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Governor Abner Nash 




NOVEMBER 15. 1909 






Hall of the House of Representatives, at Raleigh, 

NOVEMBER 15, 1909, 






Alumni Profesjor of History in the Univereity of North Carolina, 
a Member of the Society. 



North Carolina Society of the Sons of the Revolution 

NOVEMBER 15. 1909— NOVEMBER 15, 1910. 








West Raleigh. 








The Officers, ex offlcio, 


Alexander Botd Andrews, Jr., Chairman. 

Cable Axtgustus WooDEUP5,«'t]*.S.A., Junius Davis, 
William Enos Stone, Charles Earl Johnson, 

Collier Cobb, Alfred IMoore Scales, 

Julian Shakespeare Caer. Thomas Maslin. 


May it please your Excellency: 

On the part of the Worth Carolina Society of the Sons of the 
Revolution, I present through you to the State of ISTorth Caro- 
lina the portrait of Abner ISTash, patriot legislator, and second 
Governor of the Commonwealth. 


In the year 1730, or thereabouts, there came to Virginia John 
Nash, best known to North Carolina as the progenitor of three 
of her distinguished public men, namely, Abner Nash, lawyer, 
legislator, and governor; Francis Nash, legislator and soldier; 
and Frederick Nash, legislator and chief justice of the Supreme 
Court of the State. Before emigrating he married Ann Owen, 
a daughter of Sir Hugh Owen, of Tenby, Pembrokeshire, "Wales. 
Thus well equipped for life, he sought fortune in the New 
World, settling first in Henrico county and later in Prince 
Edward, in the fork of the Bush and Appomattox rivers, where 
he purchased a large estate, to which he gave the name of Tem- 
pleton Manor. In his new home he won prominence and honor, 
filling at various times the offices of justice of the peace, high 
sheriff, member of the House of Burgesses, lieutenant of the 
county, and captain in the Indian war. Later he was chairman 
of the county committee of safety and a member of the Virginia 
convention of 1775. He was one of the founders of Hampden- 
Sydney College and permanent chairman of its board of trustees. 
He died in 1776. To him were born four sons and four daugh- 

The third son, named x\bner for his grandfather, Abner Nash, 
of Tenby, Wales, was born about 1740. Nothing is known of 
his early life or training, but he showed throughout life the 
signs of a liberal education and considerable culture. In 1762 
he appeared in Rowan county as an attorney before the county 
court, and in 1763 he came to Hillsboro with his younger 

brother, Francis, who settled there about this time, but he did 
not remain. Probably he was viewing the country before set- 
tling down to the practice of law. He seems finally to have 
located himself in Halifax, for from there he made his first pub- 
lic appearance, in 1764, as a member of the Assembly. Although 
failing to select Hillsboro as his residence, he was there fre- 
quently in the following years, visiting his brother and prac- 
ticing in Orange Court. He became the owner of a number of 
town lots there, and, after placing a dam across the Eno, erected 
the first mill within the corporate limits of the town. 

In 1765 Nash was again a member of the Assembly from the 
town of Halifax, and in 1769, 1770 and 1771 he represented 
Halifax county, but soon thereafter he removed to i^ew Bern 
and entered actively upon the practice of his profession. After 
the death of Governor Dobbs he married his young and attrac- 
tive widow, whose maiden name was Justina Davis. Out of 
this marriage grew the famous Martin court quarrel. Dobbs, 
by his will, left £2,000 to Mrs. Dobbs, chargeable upon his lands 
in North Carolina. Upon the failure of Conway and Richard 
Dobbs, his executors, to pay this, Nash, who by this time had 
acquired a personal as well as a professional interest in the 
legacy, sued them, and an attachment was issued under the 
Tryon Court law. The defendants at once procured an injunc- 
tion, which the Provincial Chancery Court made perpetual. 
The Privy Council, hov^^ever, upon Nash's appeal, reversed this 
decision. In the Privy Council at this time were Lord Hills- 
boro, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Lord Hertford, 
the Lord Chamberlain, both close friends of the Dobbs family. 
Through their influence, it is supposed, the instructions against 
the provisions of the court law relating to attachments were 
given to Governor Martin, which led to the angry quarrel be- 
tween him and the Assembly that resulted in the disappearance 
of courts in the province of North Carolina and gave a great 
impetus to the revolutionary movement. 

