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RICHARD CASWELL BOOK

THE FIRST OF PATRIOTS AND BEST OF MEN:
  RICHARD CASWELL IN PUBLIC LIFE

 
by Clayton Brown Alexander and W. Keats Sparrow
 Kinston, North Carolina:  Lenoir County Colonial Commission, 2007.

 BOOK REVIEW

 By John Baxton Flowers III, North Carolina Historian
Vice President Emeritus Augusta State University

 In the nearly 225 years since his death, there has been no full-length biography of General Richard Caswell (1729-1789), despite the fact that he is one of the most important men in North Carolina’s long history. Why?

 Thanks to the skill and diligence of Dr. Keats Sparrow, Dean Emeritus of the Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University, and with the support of the Lenoir County Colonial Commission, this long-entombed dissertation by Clayton Brown Alexander, written in l930 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examines the public life of one of North Carolina’s most distinguished men.  Dr. Sparrow’s resurrection of Alexander’s study offers us a sensitive editing and revitalizing of the original text and adds important new research findings on General Caswell, a chronology of Caswell’s life, almost 100 illustrations, an updated bibliography, and a helpful index.  The resulting volume is one that no student of North Carolina history will want to miss, and it gives us the clearer and fuller picture we’ve long needed and wanted of Caswell the extraordinary man and Caswell the superb public servant and military commander.

 Richard Caswell has to his credit numerous accomplishments, but most historians agree that the greatest of his achievements was his leadership for North Carolina during the Revolution and his role as the first governor of the state.  If he had had no more than these outstanding accomplishments, he would be included in the Pantheon of founding fathers of the Old North State, but he had many more:  assistant surveyor-general of North Carolina; an elected member of the colonial assembly, serving from l754 to l776 when it was disbanded; serving as speaker of the House from l770-71; a colonel of the Dobbs Militia and commander of Governor Tryon’s right wing at the Battle of Alamance during the War of the Regulation in l771; a leader in all five of North Carolina’s provincial congresses, and  a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. On Caswell’s return from the Second Continental Congress, Royal Governor Josiah Martin observed that he was “the most active tool of sedition” inasmuch as he had come back to North Carolina a committed revolutionary, and he proceeded energetically to apply his many talents and political skills to help guide North Carolina away from Great Britain and toward independence.

 Colonel Caswell was the on-site commander at the crucial Battle of Moores Creek Bridge on 27 February 1776 which abruptly halted the Loyalists among the Highland Scots in North Carolina from effective participation in the Revolution.  Had North Carolina remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution, the union of thirteen colonies would have been split.  Although Caswell’s brilliant command of the militia at Moores Creek Bridge singled him out for higher responsibilities, his victory there has never received the national recognition it deserves.  North Carolina’s deeds, more than words, helped lead the American colonies into the Revolution and to ultimate victory and independence.

 Caswell served as a general commanding the state militia during the Revolution, but in December 1776 he was elected the first governor of the state by the provincial congress, and was reelected to annual terms under the constitution by the General Assemblies of l777, l778 and l779.  As governor he was constantly raising and equipping troops. Besides providing for the defense of the state, he sent more than 18,000 officers and men, both Continentals and militia, to the aid of other states.  Though in poor health when he left office in l780, he was immediately appointed a major general and put in command of all North Carolina troops until the end of the Revolution.  From l782 to l785, he was controller-general or treasurer of the state and did remarkable work in bringing order to the public accounts.  In l785 he was again elected governor and in successive annual elections served until l788.  He served more years as governor than anyone in North Carolina’s history until the administration of James B. Hunt Jr. In the late twentieth century but still holds the record for having served the most terms.

 Caswell was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in l787, but owing to declining health he appointed William Blount to take his place.  His strong support for ratifying the United States Constitution alienated his Anti-Federalist Dobbs County constituency, and as a result he was denied a seat in the state’s 1787 constitutional convention at Hillsborough.  However, he was soon reelected to the legislature.  North Carolina finally voted for ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789 at a convention held at Fayetteville, though the delegates refused to support the new Constitution until the Bill of Rights had been added to it.

 Caswell suffered a stroke on 5 November 1789 while presiding over the senate in session at Fayetteville and died on 10 November 1789.  A state funeral was held at Fayetteville and his body was transported to Kinston and buried at his Red House Plantation.  In little time memory of him and his considerable accomplishments faded, while the memory of his contemporaries remained strong. 

 We might ask ourselves why?  Why did this most outstanding of men drift so quickly into obscurity, and why did it take us so long to recall his remarkable service to our state and union?  This well-documented and nicely illustrated biography will help us begin to understand North Carolina’s most Revolutionary-era leader.  But mark this:  It is only the beginning.

 THE FIRST OF PATRIOTS AND BEST OF MEN illuminates the public life of Richard Caswell and does so admirably, but it prompts us to want to know more of Caswell’s private life, of his brilliant military career, of his leadership as a Mason, and of all other aspects of his extraordinary life.  We can anticipate that this much welcomed volume will serve as a catalyst for further research on the most important North Carolinian of the Revolutionary period, so let’s hope a rebirth of Caswell studies will soon follow.  When the day comes that scholarly and public attention is once again refocused on Richard Caswell, “the first of patriots and best of men,” let us not forget the vision of Clayton Brown Alexander in l930 and of his faithful disciples Charles Robert Holloman, who wrote Caswell’s excellent sketch for the DICTIONARY OF NORTH CAROLINA BIOGRAPHY in l979, and Dr. Keats Sparrow, whose energy, research, and editing talents have brought this important first full-length biography of Caswell to life and made it accessible to scholars and the general public.

 

Copies of THE FIRST OF PATRIOTS AND BEST OF MEN:  RICHARD CASWELL IN PUBLIC LIFE can be ordered from the Lenoir County Colonial Commission, P. O. Box 1734, Kinston, NC  28503-1734 for $26 plus $6 for sales tax and shipping (total:  $32).

 

John Baxton Flowers III

North Carolina Historian

Vice President Emeritus

Augusta State University