included in the queen’s grant of authority was the “power and authoritie to correct, punish, pardon, gouerne, and rule” the colony according to “such statutes, lawes and ordinances” that Raleigh and his heirs and assigns deemed necessary for the “better government” of the colony. However, Raleigh was to govern “as neere as conueniently may be” in accordance with the laws of England, and he was prohibited from acting contrary to the interests of the crown.
Raleigh made five attempts to settle America. The first landed on Roanoke Island in 1585—the first English colony in America. The settlers experienced the dangers of the frontier, including starvation and death. Some returned to England for supplies, but the colony could not be saved. Raleigh dispatched a second group to Roanoke Island. This attempt became known as the “Lost Colony”; since then no one has been able to discover what happened to it. Raleigh’s subsequent efforts to colonize America were equally unsuccessful. His benefactor, Queen Elizabeth, died in 1603. Her successor, King James I, was convinced that Raleigh had conspired to prevent his ascension to the throne. Raleigh was soon convicted of treason: he lost not only his freedom but also his rights to colonize America.
King James I died in 1625 and was succeeded by Charles I. King Charles I reigned until 1649, when he was beheaded and England came under the control of Parliament and the Cromwells. The Interregnum ended in 1660, when Charles II ascended to the throne. King Charles II owed an enormous debt to his friends who helped restore the monarchy, so he rewarded eight of them with a grant of land that included what is now North and South Carolina. The Charter of Carolina of 1663 described the eight men as
our right trusty, and right well beloved cousins and counsellors, Edward Earl of Clarendon, our high chancellor of England, and George Duke of Albermarle, master of our horse and captain general of all our forces, our right trusty and well beloved William Lord Craven, John Lord Berkley, our right trusty and well beloved counsellor, Anthony Lord Ashley, chancellor of our exchequer, Sir George Carteret, knight and baronet, vice chamberlain of our household, and our trusty and well beloved Sir William Berkley, knight, and Sir John Colleton, knight and baronet.
These eight men, and their heirs and assigns, were identified by the charter as “the true and absolute Lords Proprietors” of Carolina. They were to “have, use, exercise, and enjoy” the colony “in as ample a manner as any bishop of Durham in our kingdom of England.” This meant that the Lords Proprietors possessed broad feudal powers to profit from the colony and bore the considerable responsibility of managing and protecting it in the interests of England. They were conferred “full and absolute power . . . for the good and happy government of the said province,” including the power of “enacting . . . laws” (the legislative power), to “duly execute [the laws] upon all people within the said province” (the executive power), and to impose “penalties, imprisonment or any other punishment” (the judicial power).
The 1663 Charter also included many other provisions. The Lords Proprietors were permitted to delegate their governmental powers to “deputies, lieutenants, judges, justices, magistrates, officers and members” of their choosing. As extensive as the Lords Proprietors’ powers were, the 1663 Charter included a number of provisions designed to guard against the abuse of those powers. For example, all laws were supposed to be enacted with the “advice, assent and approbation of the freemen of the said province, or of the greater part of them, or of their delegates or deputies.” (This said, the charter specified that the Lords Proprietors did not need to obtain the freemen’s “advice, assent, or approbation” if it was not “convenient” to call an assembly.) Laws likewise were required to be “consonant to reason, and as near as may be conveniently, agreeable to the laws and customs of this our kingdom of England.” Prospective colonists were to be guaranteed “all liberties, franchises and priviledges of this our kingdom of England” and be able to “possess and enjoy” them “without the least molestation, vexation, trouble or grievance.” Religious toleration was to be afforded to those “Who really in their Judgments, and for Conscience sake” could not conform to the ritual and beliefs of the established Church of England.
In time, the Lords Proprietors discovered that a valuable northern portion of what they thought was part of their proprietorship was outside of it. They appealed to King Charles II to confer the land in question to them, and in 1665 an amendment was made to the Charter of Carolina that stated the king was “graciously pleased to enlarge our said grant unto them.” The northern boundary was extended to what is now the approximate North Carolina-Virginia border. The remainder of the Charter of Carolina of 1665 was an almost exact duplicate of the 1663 Charter.
In 1729 seven of the eight Lords Proprietors (the only exception being Sir George Carteret) sold their shares of North Carolina to the crown. North Carolina thereby became a royal colony, and remained under royal control until the American Revolution.
Hugh T. Lefler and William S. Powell, Colonial North Carolina: A History (New York, 1973); Benjamin Perley Poore, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States (Washington, D.C., 1878), 1382-90, 1390-97.