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James Iredell, Sr., Diary, August 1770; November 1773-February 1774

English-born James Iredell-- a future United States Supreme Court Justice—immigrated to North Carolina at the age of seventeen in 1768. As a relative of Henry Eustace McCulloh, collector of Port Roanoke, Iredell was appointed His Majesty’s comptroller of customs at the port, located in the town of Edenton. Iredell began his diary at the age of nineteen, submitting his activities to paper as a “great means of producing an [sic] habit of Industry, & Application, which I hope will be of the greatest utility to me in my future Walk of Life…”

Iredell’s diary begins in 1770, the year he read law under Samuel Johnston, the nephew of a former royal governor, and was successfully licensed at Edenton to practice law in the inferior courts of North Carolina. The diary ends in early 1773, shortly before Iredell married Hannah Johnston, one of Samuel Johnston’s sisters.

The diary itself is revealing of a high-minded and ambitious young man, his romantic feelings, and his social world—one of the few such accounts existing for North Carolina during this period. It also offers a vivid picture of young Iredell’s network of friends and acquaintances in pre-Revolutionary Edenton, along with his legal study and his thoughts on political ideas and events at home and abroad. Most powerfully, it offers an intimate glimpse of his courtship with Hannah, along with his strong feelings about women and his desire for mutual respect as a basis for marriage. One passage, dated November 16, 1772, is especially revealing:

“Heard in the Course of the Evening many discharges of Guns on acct. of Horniblow’s being married to Nancy Rainbough---Was told she was averse to the Match, & forced to it by her Father & Mother. ---Is it true? can such cruel Parents exist?---& too easy, too compliant Daughter with the desire of your Parents in a point they have no right to command. … The married State to Parties whose Minds are in unison with each other, & whose hearts are connected by the fondest Ties of Affections is the most blissful Situation The Mind of Many can conceive. … Oh! Hannah, I trust We shall be happy---Our Hearts are disposed to good & Benevolent Actions---Our Wishes formed on no Visionary Basis---& our Affections cemented by the strongest, dearest Ties of the most tender Attachment.---God grant, I may have it in some degree in my powers, by a pleasing, unremitting Attention to make her happy, to succeed in my Endeavors….”

In the year following his marriage, Iredell wrote “To the Inhabitants of Great Britain” opposing the concept of Parliamentary supremacy over America. This essay helped establish Iredell as the most influential political essayist in pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. Also during 1774, McCulloh negotiated the transfer of the collectorship of the Port of Roanoke to Iredell—a post he held until June 1776 when he irrevocably cast his lot with the Patriots.

Iredell was in Edenton at the time of the Edenton Tea Party on October 25, 1774, one of the earliest known instances of political activity by American women. Possibly because of Iredell’s official position, Hannah Johnston Iredell refrained from signing resolutions supporting the First North Carolina Provincial Congress, which voted to boycott certain British products. However, the names of Hannah’s sisters and her sisters-in-law were on the list. The London newspapers carried accounts of the event, prompting Iredell’s brother Arthur to write from England the following much quoted letter:

"I see by the newspapers the Edenton ladies have signalized themselves by their protest against tea-drinking. The name of Johnston [the maiden name of Mrs. Iredell] I see among others; are any of my sister’s relations patriotic heroines? Is there a female Congress at Edenton too? I hope not for we Englishmen are afraid of the male Congress, but if the ladies, who have ever since the Amazonian Era, been esteemed the most formidable enemies, if they, I say should attack us, the most fatal consequence is to be dreaded."


John Adams, "Thoughts on Government" click image to view "Thoughts on Government" click to view letter click item to view John Quincy Adams letter

John Adams, "Thoughts on Government", [1776]

John Adams was a delegate from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress and emerged as one of the leading advocates of independence. Early in 1776 the legislature directed the state's delegates to the Continental Congress to seek out Adams' ideas concerning a plan of government for North Carolina. Before returning to Halifax in late March for a meeting of the Provincial Congress, William Hooper, and John Penn separately asked Adams's advice. Adams wrote his thoughts down for Hooper and gave a somewhat revised version to Penn. Hooper delivered his letter entitled "Thoughts on Government" to Thomas Burke, the chairman of the committee to frame a state constitution. It remained among Burke's papers that were collected for the North Carolina Historical Society and later came to the State Archives.

Although North Carolina received the first draft of the essay via Hooper, other colonies soon profited from Thoughts. Adams apparently wrote expanded versions for others before it was published as a pamphlet in April 1776. "Thoughts on Government," considered one of Adam's most influential Revolutionary writings, is thought to be in part the author's response to Thomas Paine's Common Sense, another influential Revolutionary era treatise published in January of 1776. Both men agreed that the time had come for independence. Adams, however, disagreed with Paine's ridicule of the concept of checks and balances in government, believing firmly in constitutional controls whereby the separate branches of central government have limiting powers over one another. In 1776 fighting had already begun and in May of that year Adams wrote the preamble for a resolution to encourage the colonies to form their own governments.

Charles Phillips, Secretary of the Historical Society of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote to John Quincy Adams in regard to his father’s essay “Thoughts on Government.” Phillips commented that North Carolina adopted many of the ideas expressed in the John Adams essay.