Mrs. Nash died in 1773, and not many years later Nash mar- 
ried Mary Jones, an heiress from Chowan. He continued to 

reside in jSTew Bern, and from there he was a delegate to all four 
of the Provincial Congresses. He was a member of the Pro- 
vincial Council in 1775 and was speaker of the first House of 
Commons, in 1777. The next year he was elected to the Con- 
tinental Congress, but declined to serve. In 1779 he was sent 
to the Senate from Jones County, which had been newly erected, 
and upon the resignation of Allen Jones he was unanimously 
chosen speaker. In 1780 he was elected governor by a large 
majority and served until June 25, 1781, He was again elected 
to the House of Commons in 1782 from Jones, where his resi- 
dence now was ; and in the same year he was elected to Congress, 
of which body he remained a member, with the exception of one 
small interval, until his death, December 2, 1786. 

Having thus briefly sketched his career as an introduction, I 
ask your attention to a consideration of Abner Nash, first, as a 
lawyer and citizen; second, as a legislator, state and national; 
and, third, as Governor. 


When Abner Nash came to the bar in North Carolina there 
were about forty-five lawyers in the province. This small num- 
ber argues a large practice for most of them, and Nash soon 
shared in it and took the prominent place to which his talents 
entitled him. We can, fortunately, from evidence nearly con- 
temporary, form an estimate of his ability and power as an 
advocate. Archibald Maclaine Hooper said of him : "The name 
of Abner Nash always brings to my imagination the inflamed 
energy of Demosthenes, and produces some of that perturbation 
which is felt in reading his orations. The eloquence of Nash 
and Hooper must, indeed, have exhibited a fine contrast. Nash 
was vehemence and fire; Hooper was stately and diffusive elo- 
quence." Among his associates at the bar were such giants as 
Iredell, Moore, Hooper, Maclaine, Burke and, towards the lat- 
ter part of his career, William Richardson Davie. By them he 
was regarded with respect and with admiration, and by most 

of his associates lie seems to have been lield in great affection 
and personal esteem. 

We know but little of the details of bis professional life, but 
the few facts known are interesting. The most notable of 
his early cases was, of course, tbe Dobbs case. Almost his 
last was Bayard vs. Singleton, famous as one of the earliest 
cases in which the power of tbe judiciary to declare the uncon- 
stitutionality of a legislative act was asserted. Here he ap- 
peared for the validity of the act. There are many contem- 
porary allusions to his position at the bar, among tbem that of 
Governor Martin, who, in writing to Lord Dartmouth, spoke of 
him as "an eminent lawyer," but, in view of his Whiggish 
activity, added, "but a most unprincipled character." 

Nash was of a type not infrequent in that day. Genial, easy 
of manner, luxurious in taste and habit, convivial and somewhat 
given to extravagance, without due thought of the morrow, he 
lived on a large and fine estate near ISTew Bern, called Pem- 
broke, in memory of the old home of the xTashes in Wales, where 
it was his delight to dispense a gracious and charming hospi- 
tality to the many friends of the family. Here he lived until 
Major Craig captured l!^ew Bern when he took to flight. In this 
way his books and papers were lost, and for that reason our 
knowledge of his is far less than his career deserves. When the 
Revolution began he was possessed of a large fortune, but at its 
close all was lost, and the worry and anxiety consequent upon 
his position had caused a total breakdown of his health. By 
the time of his death he had in some measure replaced his for- 
tune, but he was never a well man again. 

In common with the leaders of his time, JSTash favored educa- 
tion, and we find him among the original trustees of Queen's 
Museum. He was also one of the trustees of Granville Hall. 

