Constitution Day: Tar Heels Take Center Stage in Famous Painting

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine delegates signed the U.S. Constitution and then submitted it to the various state ratification conventions to approve. What was accomplished on that day was nothing less than remarkable: delegates had agreed on the final draft of the first written national constitution that still remains in effect. Today is Constitution Day, and we as Americans remember the signers’ actions and the document’s importance to ensuring the rule of law, even in our modern world.

A few weeks ago with some friends, I was viewing an online photo of Howard Chandler Christy’s famous painting, Signing of the Constitution of the United States, and we were pointing out this founder and that founder in the painting. (Yes, that actually did happen, and yes, we thought it was somewhat fun.)

After five years of research, Christy took seven months to portray the assembly at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on an 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.  I was aware that all three delegates attended the convention and were signatories. But admittedly, it was good to be reminded that all three members of the North Carolina delegation were featured prominently in the portrait.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     At age 30, Richard Dobbs Spaight was one of the youngest delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, yet he may have been the most dependable: he attended every session of the convention. He was the one who suggested that U.S. Senators be elected by the state legislatures. This was the case until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, and the office became a popularly elected one.  In a somewhat similar fashion, Spaight wanted Congress to elect the President of the United States. But his peers preferred the electoral college, for it, they thought, ensured more checks and balances in American polity. 

Of the signers at the Constitutional Convention, two died in a duel. One was Alexander Hamilton, and the other was Richard Dobbs Spaight. Eventual turncoat Aaron Burr shot Hamilton in a duel outside Weehawken, New Jersey, and the co-author of the Federalist Papers died the following day. In North Carolina, Spaight battled John Stanly, a political opponent, in a war of broadsides—publishing pamphlets and writing letters to the editor. The quarrel ended with a duel in New Bern, North Carolina.  In duals, the offended often found satisfaction by firing a round past his transgressor and the two would make amends. Both lived and left the field with their honor intact. John Stanly, however, aimed to kill. And he did so four times. Barely able to lift his pistol, a sickly Spaight continually missed, but Stanly’s aim was true on the fourth and final round. The next day Spaight died, and he left his wife without a husband and his children without a father. 

When doing genealogical research, one must be prepared to uncover the bad along with the good concerning one’s family. So it is with the study of U.S. history and some of the nation’s founding fathers. On that note we discuss William Blount, the second North Carolina signer of the Constitution.

Blount was known for his intentional mishandling of money and amassing a fortune by deceitful means. He was a land speculator, and he and his brother, John Gray Blount—and their various aliases—owned millions of acres of western land. (Then, western land was located in what is now the North Carolina mountains and modern-day Tennessee.)

Some historians claim that Blount said little, if anything, at the Constitutional Convention, and some historians claim that he signed the document simply to prove that he was present. In fact, he didn’t appreciate the Constitution’s value and believed the nation would one day “disintegrate into various separate and independent governments.” He did think the Constitution facilitated westward expansion, and for that he was appreciative and supportive.

After the signing of the Constitution, Blount played an instrumental role in the budding and then newly formed state of Tennessee. He was its territorial governor before its admission into the union, and then he served in the U.S. Senate.  In this role, he worked to incite war among various Indian tribes and the Spanish.  His shenanigans were uncovered, and he was impeached and removed from the Senate. Criminal and treason charges were eventually dropped. 

Even though Blount tarnished the Old North State’s reputation, it was polished and revived by the most esteemed and erudite of North Carolina’s signers, Hugh Williamson. Williamson was a Renaissance man, in the truest sense, and not simply a dilettante, a dabbler in various fields. He was a licensed Presbyterian minister and later an accomplished doctor, philosopher, and scientist.  During the Revolutionary War, he served as North Carolina’s surgeon general, and he successfully inoculated the state’s troops for smallpox.

At the Philadelphia Convention Williamson was a respected delegate and the most vocal of the three NC delegates. And he was one of the most vocal of all the assembly’s delegates. The convention adopted his suggestion for a six-year Senatorial term, and he was influential in drafting the impeachment process that is in the Constitution.  

Indeed, a picture (or a painting) can be worth a thousand words. In this case, it literally was.