Cornelius Harnett (20 April 1723 – April 28, 1781) was an American merchant, farmer, and statesman from Wilmington, North Carolina. He was a leading American Revolutionary in the Cape Fear region, and a delegate for North Carolina in the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779.
Harnett was born to Cornelius and Elizabeth Harnett in Chowan County, North Carolina. Soon after he was born, his parents moved to Wilmington. He became a leading merchant there, and was interested in farming, milling, and mercantile ventures. Harnett was an Episcopalian, but has also been identified as a deist.
In 1750 Harnett became involved in public affairs when he was elected Wilmington town commissioner. He was appointed a justice of the peace for New Hanover County by Governor Gabriel Johnston. Harnett was elected to represent Wilmington in the North Carolina General Assembly in 1754.
In 1765, Harnett became the chairman of the Sons of Liberty, and was a leader in the resistance to the Stamp Act. In 1775-1776, he served as the first president of the North Carolina Provincial Council, or Council of Safety, essentially the chief executive of the revolutionary state, although with limited powers. In 1776 he was excepted by Sir Henry Clinton from his proclamation of general amnesty. He was a member of the Continental Congress for 1777–1779.
In 1781 he was captured by the British upon their occupation of Wilmington in January. His health steadily declined while imprisoned. He died April 28, 1781, shortly after being released on parole. He was buried in St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina.