Tarheel Founding Fathers: Abner Nash

North Carolina's 2nd post-colonial Governor spent most of his adult life representing his constituents, and his last breath was taken on the floor of the Continental Congress in 1786, at the ripe old age of 46. Not an outspoken man, but he was a true patriot, who spent many sleepless nights worrying about the safety and well-being of both the militia volunteers and civilians caught in the middle of our struggle for independence.

To really understand Nash and why I describe him as a "true patriot," we're going to have to spin back the clock. A lot. In the early 17th Century, the Crown granted a charter to some businessmen to build a colony in what is now Virginia. And because it was a "company" and not a Crown-financed colony, the King (James 1) allowed the Virginia Company to elect its own governing body, dispense justice as it saw fit, and pretty much everything else that needed to be done to make the colony prosper. And even after the "business" part of the Company failed, the Crown allowed the governing mechanism to remain. And that governing mechanism became the House of Burgesses, democratically elected representatives of the people, over 100 years before the Declaration of Independence.

Flash forward to 1761, when a 21 year-old Abner Nash takes his seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. During his 4 year tenure, he and Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry and George Washington and George Mason and other cocky Virginians sat around grousing about the Stamp Act and all sorts of other British outrages. By the time the debates in the Continental Congress started up a decade later, these guys were long past even considering staying loyal to the Crown. They knew what had to be done, and how costly that might be.

Nash moved to New Bern in late 1765, married and practiced law for a while, but he had the revolutionary itch, and was soon riding back and forth organizing the Provincial Congress, which produced the Halifax Resolves and eventually morphed into the General Assembly. In 1781 Abner Nash followed Richard Caswell as the 2nd "elected" Governor of North Carolina, but there was still much distrust of that office, owing to decades of Colonial Governors. These were also some extremely dangerous times for North Carolina, as the Crown had decided to shift the War to the Southern states. In a very short period of time, North Carolina lost somewhere around 3,000 militia volunteers, either killed or captured, under what Nash considered the mismanagement of Continental Army leadership:

In May of 1780, news of the fall of Charleston, South Carolina and the capture of General Benjamin Lincoln's southern army reached Congress. On May 7, they voted to place Gates in command of the Southern Department. When he learned of his new command while at his home, near modern Shepherdstown, West Virginia, he headed south to assume command of remaining Continental forces near the Deep River in North Carolina of July 25, 1780.

He led his forces and militia south, to their stand-up fight with British general Charles Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden on August 16. The result was an overwhelming defeat. Gates' only notable accomplishment was to cover 170 miles in three days on horseback, headed north. His bitter disappointment was further aggravated when he learned that his son Robert had been killed in combat in October. When Nathanael Greene replaced him as commander on December 3, he returned home.

Nash was furious with Gates, and was tied in knots by a General Assembly that seemed more intent on power plays (sound familiar?) than defending the populace:

Unhappily for Nash, Charleston surrendered in May 1780, and over 1,400 North Carolina soldiers were taken prisoner. Nash initially welcomed the appointment of Horatio Gates, the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, to command American forces in the South, but Gates suffered a devastating defeat at Camden, South Carolina in August. Meanwhile, Nash struggled to organize the state’s defenses. In September 1780, Nash proposed that the assembly create a Board of War to assist him; he apparently envisioned it as a quasi-legislative body that could function between legislative sessions. The lawmakers complied, creating a board “with very extensive powers,” but Nash and the board never worked well together. The board assumed an executive role that asserted authority for the administration of state troops, directed troop movements, and communicated directly with officers in the field. Competition between the governor and the board complicated mobilization. Soon, Nash was complaining to the legislature that the Board of War had left him with “an empty title,” and he threatened to resign if the panel were not abolished. The assembly granted his request and passed legislation extending his term until June 25, 1781, but he refused to seek reelection.

After his frustrations surrounding his struggles with the General Assembly over, among many other things, the management of the militia that was suffering greatly in the field, when Nash took up his duties in the Continental Congress, he was faced with a financial crisis that could very well cause us to lose the war:

Nothing I do assure you my Dear Sir is more true than that poor America is prepared for peace, indeed it may be said she is prepared for nothing else. In the early periods of the war Con-gress possessed powers very different from what they do now. They Could order the raising of Regiments, could organize armies & what is of particular consequence they held the purse strings of America, that is so long as paper could be found, they could find money--possessed fully of the Confidence of their Country they could turn even rags to Money. Midas like what e' re they touched they turned to gold, but alas! this gold has all turned to rags again & the art is lost lost, forever, see McFingal, & they are able now only to apply to their constituents for money, who are either not able or not willing to pay. Perhaps you will say, let them exercise their power of borrowing as other sovereigns do who enter into war, but I answer if they will borrow as other nations do, they must provide & appropriate ample Funds for paymt. of Interest & principal as other nations do. Promises wont do any longer & what funds I ask you have Congress in their power--none--they made one attempt to bring the states into a consent that they might Tax imports as far as 5 per Cent & after advocating the propriety nay necessity of the measure as a prop to Credt. for two years they have at length the mortification to find it wont go down. The little State of R. Island has had it in her power to blast the well grounded hopes that were conceived of such a measure & Virga. has since on this head gone retrograde. A deputation from the N. army is now before Congress stating their distresses & prophesying what will be the probable consequence if practising any longer on the patiance of the Soldiery. God grant us you will say a happy issue out of all our troubles; so we all say but this wont get the Cart out of the mire.

The cynical-minded might be prone to assign greed as the culprit for the growing lack of financial support for the war. But in reality, there simply wasn't enough continuing commerce to generate the revenues needed. It was a tried and true British tactic, and the main reason the King spent so much treasure maintaining their fleet: Disrupt your enemy's trade long enough, and he will collapse and tear himself apart. What the King simply couldn't comprehend was that some people would rather starve than to lose their freedom, once they had tasted it.