Guest Essayist: NorthCarolinaHistory.org

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Aside from the federal Constitution, North Carolina has had three state constitutions since separation from Great Britain. One in 1776, one in 1868, and one in 1971.

Although different, the North Carolina constitutions have similar passages, and it is evident how elements of the 1776 constitution were incorporated into the 1868 constitution and how many parts of the 1868 constitution were incorporated into the 1971 constitution. Each version has a Declaration of Rights, albeit the number of declarations is different. All three, however, include a reminder that the study of history can affect current policy: “a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.”

The 1971 State Constitution of North Carolina is the governing document of Tar Heels.

During the past several presidential elections, North Carolina has been described as a “purple” or battleground state. As more people move to The Old North State for work or retirement, pundits are often unsure if the state will lean to the left or to the right in an upcoming election.

North Carolina has been a battleground state and a determining factor in national debates many times. The 1787-89 debates over ratifying the federal Constitution offer an example of North Carolina’s longstanding role in our country’s political history.

During the debates, the state’s population was divided over the necessity of a U.S. Constitution and what became known as the Bill of Rights. North Carolina refused to ratify the constitution without the promise of a Bill of Rights, fearing that a federal government would become too powerful without it. The Bill of Rights would protect citizens’ individual liberties from government.

After the framers drafted the constitution at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, the document was submitted to respective state ratification conventions for approval. In order for the new union to be formed, nine states had to ratify the Constitution. Nine states did so and, soon after, two more gave approval, for a total of 11. North Carolina was not one of these states. North Carolina became one of only two states to hold out on ratifying the constitution and joining the union.

In North Carolina, there was much debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over whether or not the state should ratify the constitution. James Iredell, using the pseudonym Marcus, explained the Constitution’s meaning and pointed out the necessity of its adoption. Tar Heel Federalists, such as Iredell and William Davie, believed the “general government” needed more “energy,” such as more authority to tax and be able to have an army to defend the fledgling nation.

A strong Anti-Federalist sentiment, however, remained in North Carolina. Many from the Tar Heel state remembered the Parliamentary abuses before the Revolutionary War and questioned giving more authority to what would become the federal government. Anti-Federalists, Willie Jones and Judge Samuel Spencer, questioned handing any more power over from the individuals and the states to the general government.

Unlike other states, there were two state ratification conventions in North Carolina. One was in Hillsborough (1788) and the other in Fayetteville (1789). Many historians consider North Carolina’s ratification convention minutes to be the most revealing and balanced regarding the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

In most states, Federalists paid for transcribers, and many times convention minutes give the impression of erudite Federalists engaging Anti-Federalist ignorance; the Hillsborough minutes instead reveal a sophisticated exchange among delegates with opposing beliefs.The Hillsborough Convention offered opportunities for leading Federalists and Anti-Federalists to put forth their arguments.

Iredell, a key federalist who had gained widespread respect during the American Revolution for challenging William Blackstone’s ideas regarding parliamentary sovereignty, had been declaring the necessity of the document. He showcased great oratorical skill and answered many Anti-federal questions concerning the nature of the Constitution and the threat it made regarding individual liberty. He championed the document as a protector of rights because it incorporated rights into the document by limiting the central government’s power.

Willie Jones led the Anti-Federalists; however, Samuel Spencer became their spokesman. Anti-Federalists distrusted the central government and believed states’ rights best protected individual liberties. After debating for 11 days, it became clear the Constitution would not be ratified in North Carolina until a Bill of Rights was added. By a vote of 184 to 83, North Carolina decided not to ratify or reject the Constitution and provided a list of rights and suggested amendments for Americans. Many call the Hillsborough Convention “the great refusal.”

In subsequent months, George Washington had been elected President of the United States and debate continued not only in North Carolina but also in other states regarding the necessity of the Bill of Rights. After being assured that a declaration of rights would be added to the Constitution, in November 1789 North Carolina ratified the Constitution by a vote of 195 to 77 at the Fayetteville Convention. The Old North State finally had joined the new union.

North Carolina’s prominent influence over the Bill of Rights and structure of our Constitution is highlighted in Howard Chandler Christy’s famous painting of the assembly at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The painting is on a 20 x 30 foot canvas. Washington is the commanding figure, standing on the platform, behind the desk. Benjamin Franklin is a prominent figure, too, although sitting down. Alexander Hamilton is depicted, leaning forward as Franklin lends an ear to the junior statesman’s opinion — something Hamilton was willing to share to whomever may listen. The South Carolina delegation, including Charles Pinckney and John Rutledge, are also prominent while standing at the back of Independence Hall, with outstretched arms, indicating they are ready to be the next to sign the document.

So, who is signing the document in that massive portrait that now hangs in the east stairway of the Capitol building? Well, it is North Carolinian Richard Dobbs Spaight. Standing behind him is another Tar Heel, William Blount. The last member of the North Carolina delegation to sign the Constitution is stepping up on the platform — Hugh Williamson.

Often overlooked in histories regarding the founding, the North Carolina delegation is front and center in Christy’s portrait, showing the Old North State’s vital role in the framework of our nation’s Constitution. North Carolina’s heated political debate and strong dissent contributed significantly to ensuring that Americans would have a Bill of Rights.

Information courtesy of www.northcarolinahistory.org, a project of the John Locke Foundation, and Anna Manning of the John Locke Foundation

Anna Manning serves as Marketing and Operations Specialist at the John Locke Foundation. She works with the Vice President of Operations and Vice President of Marketing and Communications to facilitate day to day operations and develop strategic marketing plans for social media and fundraising. Previously, she worked as a legal research intern for the John Locke Foundation. Prior to that, Anna interned in Governor McCrory’s Department of Administration with the North Carolina Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. Anna has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from North Carolina State University and is currently working on a Master of Public Administration from UNC Chapel Hill. In her free time, Anna likes to travel, hunt, and hang out with her dog.

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