Tarheel Founding Fathers: Samuel Johnston

Born into the British aristocracy, Samuel Johnston was a nephew of a Colonial Governor, and would eventually become a NC Governor in his own right after the War of Independence. But conservative as he was, he remained loyal to the Crown prior to the Rebellion, and dealt with the Regulators and other malcontents harshly:

Samuel Johnston introduced the Riot Bill, and by January 10, 1771, both houses of the Assembly eventually approved it. On January 15, Governor Tryon signed it and legitimated An Act for Preventing Tumultuous and Riotous Assemblies, and for the More Speedy and Effectually Punishing the Rioters, and for Restoring and Preserving the Public Peace of This Province.

It was behavior exactly like this that would eventually propel the colonies into outright war, so it may be hard for those of us who are looking back to understand how somebody like Johnston could not only survive the conflict, but prosper in the wake of it. The answer: he was a lawyer, and a damned smart one, too.

Like many of his more refined colleagues from the South, Johnston suffered during Philadelphia's relatively harsh Winters. He was nowhere to be found for several weeks prior to this letter, and what he describes as a simple "cold" was likely a close brush with death:

Dear Sir: Philadelphia, 15th February, 1781. I had the pleasure of receiving yours of the 5th inst., last night. I wrote a line by an express to the Governor, which I hope you will receive. I have very little hope that this will reach you. By a vessel, which arrived last Sunday from Cadiz, we have letters as late as the l9th December. The fleets at that time, as well of France and Spain as Great Britain, were in port; the Dutch had acceded to the armed Neutrality, notwithstanding which, the British continued to take their ships, and it was thought would make some attempts on their settlements in the East Indies. Mr. Cumberland is still permitted to continue at the Court of Madrid-a very suspicious circumstance.

Let me break in here to explain that last comment. Richard Cumberland was a very popular British playwright who found himself drawn into politics by some of his royal admirers. Since he didn't suffer from inbreeding like they did (it's called literary license, work with me on this), Cumberland was able to solve some diplomatic issues that confounded the aristocracy. He kept people in Ulster relatively happy for a while, which is nothing to sniff at. But when he went to Spain to try to eke out a treaty, which would have been devastating for our Continental Navy (and Army, for that matter), the British Crown's arrogant refusal to make concessions on Gibraltar made his mission an impossible one. And cost him a small fortune to boot, since the Crown refused to reimburse him for his expenses. Anyway, back to Johnston:

There is great reason to apprehend that the British mean to fortify and support their station at Portsmouth, or some other in that neighborhood, in order to shut up the navigation of the bay, and by making frequent incursions into the country, prevent the State of Virginia from sending aid to the Carolinas. Congress is every day engaged in a variety of matters, but under our present situation, it is probably best to say little as to the particulars. I hope to have some opportunity before long by which I may be more communicative.

For the next several months, the State of Virginia was all but impassible, due to British cavalry under the command of Cornwallis. They terrorized the countryside, taking all the food and horses from villages and homesteads, leaving the people to starve. The ones that weren't slaughtered, that is.

Needless to say, mounted messengers willing to run that gauntlet were few, and counted themselves lucky to survive the trip. I mention this because it had a profound impact on the volume and content of Johnston's correspondence during his tenure in the Continental Congress. But his frustration with the lack of support he and his colleagues had to endure came through loud and clear in this letter:

Another circumstance which prevents Congress from taking its measures with a greater degree of confidence and decision is, the inattention which the States pay to the measures recommended by that body. I am fully satisfied that if the States would implicitly comply with every requisition of Congress, even when the propriety of the measure was not evidently apparent, it would be attended by the most salutary consequences, as there is not the least reason to doubt but Congress, both as a body and individually, are disposed to do what is right, and appear to me in almost every instance that has fallen within my observation to be actuated by the most virtuous and disinterested motives.

Even after years of war with the British Empire, devoting resources to a unified defense was still a hard sell back in the individual states. Many believed they could outlast the Crown's attempts to bring the colonies back into line, and come out on the other side with little or no central government to bother them. But Samuel Johnston knew better, which is why he later stood up as a (minority) supporter of the Federalists and pushed hard for North Carolina to ratify the Constitution he helped develop.

Comments

Thanks for this

Hadn't expected a history lesson today. Fascinating.