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Reading 1: Establishing a Permanent Capital in North Carolina
New Bern was serving as the capital of North Carolina when the Revolutionary War began in 1775, but during the course of the war, the legislature (the official body of lawmakers) also met at Hillsboro, Halifax, Smithfield, Wake Courthouse, Fayetteville, and Tarboro. While the capital officially remained in New Bern, the legislature moved often in an attempt to prevent British troops and their powerful navy from gaining control of the government. The first meeting sites of the legislature lay along the coastal plain, but continued fighting convinced the legislators (members of the legislature) that a permanent capital needed to be located inland where it was safer. The combination of war and the moves resulted in chaotic conditions: official papers were misplaced or lost, and legislators and other citizens often did not know to where the legislature had been moved. Many legislators elected from distant counties failed to attend meetings because travel was difficult.
After the war, lively disputes ensued over where to locate the permanent capital of North Carolina. The residents of Fayetteville argued most vehemently for their town to become the capital. Although not the most populous town in North Carolina, Fayetteville had become the commercial center of the state. The town possessed new roads and bridges, and it was situated at the head of the navigable Cape Fear River. In 1788, the State Assembly instructed its delegates to "fix on the place for the unalterable seat of government." Another three years passed before a committee was appointed to select the precise site of the new capital. Nine members from each of the judicial districts in the state and one from the state-at-large formed the committee.
Committee members agreed that the early meeting sites of New Bern and Tarboro were too far east to be convenient for most of the state’s population. They believed the western part of the state would soon hold the balance of population and, therefore, the power in the state because so many people had moved inland by this time. As early as 1790, six of the 10 counties with a population greater than 10,000 were located in the western part of the state. This shift in population created a new sense of urgency to give western counties greater representation. Rather than designate an existing town as the permanent home for North Carolina's government, the committee ultimately decided to establish the capital in Wake County, home of a popular tavern where the committee met. The tavern was a favorite stopping place for lawyers, judges, and legislators who traveled around the state.
After the committee selected Wake County as the proper area for the capital, a precise site had to be chosen. Unfortunately, the commissioners left no record explaining why they decided to buy 1,000 acres of fellow commissioner Joel Lane's land, which was located 10 miles from the tavern where the meeting took place. The traditional story, which may be more legend than truth, was that the tavern's owner sold generous helpings of a popular alcoholic concoction known as cherry bounce. Commissioners may have sampled too much of this drink during the course of the evening. The next morning they discovered they had agreed to Lane's proposal to build the town on his land.
The citizens of Fayetteville naturally protested the committee's choice. They circulated a petition in Cumberland County which stated that "the establishment of a seat of government in a place unconnected with commerce and where there is at present no town would be a heavy expense to the people..." and that "the town when established never can rise above the degree of a village."1 The protest proved fruitless, however, and in 1792, the town of Raleigh in Wake County was mapped and laid out.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why did the legislature's meeting site change frequently during the American Revolution?
2. Why do you think the citizens of Fayetteville "argued vehemently" for the capital?
3. Why was Raleigh selected over Fayetteville? What would be some advantages and disadvantages of creating a new capital as opposed to designating an established city as a capital?
Reading 1 was compiled from North Carolina State Capitol Education Staff, "A Tour of the Capitol," 1994; John A. Oates, The Story of Fayetteville and the Upper Cape Fear (Fayetteville: John A. Oates, 2nd edition, 1972); Kemp P. Battle, The Early History of Raleigh: The Capital City of North Carolina (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton, 1893); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989); and several untitled articles in the State Capitol files.
1John A. Oates, The Story of Fayetteville and the Upper Cape Fear (Fayetteville: John A. Oates, 2nd edition, 1972), 260.