Carolina dispute helped provoke revolution

Published 12:26 pm Wednesday, July 3, 2024

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By John Hood

As we celebrate our country’s birthday again, might I suggest we spare a moment to consider our state’s role in the dramatic story of American independence?

Three North Carolinians signed the Declaration of Independence. Thousands of North Carolinians volunteered for service in the Continental Army or local militia. Some of the Revolutionary War’s most consequential battles — at Moore’s Creek Bridge, Ramseur’s Mill, Guilford Court House, Kings Mountain, and elsewhere — either occurred here or involved large numbers of North Carolinians.

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All that you probably know. But did you know that a legal dispute between North Carolina’s elected legislature and the British government helped provoke this bloody rupture?

Although the Declaration of Independence is 1,320 words long, most people today focus solely on its second paragraph. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” it began, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Powerful words. They deserve commemoration today and every day. However, the Declaration did more than offer a theoretical case for the creation and maintenance of legitimate government. It argued a practical case for independence, based on specific accusations against the British Parliament, royal governors, and George III himself. “The history of the present King of Great Britain,” it stated, “is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” 

Eighth on the list of particulars was the charge that King George had “obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.” Although the sentence didn’t mention us by name, it was referring to a dispute about North Carolina courts — or, more to the point, the lack thereof.

For decades, Americans had enjoyed the right to sue other parties in colonial courts and, if successful, to receive compensation for financial or other injuries sustained within the colony in question. If the defendants refused to show up for court — because they’d either absconded to another jurisdiction or never resided in the colony in the first place — courts could attempt to compel their presence by having local sheriffs seize any property they held within the jurisdiction. If the defendants still didn’t appear, plaintiffs could receive the proceeds as compensation. 

Absentee landlords and investors in England never liked the use of such “foreign attachment” in colonial courts. Why should they have to sail or send an agent to America to represent their interests? They pressured British officials to restrict the jurisdiction of colonial courts.

North Carolina became the test case. In 1767, the colonial legislature passed a new courts law that codified the use of foreign attachment. Then-Gov. William Tryon signed it into law the following year. After Tryon was reassigned, the new royal governor, Josiah Martin, refused to sign a reauthorization of North Carolina’s courts unless lawmakers agreed to remove the foreign attachment. After some attempts at compromise, Martin stuck to his guns and vetoed the courts bill.

“The resulting impasse effectively terminated judicial authority in North Carolina,” wrote Boston College law professor Ryan Williams, “and left the residents of the colony without a fully functioning court system for more than three years.”

One North Carolinian was so outraged that he penned a blistering response in a New Bern newspaper, the North Carolina Gazette, in September 1773. Governor Martin and his superiors in London had abrogated the rule of law, he wrote (under the pen name “A Planter”), resorting instead to a “rule of tyrants” that should “never be admitted in any free state.”

The writer, Edenton attorney James Iredell, would help reorganize North Carolina’s court system after the Revolutionary War began. He then served as a superior court judge, attorney general of North Carolina, and one of the first justices on the United States Supreme Court.

American independence had many champions in North Carolina. Not all fired muskets — but all deserve our veneration.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (