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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Speech by Samuel Ashe to the Wilmington District Superior Court Grand Jury concerning the establishment of republican government in North Carolina and the United States, including the jury's response [Extract as printed in the North-Carolina Gazette]
Ashe, Samuel, 1725-1813
June 11, 1778
Volume 13, Pages 438-444

North Carolina Gazette, August 14, 1778.

Wilmington District, June 11, 1778.

To the Honourable Saml. Ashe, Esq., one of the Judges of the Superior Court of Law.


The Gentlemen of the Grand Jury beg leave to return their thanks to the Honourable Samuel Ashe, Esqr, for his sensible and seasonable Charge delivered them at the opening of this court, and request the favour of a copy of it for the press, that, if possible, its influence may be made as extensive as its matter is important.

Wilmington, June 12, 1778.

To the Gentlemen of the Grand Jury, for Wilmington District.

Mr. Ashe presents his compliments to the Gentlemen of the Grand Jury, and in compliance with their polite request transmits them a copy of his Charge; pleased that his crude thoughts, hastily thrown together, meet with the approbation of their respectable body, and will be happy if they should contribute a mite towards the wellfare of his country.

Gentlemen of the Grand Jury:

In every civilized State, to establish the peace of society, to preserve decorum among the people at large, and to protect individuals in their several rights, municipal laws, or rules of civil conduct, are formed, ordaining punishments to those who shall disturb the general peace of the community, or violate or intrude on the rights of individuals. These in different States are various, and with many the modes of punishing transgressors are variant and unfixed, depending upon the will of the Prince or Judge, both in the manner and measure of them.

But with us it is a felicity that crimes and misdemeanors have (according to their heinousness) known and affixed punishments, and nothing is left to the opinion or arbitrary will of the Judge; in a few cases only, a discretionary mitigating power may be exercised by him; for the same law which creates the offense, describes

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and apportions the punishments. And equally careful are our laws, in charging and trying offenders; the accusation in the first instance must be made by twelve at least of the Grand Jury for the district where the offence was committed, and by them formally presented to the court. The charge being thus made, the culprit is called up into court, and the truth of the matter again enquired into by twelve others, his neighbors, his equals, impartial, indifferent, and unexceptionable men; and this enquiry must be made in the presence of the accused, and the witnesses against him produced and openly examined in his presence and he at liberty to cross examine them, to confront them with witnesses in his favour, to lessen or refute their testimony, and otherwise to offer matter to justify, excuse, or acquit himself. By thus fairly and openly canvassing the charge, the party, if guilty, is detected and punished; if innocent, is protected, and placed beyond the reach of persecuting malice, or oppressive falsehood.

Sensible of the advantages resulting from this invaluable right of a tryal by Jury of the vicinage, a right (often struggled for by our ancestors, and handed down by them to us) we have so interwoven in our present happy and equal system of Government, that no citizen can be denied, nor be deprived of it, but with the constitution. But this inestimable privilege, with others equally so, the iron hand of unfeeling British tryanny, upon iniquitous and ill founded pretentions, would tear from us, and substitute instead of it a mode of proceedings, framed by the united and stretched invention of cruelty and tyranny combined.

By that, perhaps the innocent, but unhappily suspected person, shall be seized, dragged from his friends and nearest connexions, thrown into the noisome hole of a vessel, loaded with irons, and at the risk of his life transported three thousand miles over sea to Great Britain. There, probably, without money to sustain him, without friends to comfort him, without counsel to advise him, without witnesses to testify for him, and without his neighbours to try him; perhaps too, only upon the information of an Attorney General (always a creature of the court) filed against him, he shall be arraigned before a court and jury unacquainted with every circumstance of the charge, and equal strangers to the malignancy and design of the persecutor and disposition of the accused. In this situation, and thus circumstanced, innocence

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itself must fall a victim. This short contrast of the two measures must at once fill our minds with horror of the one, and our breast with the glow of zeal for the other; and determine us to try every effort, to perpetuate the first, and reject the latter.

Gentlemen, the office of Grand Jurors for this district at this time assigned you, I have the fullest persuasion your principles and inclinations (were you not under the sacred obligation of an oath) will lead you to an impartial execution of.

For me to point out to you the particular business of it, or to enumerate the several offences which fall under your cognizance, is unnecessary, and would be tedious and irksome both to you and myself. Let it suffice that I acquaint you, that crimes and misdemeanors of every denomination, from the highest to the lowest nature, from treasons against your state to trespasses against the poorest individual of the State, committed in this district, are presentable by you.

A few matters only I will mention to you, and these are misprision of treasons against the state, and offences affecting your public bills of credit, as well those emitted by the General Congress, as those emitted by the several Congresses of this State; and as the causes of the acts of the General Assembly relative to them describe them more fully than I can, I will read them to you. Clauses read.—

The mischievous and wicked tendency of those under the first class, and the injurious and ruinous consequences, as well to the public as individuals of those under the latter, and the frequent repetition of both, make it necessary to attend to them. The first are practised by men, nested in our bosoms, who, did their resolutions keep pace with their inclinations it is not doubted would commit crimes of the first magnitude against us; but not daring to avow their intentions, to unmask an act openly, they (like Satan at the ear of Eve) whisper their lies, insinuate their falsehoods, and spread dispiriting news, in order to pervert the weak, intimidate the fearful, unsettle the minds of those not perfectly stable, and to seduce the people generally from their allegiance to the State.

This perfidiousness certainly merits punishment. But in considering offenders, gentlemen, your good judgment and prudence will discriminate between the proper object of presentment,

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and the man who only related the false news he had heard, or spoke his opinion, or disclosed his political sentiments to his friends or acquaintance, without any mischievous design: To involve the one with the other, would be an act of high injustice, which I am sure you would at all times and upon every occasion carefully avoid.

The mischiefs under the 2d class are many and great, and in their consequences equally destructive to the public, as ruinous to individuals. It is unnecessary to enlarge on them, for they are obvious. The perpetrators of them by their villainous frauds and deceptions, covered under the specious shew of fair and honest dealing, impose on the ignorant, and rob the industrious of their well earned property; and unfeelingly perhaps at once introduce poverty, where plenty had prevailed. The man who forceably robs on the highway, wears not so deep a taint of guilt, as these dark, disguised avaricious insidious villains.

Nor does the evil cease with the ruin of the private; it reaches the public, and in its consequences may prove equally baneful to it. These bills are our money, they have enabled us hitherto to support our Government, maintain our armies, and to defend ourselves for three years past against one of the first powers of Europe. To counterfeit them, is to depreciate them: and to take away their credit, is to destroy them, and with them perhaps our political existence. Our enemies, sensible of this, and unable to prevail by arms to subdue us, have stooped from the bravery of the soldier to the base frauds of common cheats: they too have counterfeited the continental bills of credit, and industriously, by their emissaries, circulated them through the United States. Should your inquiries discover the avaricious villain, or the secret and dangerous emissary, I am sure you will cheerfully render your country the essential service of dragging them into the light.

Gentlemen, give me leave now, before you retire to business, to address a few words to you in another character: As citizens of a free, but young State, struggling in defence of her liberties, and in support of her rights, against powerful invaders. In such a conflict she necessarily requires the aid of all; and each one, in every department, should with alacrity step forward to her assistance. When the hive is attacked, the drone alone remains inactive in his cell. The learned Montesquieu observes, that

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“Republican government must be preserved by the virtue of the citizens, and defines that virtue to be love of the laws and of our country, and as this love requires a constant preference of public to private interest, it is the source of all the particular virtues, for they are nothing more than this very preference itself; that government is like every thing else; to preserve it, we must love it; that every thing therefore depends on establishing this love in a republic.”

