By Jessica Lee Thompson, North Carolina History Project
An influential supporter of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Archibald Maclaine may have been even more influential if not for his defense of Tories within the state. One of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina, Maclaine was known for his belief in the law and order and for his willingness to stand in the minority for issues he supported.
Although his father was of Scottish decent, Maclaine was born in Banbridge, Ireland on December 9, 1728. As a young man, Maclaine worked as a mercantile apprentice until he moved to America at age twenty-one. Originally landing in Philadelphia in June 1750, Maclaine left for Cape Fear, North Carolina the following month. On November 6, 1752, Maclaine married Elizabeth (Polly) Rowan, the stepdaughter of acting governor (1753-1754), Matthew Rowan, in Wilmington.
Sketch of Archibald Maclaine by Henry Bone after Unknown artist (1807) courtesy National Portrait Gallery
Maclaine worked in Wilmington as a merchant but his business eventually failed when his partner, John Maclaine, died. Shortly afterward, Maclaine studied law, despite his alleged minimal formal education. Maclaine quickly became an influential barrister in the colony and was appointed as a clerk for the Supreme Court.
Although Maclaine greatly respected many of the political officials under the British crown (such as his stepfather, Matthew Rowan), Maclaine defended the Patriot cause early and opposed the government’s actions during the Stamp Act crisis. In 1774 Maclaine served on the committee that issued Wilmington residents’ call for a Provincial Congress, was elected to that congress in 1775 and 1776, and was a member of the Safety Committee in 1776. Also in 1776, Maclaine sat on the committee responsible for drafting the constitution and the Bill of Rights. Maclaine served a member of the General Assembly from 1780 to 18781 and again from 1783 to 1787. Maclaine was nominated twice to serve as a delegate to the Continental Congress but he refused the proposal both times.
While Maclaine clearly stood with the Patriot cause, he also faced political repercussions for his opinions on how North Carolina law should treat Tories and Loyalist. For instance, during an August 1782 session of court in Bladen County, Maclaine was assaulted while defending a loyalist in court. A North Carolina Continental officer, Robert Raiford, burst into the Bladen County Court House at the head of thirty men and provided testimony that clerk John White was rumored to be “a damned Tory.” Maclaine believed that Raiford was drunk and told the sitting justices that Raiford’s remarks were “highly derogatory to its [the court's] Dignity, and that Rayford should be reproved.” Raiford then attacked Maclaine with a “horseman’s sword” which led to a small riot in the courthouse that left Maclaine with serious injuries.
The mob beat the court clerk for no apparent reason and then moved the riot out into the street. After electing “field officers,” the mob marched around the county apprehending Loyalists without any orders from a higher commanding officer.
A warrant was issued for Raiford’s arrest, but he had returned to Maj. Gen. Greene’s army where he had been put in command of the light infantry. A year later, Raiford was brought to trial, but he was acquitted.
Maclaine also associated himself with the Tory cause spending time and political capital in an attempt to obtain a safe return to North Carolina for his stepson, George Hooper, who had fled the state at the onset of the war.
Maclaine backed North Carolina’s participation in a constitutional convention and in 1788 he served as a delegate to the Hillsborough convention. Maclaine supported adoption of the constitution and voted in the minority at the Hillsborough convention. Maclaine wrote pamphlets arguing in favor of the adoption of the constitution under the pen name, “Publicola.”
Maclaine passed away on December 20, 1790, at his home in Wilmington. His daughter and son-in-law, Catherine and George Hooper, inherited Maclaine’s estate with a bequest for his wife.
John R. Maass, “The Cure for All Our Political Calamities: Archibald Maclaine and the Politics of Moderation in Revolutionary North Carolina”, The North Carolina Historical Review 85 (July, 2008); William Powell ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography: Vol. 4 L-O (Chapel Hill, 1996).