In the final letter, John Quincy Adams comments on his father's essay, "Thoughts on Government." He expresses pride in the fact that so many of his father's ideas had been adopted by North Carolina in the writing of its constitution. He also discusses the Declaration of Independence which he says "recognizes the duty, as well as the right, of a Nation's abrogating its established form of Government to institute another for the protection of the rights of person and property."


Letter of Marque signed by John Hancock, 1776

Letter of Marque signed by John Hancock, 1776

This Letter of Marque was issued by the Continental Congress on October 24, 1776, to James Powell, commander of the 3- ton schooner, Northampton. It is signed by John Hancock, president of the Congress. A letter of Marque and Reprisal commissioned a privately owned vessel as a privateer in the service of its country. It granted to the commander the right during times of war to fit out with arms in order to plunder or to capture the enemy's ships.

Shortly after the outbreak of the American Revolution in April 1775, the Provincial Congress, forerunner of the Continental Congress, authorized the Colonies to "at your own expense, make such provisions by armed vessels for the protection of your harbors and navigation...", thereby allowing the colonies to grant Letters of Marque to private ships. Without this protection, the commanders and crews of these ships would be treated as pirates if caught.

By April of 1776, the Continental Congress issued its own commissions, including strict rules about prizes, prisoners, and reporting. Congress also required that one-third of the crew be landsmen-possibly to protect the fledgling navy from losing too many enlistees to privateering. When the bearers of the Letters of Marque sold their prizes, some of the profit went to Congress. During the Revolution, both sides freely commissioned privateers. Despite having a large public navy in place, Britain was thought to have employed almost as many such vessels as did the colonists.


Holographic Will of John Penn, Granville County, 1784.

Holographic Will of John Penn, Granville County, 1784.

In this will dated 1 March 1784, John Penn, one of North Carolina's signers of the Declaration of Independence, divides his estate between a son, William Penn, and a daughter, Lucy [Penn] Taylor, wife of a Colonel Taylor. Penn appointed his son, William, as executor. The will includes two codicils dated 4 March 1784, and 10 April 1786. John Penn died 14 September 1788.

Born near Port Royal, Virginia in 1740, John Penn received only a few years of local schooling. At age eighteen, he inherited an ample estate from his father, Moses, and began the study of law under his kinsmen and neighbor, Edmund Pendleton. After admission to the bar, Penn practiced law in Caroline County for twelve years. In 1763 he married a North Carolinian, Susannah Lyme, and the couple moved in 1774 to her home county of Granville. The following year Penn was elected to the Third Provincial Congress, which met in 1775 at Hillsborough. Shortly thereafter, Penn was elected to succeed Richard Caswell as delegate to the Continental Congress. He continued in that office until 1780. Early in 1776, Penn, along with the other North Carolina delegates, believed that independence from Great Britain was inevitable. On July 2, Penn, along with Joseph Hewes, cast North Carolina's vote for independence and subsequently signed the Declaration.

When the state's first General Assembly met in April of 1777, Penn was chosen by the Assembly to return as delegate to the Continental Congress. A firm advocate of permanent union, Penn was one of three representatives of North Carolina who ratified in 1778 the Articles of Confederation. Two years later, the British victory at Camden, South Carolina made North Carolina dangerously vulnerable. Governor Nash appointed Penn to a three-man Board of War. In the frequent absence of the other members, Penn acted alone much of the time in coordinating military activities and in equipping and supplying the state militia and General Nathanael Greene's army in North Carolina. Following the board's termination in 1781, Penn was elected to the Governor's Council and served as its president during the last months of the war. In 1783 Penn lost reelection to the council and ceased to be active in public life. He returned to the practice of law and died near Williamsboro, Granville County, in 1794.


Letter from George Washington to Governor and Council of State, 1789

Letter from George Washington to Governor and Council of State, 1789

George Washington took his country's presidential oath of office in April of 1789. Prior to North Carolina's second Constitutional Convention, which ratified the federal Constitution, President George Washington addressed the following letter to the Governor (Samuel Johnston) and the Council of the State of North Carolina:

June 19, 1789
[I am] gratified by the favourable sentiments which are evinced in your address to me, and impressed with an idea that the Citizens of your State are sincerely attached to the Interest, the Prosperity and the Glory of America; I most earnestly implore the Divine benediction and guidance in the councils, which are shortly to be taken by their Delegates on a subject of the most momentous consequence, I mean the political relation which is to subsist hereafter, between the State of North Carolina and the States now in Union under the new general Government.

Delegates to North Carolina's first Constitutional Convention meeting in Hillsborough in July-August of 1788 had refused to ratify the United State Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Consequently, North Carolina remained outside the Union for more than a year. Therefore, when George Washington became first president of the United States, North Carolina had no voice in his selection. However, most students and scholars of this period agree that the state had anticipated for sometime becoming a part of the new nation. After the first ten amendments were added to the Constitution, a new convention was called in November of 1789 to reconsider the decision not to ratify. Subsequently, North Carolina became the twelfth state to join the Union.


George Washington, New York, October 2, 1789, to Samuel Johnston.

George Washington, New York, October 2, 1789, to Samuel Johnston.

Washington transmits lists of amendments to the Constitution of the United States to Governor Samuel Johnston.

Last Modified: 11/10/2010