Tarheel Founding Fathers: Richard Caswell

We'll start this year's chapter out by correcting some bad history:

Richard Caswell acted as the colony’s surveyor for only a brief time before he decided to pursue law. From 1752-54, Richard Caswell clerked for the court of Orange County, while simultaneously studying law. In 1754 he was admitted to the bar and immediately set up a law practice in Hillsboro, North Carolina. Richard Caswell gained popularity and respect during his public tenure as the deputy surveyor, he was chosen to serve his colony again when asked to participate in the North Carolina Colonial Assembly in 1754. In that assembly, he served for twenty years. In the early years of his political career, Caswell was loyal to the King of England and aligned himself with royal Governor William Tryon and later Josiah Martin.

However, by 1771, when Caswell retired from the Colonial Assembly, his political views had taken a drastic turn and Caswell viewed King George’s rule as unjust in North Carolina. Upon his retirement from the Colonial Assembly he became an active member in the colonial militia, fighting in the Battle of Alamance, on May 16, 1771. Caswell later returned to the colonial militia...

Caswell fought for the Crown in the Battle of Alamance, not for the "resistance," as the above implies. The author of this sad excuse for a historical accounting (published by the John Locke Foundation) apparently didn't understand that "Colonial" referred to the Crown Colony under the rule of "Governor" Tryon. And Caswell was not just an "active member" of said Militia, he was a Colonel who led around a third of the force that brutally put down the Regulators fighting against the Crown at the Battle of Alamance:

Determining exactly how many men served with Tryon’s army is difficult. The only extant military return made of the army is from a few days after the Alamance engagement. Adding the men who were killed or wounded to those numbers gives some idea of how large a force was assembled. The two largest units within Tryon’s army were the Orange and Dobbs County militia battalions. The Orange County militia, led by Col. Edmund Fanning and Lt. Col. Francis Nash, formed a battalion of four companies consisting of a little over 200 men. Roughly equal in size to the Orange County detachment, Dobbs County retinue also fielded four companies of nearly 200 men, under the command of Col. Richard Caswell and his second-in-command Maj. Francis Mackilwean.

It may seem trivial to those who don't value accurate historical information as much as they value telling a good story, but Caswell's participation in Tryon's brutal repression of the Regulators must be preserved on the record. During that relatively short period of time, the British Monarchy's control over several of the colonies was challenged, but not as forcefully as what happened right here in Orange County (I live in Alamance, but back then it was part of Orange). Edmund Fanning was literally beaten in the streets of Hillsborough a year or so before this Battle took place, and the fact Richard Caswell was made a full Colonel in Tryon's Army speaks volumes, if you read between the historical lines. Tryon was genuinely afraid, as well he should have been. He would not have randomly chosen Caswell to serve in such a high position, they were very likely confidants.

But here's the important thing to remember: Caswell was not the only (future) Founding Father who fought against the Regulators, and that engagement very well may have been the turning point for these future patriots. They saw, firsthand, that a large contingent of Colonial citizens were prepared to fight and die for independence from the Crown. Had the Regulators been better organized, they would have slaughtered Governor Tryon's considerably smaller force. Regardless of what was written, that had to be on their minds.

But enough about that. By the time Richard Caswell made his way to the 1st Continental Congress, over a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed and delivered to the King, battles were being fought and armies were being raised. From a letter to his son:

Here a Greater Martial Spirit prevails if possible, than I have been describing in Virginia & Maryland. They have 28 Companies Compleat which make near 2000 Men who March out to the Common & go thro their Exercises twice a Day regularly. Scarce any thing But Warlike Musick is to be heard in the Streets, there are Several Com- panies of Quakers only, and many of them beside enrolled in Other Companies promiscuously. Tis sayed they will in a few days have 3000 Men under Arms ready to defend their Liberties. They are raising Men in New York & all the Northern Governments, the Yorkers I am told by their Delegates are determined to Defend their Liberties & since the Action between the Kings Troops & the Provincials scarcely a Tory is to be found amongst them. I herewith inclose you a paper in which is a List of the Killed & Wounded of the Kings Troops, But 'tis said this is not Genuine, a Much greater Number being Actually Killed. On the side of the Bostonians 37 were Killed outright 4 are Missing & I forget The Number of Wounded I think thirty odd.

Thus you have the fullest Account I am Able to give of these matters and as the Accot. is so long twill not be in my power to Communicate the same to any other of my Countrymen & friends but thro'you. You may therefore remember me in the Strongest manner to Your Uncles, Capt Bright & others of my particular Friends. Shew them this Letter, and tell them it will be a Reflection on their Country to be Behind their neighbours, that it is Indispensibly necessary for them to Arm & form into a Company or Companies of Independants. When their Companies are full, 68 private Men each to Elect Officers Viz a Capt. 2 Leut. an Ensign & Subalterns, And to meet so often as possible & go thro the exercise, receive no Man but such as can be depended on, at the same Time reject none who will not discredit the Company. If I live to return I shall most Chearfully Join any of my Countrymen even as a rank and file man, And as in the Common cause I am here exposed to danger that or any other difficulties I shall not shun whilst I have any Blood in my Veins, But freely offer it in Support of the Liberties of my Country. Tell Your Uncles (the Clk & Sher.) it may not be prudent for them so far to engage, yet awhile, in any Company as to risk the losses of their offices. But you, my Dear Boy, must become a Soldier & risk your life in Support of those invaluable Blessings, which once lost Posterity will never be able to regain. Some men I fear will start objections to the enrolling of Companies & exercising the Men & will say it will be acting against Government, that may be Answered "That it is not so" That we are only Qualifying ourselves and preparing to defend our Country & Support our Liberties. I can say no more at present But that May God Almighty protect you all & his Blessing Attend your good endeavors, is the Ardent prayer of, My Dear Child, Your Affectionate Father Rd Caswell

P.S. Only shew this Letter to such as I have described above & don't let it be Copied, Consult Capt Bright &c.

As you can see from Caswell's warning, these was still quite a bit of controversy about the rebellion, especially among the more wealthy North Carolinians. Some were genuine Tories, but many of them were simply afraid to lose what they had gained in commerce under the Crown. Many of them held on desperately to the idea they could negotiate more freedoms from King George, and viewed the raising of armies as an unnecessary and dangerous provocation. That sentiment was very slow in fading, as Richard Caswell would come to find out later as a Governor whose power was extremely limited:

When the Fifth Provincial Congress convened at Halifax late in 1776, Caswell served as its presiding officer and as chairman of the committee to draft the state’s constitution. Moreover, this same provincial body elected Caswell to serve as interim governor of the new-born state until the first meeting of the General Assembly. When the Assembly convened in April of the following year, Caswell was elected to the first of three successive one-year terms allowable under the Constitution. In time, Caswell would become convinced that the constitutional powers of the governorship were too tightly constrained. As Governor, Caswell exerted every effort to raise and supply troops for the war effort on both the state and national levels. He also was forced to contend with continual frictions between Indians and settlers on the western frontier, with sporadic British raids along the coast, and with Tory hostilities throughout the state.

By the time 1780 rolled around, Caswell was both exhausted and disgusted. He was disgusted with the prevalence of war profiteers that he had to deal with in procuring supplies for the troops, especially when he discovered there were several merchant ships (most of them owned by wealthy North Carolinians) docked in New Bern, with holds full of uniforms and weapons and many other items that were desperately needed by the state militias and the regulars that had been sent up North. But he was powerless to raise the exorbitant amounts they wanted for those supplies, and powerless to simply take those supplies away from those war profiteers. North Carolina wasn't the only place where that was happening, but it was far enough from the main battles (and Congress) that he had little popular support to shame these guys into doing what was right.

This may not have been the history you wanted to read today, but that's not how history works. It is neither positive nor negative, it just is. And we learn from it, or we continue to make the same mistakes until our luck runs out.

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Comments

This should have been posted earlier,

but it takes time to do this right. That link above to the Battle of Alamance material itself is a 67 page document, an insanely well-researched summary of the Battle. You can't just skim that stuff, or you risk missing a critical detail that can provide insight into what was going on in their heads at the time.

Again, that might not matter to some people, but understanding what motivated these individuals is critical in understanding what later laws were supposed to accomplish.