Cornelius Harnett

Written By Kellie Slappey

Cornelius Harnett was an American merchant, farmer, and statesman from Wilmington, North Carolina.  He was a leading American revolutionary in the Cape Fear region and a delegate for North Carolina in the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779.

Cornelius Harnett was born on April 10, 1723 in Chowan County, to Cornelius and Elizabeth Harnett, who had immigrated from Dublin, Ireland. Soon after Harnett’s birth his parents moved to what is now called Brunswick County. Cornelius Harnett spent his childhood and adolescent years near the Cape Fear River and developed interests in farming and milling.

As an adult, Cornelius Harnett purchased a plantation in Wilmington, became a leading merchant, and became involved in public affairs in 1750, when he was elected to the Wilmington town commission. His natural talent for politics served him well, and his reputation and influence spread rapidly throughout the colony.  In 1754, Harnett was elected to serve as Wilmington’s first delegate to North Carolina Provincial Assembly. There he served almost consecutively for twenty-one years.

In 1765, Cornelius Harnett became chairman of the North Carolina Sons of Liberty and led the fight to denounce the Stamp Act passed by the British Parliament. Harnett soon became known as the “Samuel Adams of North Carolina” for his leadership in the protests.

The few years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, North Carolinians ignored British rule in matters that they deemed unfair and established extralegal procedures to influence British decisions regarding trade. Following the repeal of the Stamp Act, “Committees of Safety” were started throughout North Carolina to prevent the buying of British goods. Townspeople started obeying the safety committees rather than their local government and the royal governor.  In May of 1775, the Royal Governor Martin fled the colony and North Carolinians set up their own form of government. North Carolina established a Council of Safety for the whole colony that became essentially the chief executive of the revolutionary state of North Carolina. Cornelius Harnett was chosen to lead it.

As the Revolutionary War progressed North Carolinians wanted to explore further measures that should be taken to defend the state against the British. The North Carolina Provincial Congress established a committee, with Cornelius Harnett at the helm, to review the issue and steer North Carolina in the right direction.  On April 12, 1776, the committee submitted the Halifax Resolves to the Provincial Congress.   With a unanimous vote, North Carolina adopted the Resolves and then sent them to the Continental Congress.

In the fall of 1776, the fifth Provincial Congress of North Carolina convened with the purpose to write a state constitution for the new independent state.  Harnett assisted in the drafting the constitution and its bill of rights.

Although each of the colonies drafted versions of their own state constitutions, it was still important that they maintained unity. The Continental Congress continued to meet, and in the summer of 1777, Cornelius Harnett was chosen to be one of three North Carolina delegates.

Harnett’s reputation as a revolutionary leader in his state preceded him, and with excitement many delegates anticipated Harnett’s arrival at the Continental Congress. Harnett soon wielded his influence on weighty matters. The Congress focused attention on whether the thirteen colonies should formally unite and form a Confederation. Thomas Burke, one of the other North Carolina delegates, supported cooperation between states but disliked any formal unity among them.  Harnett, however, encouraged states to create a formal union before making any foreign alliances.  Such agreements, he predicted, were going to be vital in winning the War for American Independence.

In November of 1777 the Articles of Confederation was completed and sent to each of the states for ratification. In March, Harnett sent the Articles along with a note urging Governor Richard Caswell and the General Assembly to adopt the Articles lest there be continental confusion.  In just one month, on April 24, 1778, the North Carolina General Assembly ratified the Articles of Confederation.

Meanwhile, Harnett had been losing his personal battle with a severe case of gout.  In December 1779, he resigned from public life and returned to his plantation in Wilmington.  In January 1781, the British invaded the port city.  The dying Harnett was taken captive and imprisoned in a roofless blockhouse.  Prison conditions and winter weather accelerated the Patriot’s demise.  Harnett passed away on April 20, 1781.

Cornelius Harnett was buried in St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina.  In 1855, Harnett County was named in his honor.