John Harvey (1714–1775)

Written By Jane Shaw Stroup

John Harvey has been called “the great leader in the eventful times immediately preceding the Revolution.”1 He died in 1775, after the Lexington and Concord battles in Massachusetts launched the American Revolution. Thus he did not take part in the revolution’s most active phase. He was, however, a powerful force in North Carolina for three decades.

Harvey was born in 1724 in Perquimans County in the Albemarle Sound region in the northeastern part of the state. The area was the chief home of the colony’s gentry (men of property). Many actively opposed British control.

Harvey became a member of the colonial assembly in 1746 and speaker of the General Assembly in 1766.2

In colonial times, the government of North Carolina consisted of three parts. The governor was appointed by the British Crown. The General Assembly was elected by the people of the colony. It enacted laws. However, the Council of State, whose members were appointed by the Crown. also had a role in approving laws.

Only the General Assembly represented the people.

Soon after Harvey became speaker of the General Assembly, he faced his first crisis. In 1767 the British Crown had put import duties on products entering the colonies.3 The series of laws, known as the Townshend Acts, required the colonists to pay taxes when they imported wine, glass, and some other products, including tea.

Harvey was convinced that “taxation without representation” violated British law and tradition. He encouraged the assembly to send a letter to the king. The letter reminded the King of the colony’s past cooperation with the Crown. On the issue of taxation, however, it insisted that the Crown had no right to tax them: “Free men cannot be legally taxed but by themselves or their Representatives.”4

The British government ended the taxes, except for the tax on tea. But this didn’t satisfy the colonists. In December 1773, Massachusetts colonists expressed their opposition to the tax on tea. They tossed £15,000 worth of tea into the ocean. This action became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The British Crown responded with a number of laws punishing the residents of Boston. North Carolinians wanted to support them. Harvey and a colleague were in charge of sending corn and other commodities from North Carolina to Boston “to be divided among the poor inhabitants according to their necessities.” In sending the goods, Harvey wrote that the “American inhabitants of this Colony [North Carolina] entertain a just sense of the sufferings of our brethren in Boston.”5

Quickly, colonies began to form Committees of Correspondence to stay in touch with one another. These were committees that would allow colonies to share information about the problems with the British. Talk began about holding a general congress—the Continental Congress—for all the colonies. It would provide a united front against Britain on taxation. North Carolina’s Committee of Correspondence was created in December 1773, and Harvey was a member.

The following year, 1774, was a rocky year for the General Assembly.assembly. It was full of disputes with the British governor, Josiah Martin. Some of them were about local issues. Unhappy with the outcomes, Governor Martin dissolved (ended) the assembly on March 30. He feared that the colonists would elect delegates to a general congress (the looming Continental Congress). So, he said he would not summon another assembly.

When John Harvey learned of the governor’s plans, he decided the people of North Carolina could hold a congress themselves. They did. They were encouraged by mass protests against Britain in July in Wilmington, North Carolina. So, the first Provincial Convention met on Aug. 25, 1774. Harvey was elected moderator, and the convention elected three delegates to the Continental Congress.

It was not until 1775 that Governor Martin decided to allow the General Assembly to meet—on April 4. But Harvey decided that he would hold his own Provincial Convention the day before. When the official assembly opened, the representatives of the two assemblies—the Provincial Convention and the General Assembly—consisted of almost entirely the same people. So the two bodies worked together.

The assembly rejected all the governor’s proposals. One historian summarized: “Not only had the assembly refused to take action on every official matter brought before it, but it had eagerly given its approval to every measure taken by the illegal congress.”6

Thus, before he died (in May 1775, after falling off a horse), John Harvey had led the representatives of North Carolina to the brink of revolution.