Concerning Leadership | Eastern North Carolina Now

Tom Campbell
    My recent column about North Carolina's "First in Freedom" claim established the events leading up to the Revolutionary War. But now, as legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey frequently said, you're going to hear "the rest of the story."

    North Carolina's prominence was due to a group of bold, visionary and patriotic leaders. None started with the intent of staging a revolution. All they wanted was for the citizens of the 13 colonies to be afforded the same rights as all British citizens, namely that they could not be taxed without representation. Parliament repeatedly ignored those rights, so these proud colonists rose in opposition, convinced Parliament would see the error of their actions. Parliament, however, was convinced the 13 colonies were so different they would never unite and fight, according to historian Nelson McDaniel. Were they ever wrong!

    Let's examine a few of North Carolina's leaders you might recognize.

    Samuel Johnston, served in the colonial assembly, headed the Provincial Congress and was the first non-royal governor, a delegate to the Continental Congress, was president of our convention to ratify the new constitution and our first US Senator. His brother-in-law, James Iredell, was also an Edenton lawyer who articulated in writing many principles contained in the Declaration of Independence. Iredell was influential in the formation of our state government, especially our judicial system. President Washington appointed him one of the first Associate Justices to the US Supreme Court.

    Richard Caswell, was speaker of the Colonial Assembly, led the New Bern Minutemen at the battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, was elected governor and chaired the committee to draft our first constitution. Cornelius Harnett was chairman of the Sons of Liberty protesting the Stamp Act. Dubbed the "Samuel Adams of North Carolina." Harnett headed the Committee of Correspondence, was a member of the Continental Congress and signed the Articles of Confederation. Joseph Hewes, delegate to the first Continental Congress helped in the formation in the colonies' first Navy and signed the Declaration of Independence, along with John Penn and William Hooper.

    Hugh Williamson, a physician and scientist noted for his wisdom was called the "Benjamin Franklin of North Carolina." Hugh was a delegate to the Constitutional Congress and signed the US Constitution, along with Richard Dobbs Spaight and William Blount.


    Other notable names included John Harvey, Thomas Burke, William R. Davie, and Alexander Martin, but no list could exclude Penelope Barker.

    Details are sketchy as to who organized and led the Edenton Tea Party, but Penelope Barker is most identified with the event where 51 Edenton ladies signed a petition protesting taxes on English tea. Barker sent that petition to newspapers throughout the colonies and in London, attaching a strongly worded letter of protest to King George. The Edenton Tea Party was the first recorded case of women asserting their political principles in writing and including their names to such a petition.

    These bold, visionary leaders were willing to risk their families, futures, fortunes and freedom, not just for their own rights, but for the rights of others. Their lives were forever changed, but so was our future.

    McDaniel concluded a recent talk on North Carolina's leadership calling what resulted a "rebellion, not a revolution." Colonial leaders responded to Parliament with "measure, reason and wisdom," finally resorting to armed conflict.

    As I reflected on his remarks, I wondered who are the visionary, bold leaders of today? I'm old enough to remember Bill Friday, Terry Sanford, Archie Davis, John Medlin, Sherwood Smith, Jim Hunt, Susie Sharp, Howard Lee, Bill Lee, Gordon and Copey Hanes, Frank Kenan, Jim Broyhill and other notables from business, education and politics from the 50s and beyond. It is not so easy to identify their likes today.

    I recently conducted an informal survey of approximately 70 people I respect (from both parties, several disciplines and different philosophies) asking them to name North Carolina's current bold, visionary leaders. I was disappointed - but not surprised - when most reported having trouble naming current leaders who fit the description.

    We currently face challenges in our homeland not seen since The Civil War. Our future success is dependent on unity, not division and to move forward together we desperately need visionary, bold, wise and unifying leadership.

    McDaniel concluded his remarks by saying North Carolina's colonial leaders answered the threats and challenges they faced by starting a war with what was then the most powerful nation on earth, resulting in the founding of a new nation.

    He reminded his audience of Benjamin Franklin's response upon leaving a session of the Constitutional Convention. A woman asked him, "What kind of government have you given us?"

    Franklin's answer was direct, saying "A democracy if you can keep it."


    Today's challenge is whether we have the courage and wisdom to keep their creation?

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ˝ years. Contact him at
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