He entered public life in 1762, as a Member of the Colonial Assembly, and was chosen speaker of this body.
His uncle, Samuel Swann, had filled this important position for nearly twenty years, with great dignity. The speaker of the popular branch of the Assembly held a commanding position, and was looked upon as the hereditary defender of the rights of the people. In this high place he in 1765 opposed the Stamp Act, and resisted its enforcement. He so informed Governor Tryon openly and fearlessly. As soon as Colonel Ashe was informed of the approach of the vessel containing the stamps, supported by the efforts of Colonel Waddell, he embodied a company of New Hanover militia, and prepared for an open conflict.
When the Proclamation of the Governor, (issued January 6, 1765) announced the arrival of the stamps, Colonel Ashe demanded an interview with the Stamp Master (Houston) who was the guest of the Governor, which was refused. Ashe threatened to burn the house, and proceeded to execute the threat. The Governor yielded, and Houston was surrendered. He (Houston) was taken to the Market House and made to sign a written pledge "never to perform the duties of his office."
In 1770-71 Colonel Ashe was again elected to the Lower House by the people. The troubles with the Regulators now commenced, and Colonel Ashe with Caswell, and others equally distinguished in after days in the cause of the people, felt it a duty to sustain the Government. These have been already alluded to.
Colonel Ashe with his regiment was in the battle at Alamance, and demonstrated that he was not led by any factious opposition to the Governor, but stood prompt and willing to sustain the power of the Government. This may have been an error, but Colonel Ashe thought his course was in the line of duty.
In 1773, he was elected to the Assembly, and was with John Harvey, Hewes, Harnett, Howe, Johnston, and Vail, a committee of correspondence with the sister colonies, relative to the proceedings of the British Parliament, and in 1774 he was with Caswell, Edwards, harnett, Hewes, Howe, Allen Jones, and Samuel Johnstone, a committee to reply to Governor Martin's speech.
This Assembly of March, 1774, was prorogued by the Governor to May 26, and dissolved on March 30, by Proclamation. Colonel Ashe and others entered an Association this year, by which they "bound themselves by every tie of religion, honor, and nature, to be ready to go forth and sacrifice their lives, and fortunes in resisting force by force, to secure the safety and freedom of their country."
When it was ascertained that the Governor (Martin) did not intend to call another assembly, Colonel Ashe with John Harvey, Wm. Hooper, Willie Jones, Samuel Johnston, and James Iredell, projected a Provincial Congress, causing delegates to be elected to meet at New Berne on August 25, 1774.
The Governor issued a proclamation on August 15, 1774, "condemning all elections and assemblies of the people, and warning all officers of the King to prevent such illegal meetings."
The Provincial Congress did meet at the time and place designated.
In 1775, Colonel Ashe was appointed on the Committee of Safety at Wilmington, and resigned his commission as Colonel, which he held under the Royal Government, and accepted the same rank by election by the people. This is the first instance of the acceptance of a military commission under the authority of the people.
Apprehending that Martin meditated plans to extend the fortifications of Fort Johnson, on July 17, 1775, he attacked it with a force of 500 men and reduced it to ashes.
This overt act of violence was denounced by Governor Martin in a Proclamation of August 8, 1775, "as a most treasonable outrage." In
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