The Bill of Rights: Almost an Afterthought?
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North Carolina

North Carolina had been largely settled by immigrants from Virginia and South Carolina and was sometimes described as "the vale of humility between two mountains of conceit" (quoted in Watson 1988, 252). North Carolina had been one of the states that took the lead in the American Revolution, as was manifested by its Mechlenburg Resolves of 1775. The state deposed its royal governor in 1775 and replaced him with a provisional government.

State Constitution

The state constitution, which a Provincial Congress had written, was relatively democratic. Although it created three branches of government, it vested primary power in the state legislature. Voting was open to Protestant freemen who paid their taxes, and the constitution recognized a variety of rights.

At the time of the Convention, North Carolina was the fourth largest state and was composed of land, including today's state of Tennessee (then generally referred to as Franklin), that reached to the Mississippi River. The roughly 400,000 inhabitants were sparsely spread in this vast expanse and included fewer slaves (about 20 percent) than neighboring states. The state did not have the vast plantations of its neighbors, although there were some tensions between the more conservative east and the more radical west. Thomas Burke, who came from the latter, had been the individual most responsible at the Continental Congress for incorporating the doctrine of state sovereignty in the Articles of Confederation, and the state even then initially voted against ratification. North Carolina appointed five delegates to the Annapolis Convention, but only Hugh Williamson went, and he arrived too late for its deliberations.

Representation at the Constitutional Convention

Five delegates represented North Carolina at the Constitutional Convention; all were from the more conservative eastern part of the state. They were William Blount, William Richardson Davie, Alexander Martin, Richard Dobbs Spaight, and Hugh Williamson. Of these, Williamson was clearly the intellectual leader, and he, Blount, and Spaight were the only delegates to sign. North Carolina generally identified with the interests of other Southern states at the Convention. The state was not mentioned frequently, although during debates over whether members of Congress should be eligible for other offices, Williamson observed that in his state, he could scarcely think of "a single corrupt measure . . . which could not be traced up to office hunting" (Farrand 1937, II, 287).

Ratification of the Constitution

On August 2, 1788, the North Carolina ratifying convention meeting in Hillsboro cast a vote 184 to 83 to recommend amendments and otherwise protect the state's rights rather than to ratify the document. Willie Jones, Thomas Person, and Samuel Spencer were among the most prominent opponents of ratification. Although one New Englander accused the state of going "whoring after Strange Gods" (quoted in Lienesch 1979, 343), the state's behavior was consistent with its "politics of resistance to distant power and protection of local liberties" (Lienesch, 343), such as had been embodied within its own constitution. North Carolina's action in delaying ratification was particularly adventuresome since every other state except for Rhode Island had ratified when the convention took its vote.

Although Federalists, led by Richard Dobbs Spaight, future Supreme Court Justice James Iredell, and Governor Samuel Johnson (who presided over the proceedings), generally had the rhetorical advantage, Antifederalists greatly outnumbered Federalists at the state ratifying convention. They emphasized the importance of rights, which they tied to the state and to the region of which they were a part. By contrast, Federalists generally took a more cosmopolitan view, identifying rights with the interests of the nation as a whole. Antifederalists attempted to condition their ratification on the prior adoption of the Bill of Rights, but Federalists refused.

North Carolina was officially independent at the time the new government went into effect and thus did not cast votes in the first presidential election. However, Hugh Williamson continued effectively to represent the state's interest in Congress and to encourage the national government to pursue a conciliatory policy to woo the state back into the fold.

Antifederalists had largely conditioned their initial rejection on the absence of a bill of rights. Virginia's James Madison helped to pacify them when he indicated that he would introduce such a bill in the first Congress. Once Congress submitted this bill to the states, North Carolina called another convention. This convention met in Fayetteville, again with Governor Johnson presiding. This time it ratified the Constitution on November 21, 1789, by a vote of 194 to 77. The following month, North Carolina became the fourth state to ratify the proposed Bill of Rights.

Further Reading
Craig, Burton. 1987. The Federal Convention of 1787: North Carolina in the Great Crisis. Richmond, VA: Expert Graphics. Farrand, Max, ed. 1937. The Records of the Federal Convention. 4 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Lefler, Hugh T. 1947. A Plea for Federal Union, North Carolina, 1788: A Reprint of Two Pamphlets. Charlottesville, VA: Tracy W. McGregor Library. Lienesch, Michael. 1979. "North Carolina: Preserving Rights." In Michael Allen Gillespie and Michael Lienesch, eds. Ratifying the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Messengill, Stephen E. 1988. North Carolina Votes on the Constitution: Roster of Delegates to the State Ratification Conventions of 1788 and 1789. Division of Archives and History. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Trenholme, Louise Irby. 1967. The Ratification of the Federal Constitution in North Carolina. New York: AMS Press. Watson, Alan D. 1988. "States' Rights and Agrarianism Ascendant." In Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminski, eds. The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Madison, WI: Madison House.


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