When I consider the force and truth of these observations, and compare them with our present apparent disposition, I confess I am pained; and when I consider our present temper and conduct, and compare them with our past, I lament our depravity. When the accursed plan to enslave us was first formed, and ready to be enforced against us, a noble spirit animated us, our resentment kindled, every age and order of men glowed with zeal; each became emulous who should succeed in resisting the encroachment; to effect it, all seemed determined to venture every thing; no danger was thought too hazardous, no difficulty was great. Then were companies formed and trained in every neighbourhood, and small parties in each street, and individuals in every house, were eagerly acquiring the military discipline. The example was forcible, our youths catch noble passion, nay our children of a few years old imbibe it; they too were seen with their little implements, the semblance of arms, attempting the art. But alas! how are we changed of late; that noble spirit no longer inspires us, the Celestial fire is extinguished, the flame ceases, it glows no more, we have suffered a fascinating spirit of avarice and extortion to take place instead that now possesses us, and seems wholly to engage our attention. Lamentable defection! Strange infatuation! Can we think the eager pursuit of riches will preserve us, or accumulated wealth protect us from invasion? Or is there no danger, because the enemy are not instantly at our doors? The ideas are absurd—the expectation of gain will entice, and the hopes of confiscation allure them, and a few hours sail may waft them to our doors. But that is not necessary to a conquest of us. Our fate is inseparably linked with our sister states. If they fall we perish. America united, must stand or fall together. We have reason to believe the enemy are collecting their full force, that they will shortly make their last grand effort, but where we

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know not. Congress, whom we have always found wise and watchful, hath warned us, and advised us to be on our guard, nor to remit of our military preparations. Prudence also directs us to this. To be prepared and determined to repel, is almost effecting the repulse.

It is true they have circulated among us copies of their minister's speech, and bills for an intended reconciliation—but the flimsy covering will not conceal their true design. They are held forth to amuse us, to lull us into security till they recruit, and reinforce their shattered army, but we discover their perfidy, and will not confide in their promises. The judicious animadversions of Congress sufficiently expose their fallacy, and prevent my further observations. But though they augment their Troops, though they again sweep Germany for recruits, if we are not wanting to ourselves, if we desert not our own cause, we need not be discouraged; America united, active and determined, will prevail. For God's sake then let us rouse from our supineness; let that spirit which at first animated us revive, and let us endeavour to transfuse it through the circles of our acquaintance in our several counties and neighborhoods. The prevalency of example may extend it, and all America may glow again. Let the love of our country rise superior to the turpid and base passion for gain. In a word, let us adopt an equal spirit, an equal love of liberty and firmness, with the brave Corsicans, who, oppressed with Genoese tyranny, in their military oath, thus solemnly swore:

“That we will sooner die than enter into any negotiation with the republic of Genoa, or return under its yoke.”

“That if the powers of Europe, and the French in particular, withdraw their compassion from an unhappy people, should arm themselves against us, and concur in our total destruction, we will repel force by force; we will fight like desperate men, determined either to conquer or die,'till our spirits are quite exhausted, our arms fall out of our hands ;and when we have no strength to take them up again, when all the resources of our courage shall be exhausted, our despair shall furnish us with the last, which shall be to imitate the famous example of the Saguntines, by rushing voluntarily into the fire, rather than submit to the unsupportable yoke of Genoese tyranny and slavery.”

A great example and worthy imitation: But, God be thanked, better prospects await our exertions. Heaven smiles on our

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cause, and most of the powers of Europe favour it. The King of France, with true greatness of soul, with the magnanimity becoming a great Prince, taking no advantage of the necessity of our affairs, or requiring any unfavourable or dishonourable terms from us, has generously taken us by the hand, and pledged us his protection. This must at once confound and embarrass our enemies, and I doubt not if in this conjuncture we oppose them with vigour and alacrity, and every where show a determined temper, it will, after a few efforts, close the scene with regard to us. They must turn their arms from conquest to defence.

Gentlemen, you will, I hope, excuse my traveling out of the line of Business for which you have been summoned here at this time. I will not detain you longer than to mention, that though every matter which may come under your deliberations may be determined by a majority of you, yet that majority must consist of twelve at the least, for that no bill ought to be presented but where twelve or more agree.