During the early 1800s, North Carolina acquired a nickname: “the Rip Van Winkle State.” It was named so because more than few considered the state’s economy to be asleep while neighboring states were bustling with production and trade. In modern politics, the term is used when policy makers oppose or promote certain plans: they want to improve the state’s economy, not take it backward, the argument goes, into its former Rip Van Winkle state.
Nathaniel Macon’s political reputation and voting record contributed to the nickname’s ascription. The Tar Heel statesman voted against much economic legislation that increased the national government’s power and influence in the economy. He believed, for instance, that state-government-sponsored roads were constitutional but federal-funded roads were unconstitutional. As a result, North Carolina accepted only a slim percentage of federal transportation funds during the early 1800s. Others believed that such political views retarded the state’s economic progress and contributed to its nickname. Some even suggest that a lingering Maconite suspicion of government is what prevents some North Carolinians from considering all the benefits that government can bestow upon the state.
There have been conflicting interpretations regarding this nickname. Historian William Powell claims that not much “was going on anywhere” in North Carolina during the early to mid-1800s and that people were satisfied with their backward state of affairs. He also writes that it never occurred to them that the “government might take steps to improve their lot in life.”
Historian Milton Ready, however, argues that outsiders have always used this term; they misunderstood the North Carolinian mindset and the state’s incremental economic growth. North Carolina “never lay dormant,” he writes. It was a region that grew without adhering to models offered by developmental economists. Although it lacked a cotton, rice, and tobacco elite that existed in South Carolina and Virginia, the Old North State’s incremental economic growth, argues Ready, is now the envy of other Southern states.
Jack Claiborne and William Price, eds., Discovering North Carolina: A Tar Heel Reader (Chapel Hill, 1991); Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State (Columbia, 2006); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989).