Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

The North Carolina Biennial Act and it's Consequences?

On December 16, 1773, patriots dressed as Indians boarded British ships anchored in Boston Harbor and dumped the ships' cargo of tea into the bay. The Boston Tea Party was in defiance of a tea tax ("taxation without representation") imposed on American colonies by Britain. Today, few realize that trouble had been brewingSmiley for more than fifty years. It is little known outside the state that North Carolina was the first to openly defy the King with enactment of the Biennial Act of 1715.

The colonies in 1715 were tightly ruled by the "Kingdom of Great Brittain." [sic, see NOTE] Colonial Governors and other officials were appointed by the King or Parliament including magistrates, mayors, and other officials, who were selected based on their allegiance to the interest of England. Insignificant matters in the colonies were handled by citizens elected by their neighbors for small meetings but such meetings were well attended by British loyalist who eagerly reported on the proceedings to local British officials.

The sparsely populated colony of Carolina had spent 100 years carving tobacco, corn, and cotton plantations from the wilderness, mostly along the coast, and producing great wealth for the Lords Proprietors and the King. England viewed the colonies and plantations as economic interest existing solely for its exploitation. Goods produced by the plantations were shipped to England for resale, significantly reducing profits for Americans. The plantations often produced more goods than the British could accept but the colonials were not allowed to sell them elsewhere. The colonist envisioned vast untapped markets beyond Britain.

To defy England would certainly have meant retaliation but as men of means emerged, they recognized that they had the power of supply. England needed them to continue the development of this new economic engine.

Finally, in 1715, the Carolina assembly met at Little River and wrote
An: --

"Act Relating to the Biennial and Other Assemblys and Regulating Elections and Members."

The opening paragraph paid due respect to the Crown and the "Kingdom of Great Brittain," but went on to say:

"Be It Therefore Enacted by the said Pallatine and Lords Proprietors by and with the advice and consent of this present Grand Assembly now met at Little River for the North East part of the said province [Carolina.]"

The Act provided:

"...And it is Hereby Enacted that for the due election and Constituting of Members of the Biennial and other Assemblys it shall be lawfull for the Freemen of the respective precincts of the County of Albemarle to meet the first Tuesday in September every two years in the places hereafter mentioned..."

The Act continued to spell out the various precincts and conditions for holding elections. It described voting qualifications, places and times for elections and meetings and finally specified that elected members to the Carolina

"House of Burgesses... shall not be qualified to sitt as a Member in the House of Burgesses before he shall willingly take the Oath of Allegiance and Supremacy the Adjuration Oath and all such other Oathes as shall be ordered and directed to be taken by the Members of Parliament in Great Britain."

In other words, take the same oaths as members of Parliament but allegiance would be to Carolina.

This was a milestone in the history of the colonies. For the first time a colony was openly and officially declaring the right to form assemblies, hold elections, AND require oaths and pledges of allegiance to a power other than the "Kingdom of Great Brittain."

The other colonies were astonished and pleased but did not follow suit. They waited and so did England. The British were puzzled, confused, and afraid to take any action which might disrupt the production and flow of goods. The British Parliament virtually ignored the Act and North Carolina forged ahead to implement the provisions.

For the next 21 years North Carolina held assemblies and elections under the provisions of the Biennial Act. The elected members of the North Carolina House of Burgesses enacted laws, levied modest taxes and fines, appointed officials -- often duplicating positions already filled by appointment from England -- and generally conducted business for the colony of Carolina. Not until the tenure of Governor Gabriel Johnston did conflict rise to serious proportions between the elected government and the officials appointed by the King and British Parliament.

On 18 October, 1736 Governor Johnston wrote in a letter to Parliament,

"I sent your Lordships the only Copies of our Laws I could procure last December with such remarks as my bad state of health would then permit me to make. I did venture at that time to desire you to advise His Majesty to repeal as soon as possible the Biennial Law and to order that no Precinct should on any Pretence whatsoever be Represented by more than two members and to discharge me from consenting to Erect any new Precinct without His Majestys permission."

The Governor waited until the following year for a response. In 1737 the King said in writing:

"By an Act passed in Carolina in the time of the Lords Proprietors relating to biennial and other assemblies and regulating elections and members, I observe that there is a power given to the assembly of this colony to meet without the consent of the Crown. The charter to the Lords Proprietors does not warrant this proceeding. The power of calling of parliaments is admitted to be an inherent privilege in the Crown, and I believe this is the first instance that such an attempt has been made to deprive the Crown of it. I think you should show your disapprobation of a law which in so high a degree encroaches upon the prerogative of the Crown. But I must observe to you, if the facts are true which are stated in the memorial of Mr. Smyth the Chief Justice, I think it cannot be considered as an Act in force, not having received a due confirmation agreeable to the rules settled by the Lords Proprietors themselves."

This wishy-washy statement is considered the official disposition of The North Carolina Biennial Act. Although the King's letter stopped the establishment of new precincts and stopped expansion of the House of Burgesses, elections and biennial assemblies continued.


The Declaration of Independence was nearly forty years later: July 4, 1776.

The Mecklenburg Resolves, A document signed May 31, 1775, in:

Philosophos Historia

[NOTE: Spelling within quoted material retained from original text.]

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