As was to be expected from his associations and sympathies, 
he was a member of the Tryon party during the Regulation, and, 
in fact, was a major of brigade, or brigadier general, in the 
force raised by Governor Tryon for the suppression of the out- 

Living in the stormy period in which he did, at the center of 
provincial government, a vigorous thinker, who was deeply in- 
terested in public questions, it was not unnatural that his voice 
was soon raised in behalf of his country and that his best efforts 
and most devoted service were given to her. We thus come to 
his career as a legislator. 


Kash's first legislative service, as has already been mentioned, 
was in the Assembly of 1764, in which he represented the 
borough of Halifax. His only action of importance, so far as 
can be judged from the journal, was a motion to establish a 
post road from Suffolk, Virginia, to the South Carolina line. 
In 1769 he was again in the Assembly, this time from Halifax 
county, and was returned in 1770. His reputation had grown 
by this time, and his prominence in the body is shown by his 
committee service, for he served on no less than nine general 
committees, besides many special ones. Lack of time forbids 
the mention of these, with the single exception of one notable 
for the men who composed it. The committee to answer the 
governor's message, besides Xash, was composed of Robert 
Howe, Samuel Johnston, Edmund Fanning, Maurice Moore, 
Cornelius Harnett, and Joseph Hewes, all of whom, except Fan- 
ning, were later to become dislhi-xuished for their zeal in the 
patriot cause. Few colonial committees could be found that had 
such a group of talent upon them. In the Assembly of 1771 he 
was also quite active. This service made him well acquainted 
with the condition and sentiment of the province and was a 
valuable preparation for his later Revolutionary activity. 

Within the next few years the long-standing discontent of the 
colonies with British administration led to open revolt. JSTorth 
Carolina did not lag behind the other colonies in resistance to 
arbitrary power. Governor Martin, who succeeded Tryon, was 
of a character and disposition that soon caused him to incur the 
enmity, distrust and contempt of the !N"orth Carolinians, and 


their feeling was intensified by the long quarrel in regard to the 
courts. Nash was, from the beginning of the movement, an 
earnest and active patriot; and on August 9, 1774, he was 
elected by a public meeting, held in JSTew Bern, one of the dele- 
gates to the first Provincial Congress, which met at New Bern 
August 25, 1774. 

After the adjouinment of the Congress, Nash was not idle, 
but in New Bern and the adjaceisi country was using his great 
personal influence and his fiery and magnetic eloquence in arous- 
ing the people. He was a member of the local safety committee 
and signed its address to the people in March, 1775. Governor 
Martin, indeed, supposed that he had written it, for, writing to 
Lord Dartmouth on March 10th, he said: ''I enclose to your 
Lordship an advertisement of a committee in the town that may 
serve as a specimen of their atrocious falsehoods which are re- 
ported to stimulate the people to revolt. . . . It is supposed 
to be the composition of a Mr. Nash, one of the subscribers, who 
is an eminent lawyer, but a most unprincipled character of this 
country." On May 23d a meeting of the committee was held in 
New Bern, and afterwards a great crowd of the inhabitants 
waited on the Governor. Nash, whom the Governor noAv styled 
"the oracle of the committee" and "the principal promoter of 
sedition," presented the protest of the people against the dis- 
mounting of the cannon with which the palace was fortified. All 
of this time, the inhabitants, under the lead of Nash and a few 
others, were organizing military companies, and on May 30th 
Governor Martin took flight and royal authority ceased to exist 
in North Carolina. 

How much the activities of Nash had grated upon the sensi- 
bilities of the Governor is to be seen in a letter to Dartmouth, 
written after his flight : "I hold ifc my indispensable duty to 
mention to your Lordship Cornelius Harnett, John Ashe, Robert 
Howe, and Abner Nash as persons ^v]\o have marked themselves 
out as proper objects for such distinction [?'. e., proscription] in 
this colony by their unremitted efforts to promote sedition and 
rebellion here, froui the beginning of the discontents in America 

to this time, that they stand foremost among the patrons of 
revolt and anarchy." 

