General Assembly session in Smithfield
Among the notable events in Smithfield's early history was the meeting of the North Carolina General Assembly held at the Johnston County Courthouse May 3-15, 1779. From 1777 to 1794, North Carolina's governors and other state officials administered public affairs from their homes, and the Legislature moved from town to town, "auctioning off sessions to the highest bidders," in the words of historian R.D.W. Connor. It was a smallpox outbreak at New Bern, however, that moved Governor Richard Caswell (picture at right) to shift the spring session in 1779 from New Bern to Smithfield. (New Bern had been the colonial capital and continued as the seat of government until North Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution and named a permanent state capital.)
Smithfield was among seven places having the honor of being host to the State legislators before 1794. Townspeople may have felt honored and Smithfield's merchants may have reaped some profits from the coming of the legislators, but the visiting dignitaries themselves were hardly elated over their stay in Smithfield. Whitmell Hill, a North Carolinian who had been a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, visited the Legisature while it was in session in Smithfield. In a letter to a colleague, he wrote that he thought Smithfield was "a rascally hole for such a meeting."
Smithfield was unable to provide the living comforts usually enjoyed by Hill but Smithfield's inadequacies were hardly unique. Indeed, none of the seven communities that lured the Legislature away from New Bern could offer desired comforts. Historian Connor cited the complaint of a visitor to Tarboro, who said the town, with its twenty families, had "inadequate" accommodations for the lawmakers, some forty or fifty of them being crowded with other visitors in a tavern, others having to be cared for in private homes. Connor wrote: "The situation at Tarboro was no worse than at Halifax, or Hillsborough, or Smithfield, or Wake Courthouse."
Courthouses, usually small, were inconvenient places for legislative meetings. And it was difficult to haul records of the Legislature from town to town - "in a common cart," to quote Connor. The situation became so unbearable that the Legislature sought to establish a permanent state capital, but its members had difficulty coming to agreement on a location. In 1787 the Legislature referred the matter to a constitutional convention called to consider ratification of the proposed U.S. Constitution. The convention decided in the summer of 1788 that the capital should be near Isaac Hunter's plantation in Wake County. Ultimately, after a long dispute in the Legislature, a commission created by the lawmakers established the capital on the Joel Lane plantation near Wake County Courthouse. In 1792 the commission laid out a town called Raleigh, in honor of England's Sir Walter Raleigh, who had sponsored efforts to establish a colony in what became North Carolina.