Tom Campbell: Wilmington's role in making NC 'First in Freedom'


“First in Freedom,” our state license plates proclaim. Is this claim true?

Great Britain was heavily in debt following the “French and Indian War.” Parliament thought it fitting to tax the American colonies to help pay the debt since the war was fought on our soil.

In Dec. 1773, Cornelius Harnett hosted a gathering of leaders at his home near Wilmington and established a Committee of Correspondence. It also advocated for a Provincial Congress to be held without the Royal Governor being present.

North Carolinians joined other colonies protesting the Stamp Act and the Townsend Acts, passing a resolution in the Colonial Assembly condemning them. Governor Tryon dissolved the Assembly, but most of its members met in an extralegal convention in 1769 and approved a “non-importation association.” Historian William Powell says it was, “the first such legislative body in any of the colonies.”

In response to the Boston Tea Party and “Intolerable Acts” passed by Parliament, elections were held and 71 delegates from 30 counties, and four towns assembled in New Bern for The First Provincial Congress from Aug. 25-27, 1774. My ancestor, Farquard Campbell, from Campbellton (later renamed Fayetteville), was one of them. This was the first Congress conducted in the American colonies against the authority of the Royal Crown.

The delegates passed The New Bern Resolves, denouncing laws persecuting Boston, reaffirming their loyalty to King George while also claiming their rights as English Citizens, chiefly that no citizen will be taxed without his own or his legal representative’s consent. The resolves stated that the duties, tariffs and taxes imposed upon them without their consent were “illegal and oppressive.”

Unless their rights were acknowledged and their grievances redressed, they declared that North Carolina would not directly or indirectly import any British goods or merchandise (medicines excepted). Further, if their grievances were not redressed by Oct. 1775, North Carolina would not export “tobacco, pitch, tar, turpentine or any other article whatsoever to Great Britain,” nor to anyone who might export them to Britain.

Before adjourning, the First Provincial Congress proposed that a “General Congress” be held in Philadelphia on Sept. 20 of the next year and named William Hooper, Joseph Hewes and Richard Caswell to be delegates to that Congress. They instructed the three to “express their sincere attachment to our most gracious sovereign King George the third, and our determined resolution to support his lawful authority in this province.” However, they were resolute in “a firm and resolute defence [sic] of our persons and properties against all unconstitutional encroachments whatever.”

These New Bern Resolves and Provincial Congress were a first among the colonies. A Committee of Safety was formed, bills of credit were passed, and an army was authorized to enforce the boycott. Trade between the colony and England declined measurably.

In Aug. 1774, Penelope Barker and Elizabeth King reaffirmed the boycotts by holding a tea party in Edenton - not as famous as the Boston event, but still important - swearing off British tea and substituting a tea made from leaves of the Yaupon tree. Wilmington women burned tea.

Two more significant dates are noted on our state flag. The May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg Resolves and the April 12, 1776, Halifax Resolves.

In the month following the fighting at Lexington and Concord the Mecklenburg Committee of Safety drafted The Mecklenburg Resolves, acknowledged to be the first of any colony. It vacated all laws coming from Parliament and the Crown and declared the Crown no longer had power in North Carolina. It was reportedly the basis of the questionable Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. No copy exists but, if authentic, would precede the 1776 Declaration by a year.

The resolves prompted Royal Governor Josiah Martin to issue a “Fiery Proclamation,” calling loyalists to take up arms and suppress the rebellion. The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was a stunning defeat for loyalists, resulting in Martin retreating from New Bern to safety on a British ship.

Following Martin’s abdication, a Fourth Provincial Congress met in Halifax. North Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress had asked for instructions regarding independence and, following little debate, all 83 delegates approved the Halifax Resolves, instructing North Carolina delegates to vote in favor of independence, the first state reportedly doing so.

On Dec. 18, 1776, the Fifth Provincial Congress debated and approved the first Constitution for North Carolina, replacing the previous colonial charter. It created a new government, contained a bill of rights and provided for the legal structure for the state.

The evidence is clear that North Carolina provided significant and important leadership to the revolution for freedom. Too few know or appreciate our role in the creation of this nation, but, as North Carolinians, we need to remember and appreciate our rich heritage.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. His weekly half-hour TV program, NC SPIN aired for 22 ½ years. Contact him at

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Tom Campbell column: NC truly was First in Freedom