In the meantime the second Provincial Congress met at the 
same time with the last royal Assembly, on April 4th. ISTash 
was also a member of this, though not of the Assembly. He 
vtras also a delegate to the third Provincial Congress, which met 
at Hillsboro, xVugust 20th, but he did not attend, probably on 
account of sickness. By this Congress he was elected a member 
of the Provincial Council, then created as the central executive 
body of the rapidly developing independent State. Se was 
present at all its meetings, and seems to have borne an active 
part in its labors. We find him with his colleague from New 
Bern, James Coor, in charge of the fortifications at Hanging 
Point, on the Neuse, and authorized to charter vessels and carry 
on an export trade from New Bern for the purpose of procuring 
arms and ammunition. With others, he was commissioned to 
equip armed vessels to go out from New Bern, and was directed 
to prepare for arming the province against British invasion. 
By the Council he was sent, in February, 1776, with John Kin- 
chen to Charleston to confer v/ith the South Carolina authori- 
ties in regard to defense. 

The fourth Provincial Congress met at Halifax, April 4, 
1776. Here Nash rendered his most important legislative ser- 
vice. Reaching there on the 8th, he was at once placed on the 
committee to take into consideration the usurpations and vio- 
lences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of 
Britain against America, and the further measures to be taken 
for frustrating the same and for the better defense of the prov- 
ince. To this committee, composed of Harnett, Allen Jones, 
Burke, Thomas Jones, Kinchen, and Person, in addition to 
Nash, belongs the honor of the 12th of April resolution, which 
is the brightest jewel in North Carolina's Revolutionary crown, 
and which entitles her, justly and without fear of contradiction, 
to claim priority in the movement for independence. Nash was 
also on the committees of secrecy, intelligence and observation, 
ways and means, to prepare !a temporary civil government, to 


consider defense of the coast, to prepare a form of commission 
for privateers, to draw up instructions for recruiting officers, to 
prevent the desertion of slaves; and, finally, when it became evi- 
dent that the differences of opinion as to the form of govern- 
ment to be established were so serious that delay was necessary, 
on the committee to form a temporary civil government until 
the next Congress. 

In the political division which appeared at this time J^ash 
took the conservative side, without, however, becoming the par- 
tisan that many were. Because of his conservative views, he 
met with vigorous opposition in "New Bern, but after a heated 
campaign he was triumphantly re-elected as a delegate to the 
fifth Provincial Congress, which met November 12, 1776. 

Nash was on the committee to review and consider all such 
acts of the Assembly as were then in force in the State, and "to 
prepare such bills to be passed into laws as might be consistent 
with the genius of a free people." He was also on the steering 
committee, as it would be called to-day; the committee on in- 
quiry, the committee to form a bill of rights and Constitution, 
and a number of minor committees. What part he played in 
shaping our organic law, we unfortunately do not know, but, 
considering the vigorous personality of the man, it is not unrea- 
sonable to conclude that his voice was by no means an unimpor- 
tant one. 

In March, 1777, JSTash was elected to the House of Commons 
from New Bern, and when that body assembled he was chosen 
speaker, the first of a long line of able and distinguished men 
who have since held that station. He presided with dignity and 
ability, and thereby won new friends and admirers, and the 
whole session was marked by complete harmony and absence of 
friction. The next year, also, Nash was a member of the House 
from Craven county, and by fhat Assembly he was elected to 
the Continental Congress, but declined to accept. In 1779 he 
was elected to the Senate from Jones County, and, as usual, was 
active in committee work, being a member of the steering, four 
other general committees, and many special ones. Later in the 


session he succeeded Allen Jones as speaker, and was thus 
directly in line for the gubevnatorial office, to which he was 
called in 1780. 

Before discussing his administration, let us consider his later 
legislative service. As has been seen, he was in the House from 
Jones in 1782, 1783, 1784 and 1785. Here he was still fore- 
most in active committee service. He was a leader in the Gen- 
eral Assembly of 1784 in opposition to the recommendation of 
Congress that loyalists should be given full rights, and on a bill 
to repeal all such laws as were inconsistent with the treaty of 
peace he voted nay, thereby incurring the enmity of Archibald 
Maclaine, who wrote George Hooper that Nash and Blount, 
"destitute of principle and swayed only by motives of interest, 
headed the opposition." He voted for the cession of Tennessee 
in May, 1784, but, in ISTovember, like many others, voted for its 

