North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders


October 21, 2019
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders, edited by Jeff Broadwater and Troy L. Kickler  (Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 2019)

The Old North State has its own Revolutionary War heroes, and although not totally ignored, their fame has been obscured on the national stage due to the more famous stories of Adams of Massachusetts, Franklin of Pennsylvania, Washington and Jefferson of Virginia, Hamilton of New York, and even Sherman of Connecticut.  Even this reviewer, a history professor by occupation, had not previously encountered the Edenton Ladies, Richard Caswell, or the unique story of John Chavis.  Editors Jeff Broadwater and Troy L. Kickler’s collections of biographical sketches, North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders, is their endeavor to bring North Carolina’s Revolutionary patriots out from behind the curtain and back under the country’s spotlight.

The book’s introduction offers a brief history of North Carolina leading up to the Revolution:  who settled the colony, its primitive economy, the Regulator movement of 1766, and the 1776 state constitution.  Broadwater and Kickler state that the book’s focus will be the individuals and groups who supported the Revolution and debated the Constitution. Their profiles are arranged in five sections: “The Revolutionaries,” “The West,” “The Federalists,” “The Anti-Federalists,” and “The Legatees of the Revolution.”  The afterword closes with an excellent summation of all the book’s subjects.

 “The Revolutionaries” begins with an exciting episode of North Carolina history written by Maggie Hartley Mitchell:  the Edenton Tea Pary of 1774.  Fifty-one women, a group not normally credited with revolutionary political activity, signed a petition boycotting British goods and mobilizing opposition to British policies.  The event was an unprecedented example of women recognizing their potential as political activists.  They were subjected to ridicule, as shown by the famous political cartoon by English satirist Philip Dawe.  Editor Jeff Broadwater then includes his own profiles of North Carolina’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence:  William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and John Penn.  All three had supported reconciliation with the mother country, but gradually they changed their minds after the events at Lexington and Concord.  Penn even helped John Adams with Adams’ magnum opus, Thoughts on Government.

James MacDonald begins the segment on the West with a description of the Cherokee and Catawba nations in North Carolina, and the inevitable Native American struggle over who deserved their support.  Both nations would suffer in the end, of course. The hero of the Battle of King’s Mountain and future six-term governor of what would become Tennessee was the focus of Michael Toomey’s “Our Common Country: John Sevier and the American Revolution.”

The struggle for ratification of the federal Constitution in North Carolina was unlike that of any other state, since the first ratifying convention neither rejected nor ratified the document. Essays about the Federalists and their arguments included Richard Dobbs Spaight, Jr., Gov. Richard Caswell, and political essayist James Iredell.  Iredell earned such a strong reputation with his writings that President George Washington nominated him to be one of the first associate justices to the Supreme Court. The efforts of these men went up against the equally strong exertions of the anti-Federalists Samuel Spencer and Willie Jones.  Both men were fierce advocates of state freedom and individual rights.  The Constitution would not be ratified until November 1789.  Each essay touches upon the preceding and succeeding essays in this section, since they all influenced, and were influenced by, each other.

The last chapter of North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders, “The Legatees of the Revolution,” is the most interesting. Scott King-Owen offers a look at the accomplishments of a “quiet federalist” named William R. Davie, a former commissary general in the Revolution.  Davie was influential in setting up the University of North Carolina.  Editor Troy L. Kickler showcases the opposing political views of the state’s politics with a dual biography on anti-Federalist Nathaniel Macon and Federalist Archibald D. Murphey.  But the jewel in the crown is the essay by Benjamin R. Justesen, “John Chavis:  Quiet Leader of an Early Revolution.”  Chavis was truly a stand-out because he was a free African American who was tutored by Dr. John Witherspoon.  Chavis was a Federalist in political opinion, and he successfully ran a school in Raleigh. However, the changing attitudes regarding to slavery and free blacks in North Carolina prevented Chavis’s continued efforts.  Justesen ends with a description of Chavis as the tragic hero:

Within southern history – indeed, within the broader context of American history –John Chavis represents a uniquely talented example of the heroic innocent, trapped by rules he had no hand in writing, unable to argue effectively in his own defense, ultimately doomed to suffer without appeal, saved only by the charity of those who remembered his superior performance. (p. 273)

As previously mentioned, the afterword has a clear and concise retelling of the importance of these characters to the Revolution and the ratification debate. It was certainly a diverse group: women, Native Americans, men and free blacks.  “These North Carolinians were ordinary only in the sense of being overshadowed by a small cadre of more famous founders.” (p. 301)

The contributing writers for this history of North Carolina were able to include a great deal of information about local events in the Revolution and the ratification debate.  The reader receives facts about the First Provincial Congress in New Bern, the Wilmington Resolves of 1774, and the New Bern Resolves, which allowed North Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress wide authority in their commitment to retain their English liberties.  North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders, in the end, reinforces the fact that the state of North Carolina was unique in its struggle for independence and retaining its rights as an independent state.  The founders stand alone, but belong to the pantheon that includes Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams.


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