Cornelius Harnett, Jr.
Cornelius Harnett, Jr. was born April 10, 1723 in Chowan County, the son of Cornelius and Elizabeth Harnett. Harnett became a leading Wilmington merchant with interests in farming, milling, and mercantile ventures. He became involved in public affairs in 1750, when he was elected to the Wilmington town commission. He was appointed as a justice of the peace for New Hanover County and in 1754 he was elected to represent Wilmington in the General Assembly. Harnett’s reputation and influence developed rapidly throughout the province. During his career in the legislature, there were few committees of importance on which he did not serve and few debates in which he did not participate.
When the British Parliament in 1765 passed the Stamp Act, Harnett moved to the forefront of the resistance to the act in North Carolina. From the Stamp Act resistance was born the Sons of Liberty, and Harnett was chairman for that group in Wilmington.
As resistance to British policy developed during 1773 and 1774, Harnett was in the vanguard of the move in North Carolina. He was a vocal supporter of the concept of a continental correspondence committee and was a leading force in setting up the North Carolina Committee of Correspondence in December 1773.
On 19 July 1775, Governor Martin watched helplessly from the British warship Cruizer as a group of colonists led by Harnett, John Ashe, and Robert Howe burned Fort Johnston at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Martin wrote to Lord Dartmouth requesting proscription of the three revolutionaries because of “their unremitted labours to promote sedition and rebellion here from the beginning of the discontent in America to this time, that they stand foremost among the patrons of revolt and anarchy.”
In 1775, a provincial Council of Safety was created to exercise executive and administrative powers over the province. With the flight of Governor Martin from North Carolina, the council and provincial congress had become the government of the province. Harnett was elected president of the council, an appointment which in effect made him the chief executive of North Carolina though without the title.
As a member of the provincial congress and as president of the Council of Safety, Harnett was deeply involved in military planning, raising troops, and arming and equipping an army. The Fourth Provincial Congress appointed him chairman of a committee to consider the “usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament.” The committee report became known as the Halifax Resolves.
During the remainder of 1776, Harnett continued to guide the state through his presidency of the Council of Safety. He is generally credited with delivering the first public reading in North Carolina of the Declaration of Independence on August 1, 1776.
Contrary to his own personal wishes, Harnett was elected to the Continental Congress on May 1, 1777; his sense of public duty caused him to remain in the Congress for the full three years permitted by law. Throughout that period his service was capable and statesmanlike. He was committed to the cause of confederation and fully supported the writing and ratification of the Articles of Confederation.
When the British invaded Wilmington in 1781, Harnett was captured in Onslow County. Imprisoned in an open blockhouse, his health declined rapidly. Although paroled from prison, he died soon afterwards on April 28, 1781.
Harnett married Mary Holt, the daughter of Martin Holt. They lived at Maynard (later known as Hilton) north of Wilmington and owned a second plantation, Poplar Grove, at present-day Scotts’ Hill on Topsail Sound. Mary died in New York City in April or May 1792. They apparently had no children.
Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, edited by William S. Powell, volume 4, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.