On May 3, 1782, Nash was elected to Congress. He had been 
a candidate for election the year before, but had been defeated 
by Benjamin Hawkins. He commenced his service on IMovem- 
ber 4th and remained until January 25, 1783, While there he 
was on the post-office committee and was one of a special com- 
mittee selected to visit Rhode Island and urge the compliance 
of that State with a resolution of Congress imposing a duty on 
imports. But the matter was dropped before the committee 
could start, by reason of the nev/s that Virginia had declined to 
ratify it. During his short service Nash saw the weakness of 
the national government in operation, and wrote Iredell that, 
if the nation was in distress, the fault was in the constitution 
of Congress, but that, if the difficulties pointed a remedy, all 
was for the best. This may have explained his failure to attend 
the next year, in spite of his election, though the fact that, ii. a 
sense, he was a candidate for the governorship may have had 
something to do with it. Then, too, we must remember that 
North Carolina was notorious for its indiilerence to Congress, 
and, indeed, to the national government. In 1784 Nash was 
again chosen, but did not attend. He failed of election in the 

12 / 

spring of 1785, but in December lie Avas elected for the fourth 
time, and in the following November went to jSTew York to 
attend the meetings. There he died, on December 2d, before he 
took his seat. In the meantime he had been appointed by Gov- 
ernor Caswell a delegate to the Annapolis convention, but was 
ill at the time, and so was not present. 

Thus ended his distinguished legislative career. Had he 
lived he would almost certainly have been one of the framers of 
the Constitution and have added one more to his already numer- 
ous honors. For I^orth Carolina regarded him as one of her 
most valuable public men. Harnett classed him with Burke and 
Johnston ; and Blount de])lored the loss to the State, by death, of 
so valuable a member. 


Having looked at Wash from two points of view, let us now 
consider him in the position of greatest responsibility among the 
many he filled, namely, that of Chief Executive of the infant 
commonwealth, weak and struggling against invasion from 
without and divisions within. 

On April 21 or 22, 1780, Nash was elected governor to suc- 
ceed Caswell, who was ineligible for re-election. He at once 
entered upon his duties and displayed great energy and activity 
in the military preparations, which, at that time, occupied most 
of the attention of the executive. Stores were collected, arms 
and ammunition gathered, and, not least in the estimation of 
the army, "many wagons loaded with spirits" were sent to the 
troops. So, when General Gates finally came south, the army 
was amply supplied, and almost entirely by North Carolina. 
Need there was of activity, for the State was sorely stricken by 
the fall of Charleston and the loss of the six battalions of vet- 
eran Continental troops, besides the one thousand militia Ihere 
surrendered. North Carolina was apparently open to the ad- 
vance of the British, but their delay gave much needed time, 
and when they came the State was ready for them. The dis- 


aster at Camden, however, made it necessary for most of the 
work to be repeated, and in order to prepare for this Governor 
Nash called the General Assembly to meet at Hillsboro on Au- 
gust 20th, but, very few of the members being present, it was 
not until September 5th that a quorum was in attendance. In 
the meantime the governor had laid an embargo on provisions 
and spirits for thirty days, and such members of the Assembly 
as had arrived took power in their hands to protect the State. 

The previous General Assembly had made Caswell com- 
mander-in-chief of the militia and given him powers which 
interfered to a great extent with the constitutional powers of the 
Governor. At this session Governor Nash reported that his 
council would not meet, and did not assist him. He therefore 
recommended the creation of a Board of War, which should 
share with him the responsibility of the war when the Legisla- 
ture was not in session. This was accordingly done, and John 
Penn, Alexander Martin and Oroondates Davis were elected. 
Their election was received with the utmost scorn and contempt 
by the military men of the State, and Nash soon found that the 
powers granted the board were in derogation of his own, as 
defined by the Constitution. The board was very active, fear- 
less and, to an extent, effective, but its very existence marked a 
dangerous step in development, and Nash was. thoroughly justi- 
fied in his attitude towards it. Even if it were thought that 
two or three heads were better than one, the argument failed in 
this case, for frequently only one member of the board was 
present. Nor was the attitude of the body towards the Gov- 
ernor pleasant or marked by a proper respect. In considera- 
tion of all the facts of the case, and having become convinced 
that the board was not a constitutional body and was dangerous, 
Nash refused to fill a vacancy oh it. This led to open enmi+y 
with the board, but did not check his activity nor dampen his 
ardor for the cause ; and by the end of 1780 North Carolina had 
five thousand men in the field. As Nash wrote Willie Jones, 
"zeal and spirits rose with difficulties," and the State was more 
united than had been the case at any previous time. But the 


