Abner Nash (circa 1740 – 1786)

Written By Jeff Broadwater

 A well-known patriot, Abner Nash was the second governor of the state of North Carolina.  He served in that office during the darkest days of the American Revolution.

Born to an affluent family near Farmville, Virginia, Nash was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1757 and represented Prince Edward County in the House of Burgess in 1761 and 1762.  He soon moved to Halifax, North Carolina, where he was elected to the House of Commons.   In about 1772, he relocated to New Bern and established the Pembroke plantation on the Trent River.   He became active in the opposition to British imperial polices: he served on the Committee of Safety and in several other offices. In 1776, he helped draft the Halifax Resolves calling for independence from Great Britain and was elected speaker of the House of Commons.   Nash briefly served as speaker of the new state senate. 

The General Assembly elected Nash governor in April 1780 by what he later called  “a very large majority.”  North Carolina’s constitution had created a weak governor–a typical reaction to Americans’ unhappy experiences with their royal governors.  Nash had authority to manage the state’s financial accounts, grant  pardons, and impose temporary embargoes.  He also served as commander of the militia. He could make recess appointments when the legislature was not in session, but he had no real patronage to dispense and no veto power.  Dependent on the assembly for his election, he served a one-year term and was subject to impeachment on the broad ground of “Mal-Administration.”  Circumstances made his position even weaker.  His health was starting to fail, and as he began his term, Charleston, South Carolina came under siege from the British.  If Charleston were to fall, he warned the Continental Congress, “We are in no condition at present to repel such a force as the enemy have.”

Unhappily for Nash, Charleston surrendered in May 1780, and over 1,400 North Carolina soldiers were taken prisoner.  Nash initially welcomed the appointment of Horatio Gates, the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, to command American forces in the South, but Gates suffered a devastating defeat at Camden, South Carolina in  August.  Meanwhile, Nash struggled to organize the state’s defenses. In September 1780, Nash proposed that the assembly create a Board of War to assist him; he apparently envisioned it as a quasi-legislative body that could function between legislative sessions.  The lawmakers complied, creating a board “with very extensive powers,” but Nash and the board never worked well together.  The board assumed an executive role that asserted authority for the administration of state troops, directed troop movements, and communicated directly with officers in the field.   Competition between the governor and the board complicated mobilization.  Soon, Nash was complaining to the legislature that the Board of War had left him with “an empty title,” and he threatened to resign if the panel were not abolished.  The assembly granted his request and passed legislation extending his term until June 25, 1781, but he refused to seek reelection.

In May 1782, Nash was elected to the Continental Congress and served until his death on December 5, 1786.  Originally buried at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New York City, his remains were later moved to Pembroke.