No deal. That’s pretty much how North Carolina patriots responded to British Major General Henry Clinton’s proclamation condemning what he called their “wicked rebellion” along with his offer of amnesty for everyone, but two, who would return allegiance to the King. 

Tensions in North Carolina had been building for most of the previous year, culminating in the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge on Feb. 27, 1776. Known to many historians as the “Lexington and Concord of the South,” Patriot troops commanded by Col. Richard Caswell defeated a force of British Highlanders and loyalist troops. The patriot force killed or wounded about 70 British troops and captured 850 soldiers, along with a large number of rifles and money.

The battle effectively marked the end of royal authority in North Carolina. It also led the Fourth North Carolina Provincial Congress to convene in April and instruct the North Carolina delegation to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. 


The battle was preceded by years of protest and skirmishes. 

As tensions between Great Britain and the colonies grew, North Carolinians formed a Provincial Congress – an extralegal unicameral legislative body modeled after the lower House of the colonial legislature. In effect, it was a representative body independent of Parliament.

The North Carolina Provincial Congress issued bills of credit to fund the Patriot cause, organized the militia for defense, and ultimately wrote a state constitution and bill of rights establishing North Carolina as an independent state. 

The path toward North Carolina independence was firmly set with the publication of the Mecklenburg Resolves, passed on May 31 and published June 1775.

Drafted by the Mecklenburg County Committee of Safety, the resolves fell short of expressly declaring independence, but did so in principle as they asserted, “We conceive that all Laws and Commissions confirmed by, or derived from the Authority of the King or Parliament, are annulled and vacated, and the former civil Constitution of these Colonies for the present wholly suspended.

“The Provincial Congress of each Province, under the Direction of the Great Continental Congress, is invested with all legislative and executive Powers within their respective Provinces; and that no other Legislative or Executive does or can exist, at this time, in any of these Colonies.”

The Resolves went on to lay out a framework for government in North Carolina. 

They were also the basis of a second document known as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, but historians generally dispute the authenticity of this declaration. 

The first known publication of the document was in 1819 by the Raleigh Register. The Declaration proclaimed, “We the citizens of Mecklenburg County, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country, and hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown, and abjure all political connection, contract, or association, with that Nation, who have wantonly trampled on our rights and liberties and inhumanly shed the innocent blood of American patriots at Lexington.

Although historians dispute the authenticity of the Declaration, the date it was said to have passed – May 20, 1775 – is featured on the North Carolina Flag, along with April 12, 1776, the day the Halifax Resolutions were approved.

After the Patriot victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge, the Fourth North Carolina Provincial Congress met in Halifax and unanimously adopted the Halifax Resolves. The Mecklenburg County Declaration notwithstanding, this was the first official action by a colony in full support of independence. The Halifax Resolves were also the first example of a colony-wide assembly admitting that reconciliation with the British was no longer an option.

The Halifax resolves asserted that “whereas the moderation hitherto manifested by the United Colonies and their sincere desire to be reconciled to the mother Country on Constitutional Principles, have procured no mitigation of the aforesaid Wrongs and usurpations and no hopes remain of obtaining redress by those Means alone which have been hitherto tried, Your Committee are of Opinion that the house should enter into the following Resolve.”

The Resolves went on to authorize the North Carolina delegation to the Continental Congress to vote for independence.

“Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be impowered to concur with the other delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming foreign Alliances, resolving to this Colony the Sole, and Exclusive right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony, and of appointing delegates from time to time (under the direction of a general Representation thereof to meet the delegates of the other Colonies for such purposes as shall be hereafter pointed out.”


This led to Gen. Clinton’s proclamation of May 5, 1776. 

Clinton accused North Carolinians of “forgetting their Allegiance to their Sovereign, and denying the Authority of the Laws and Statutes of the realm.” 

He went on to assert that, “I have it in command to proceed forthwith against all such Men or bodies of Men in Arms, and against all such Congresses and Committees thus unlawfully established, as against open enemies of the State.

Clinton offered a way to reconciliation, “Hereby offering in His Majesty’s Name free Pardon to all such as shall lay down their Arms and submit to the Laws.

But this wasn’t blanket amnesty. Clinton specifically excluded two prominent North Carolinians from pardon.

This was similar to what Governor Thomas Gage offered the people of Boston a year earlier following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The general and colonial governor declared the state of Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion and offered a general amnesty to all who would lay down their arms except for Samuel Adams and John Hancock. 


The first person Clinton excluded from the offer of pardon was Cornelius Harnett.

During the Stamp Act Crisis, Harnett joined the Sons of Liberty. He went on to serve in the Wilmington Committee of Safety, as a delegate to the Second, Third, and Fourth North Carolina Provincial Congresses, and as the president of the Fifth Congress. This essentially made him the first chief executive of North Carolina’s revolutionary, extra-legal government.

The second individual denied any opportunity for pardon was Robert Howe. 

Howe served as a colonel in the 2nd North Carolina Regiment and later as a Brigadier General in the Continental Army and commander of the army’s Southern Department. He was also a member of the North Carolina Provincial Congress. Howe earned the ire of British officials as part of a colonial force that defeated the British in the Battle of Great Bridge in Virginia on Dec. 9, 1775.

After offering amnesty in return for loyalty to the King, Clinton also demanded “that the Provincial Congress and all Committees of Safety and other unlawful Associations be dissolved, and the Judges allowed to hold their Courts according to the Laws and Constitution of this Province.

Just weeks prior on the first day of the 4th Congress Howe remarked to the assembly: “Independence seems to be the word; I know of not one dissenting voice.”

Clinton’s amnesty offer didn’t change that one iota.

Like their brothers in arms in Boston, the patriots of North Carolina said no deal. The Patriots ignored Clinton’s demands. 

The Fourth Provincial Congress continued to meet, and the Fifth Provincial Congress defied Clinton and convened in December. The committees of safety continued to operate. 

As a fitting close to the saga, it was Harnett who read the Declaration of Independence publicly in North Carolina for the first time on Aug. 1, 1776.

Mike Maharrey

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