situation was unbearable, particularly to a man of proud spirit. 
Nash wrote Burke that tbe executive power bad been so divided 
and subdivided that, like the rays of the sun, it had lost its force, 
and "men, not knowing whom to obey, obeyed nobody." So, 
when the General Assembly met in February, 1781, he at once 
laid the matted before it and expressed the determination to 
resign immediately imless a change was made. His protest was 
dignified and conclusive, and its close is worthy of quotation 

"I readily acknowledged the merit of the Gentlemen who com- 
pose the Board of War, & that I thought the establishment of 
such a board necessary. I also thought it necessary that extraor- 
dinary powers should be lodged somewhere, equal to the exi- 
gency of the times & agreeably to the recommendation of Con- 
gress, to be exercised on extraordinary occasions ; and, being not 
ambitious of power myself, I recommended that the extraor- 
dinary power should be in the Board of War, so as to make them 
a legal basis for the support of the Executive; & this, as ex- 
pressed by Congress, might have been in lieu of the Assembly 
sitting constantly. But, instead of giving them powers which 
lie dormant, except when the Assembly are in session, you give 
them powers comprehending and, of course, superseding those 
of the Executive, which was never Dormant. In short, Gentle- 
men, I hold at present but an empty title, neither serviceable to 
the people nor honorable to myself. It will therefore become an 
act of necessity, however disagreeable at a time like this, that I 
resign my office, unless you restore it to a condition as respect- 
able as it was when you did me the honour to confer it upon me." 

Immediately a committee was appointed to confer with him 
on the subject, and as a result the Council Extraordinary re- 
placed the Board of War, but was also given unconstitutional 
powers. By act of the Assembly, ISTash was continued as gov- 
ernor after April 12th, when his term expired. 

The Assembly met again in June. IN'ash was nominated for 
re-election, but pleaded ill health, and his name was withdrawn. 
The Assembly thanked him for his "steady, zealous, patriotic 


and arduous services as Governor of the State at a period so 
truly alarming," and, after assuring him of its intention to pro- 
tect the executive, elected Thomas Burke. Apart from Nash's 
ill health and his disgust at the way he had been treated, the 
inroads upon his fortune had wrecked it, and it was necessary 
for him to begin anew. While the statement of his wife that 
his salary of £13,000 was scarcely sufficient to purchase her a 
calico dress may be regarded as an exaggeration, it was never- 
theless far from being an adequate support. In 1784 Nash 
seems to have desired re-election to the governorship, but was 
defeated by Caswell, who received a majority of thirty votes in 
the Assembly. 

In a most inadequate way I have shown you something of the 
man and his v/ork. It is a sad commentary upon the State pride 
of our ancestors that scarcely any material remains from which 
to show his thought and character. That he was no ordinary 
man is sufficiently attested, not only by his public career, but by 
the attitude of his contemporaries. The distinguished honors 
paid his memory in New York upon the occasion of his death 
points clearly to a national reputation, for, behind his body, on 
its way to its temporary resting place in St. Paul's churchyard, 
came Congress in a body, foreign representatives, both diplo- 
matic and consular, the Supreme Court and governor of New 
York, the national officei'S, civil and military; the mayor of 
the city, the faculty of the university, and a large concourse of 
citizens of every rank. 

Shall we of to-day do him less honor? God forbid that the 
prophets of our greatness should remain without honor in their 
own country. From the walls of this building, the home of the 
State which he helped to create, may his face look down upon 
generations to come, and give inspiration to a patriotism such as 
guided him through life.