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 often are unsure if the state will lean to the left or to the right in an upcoming election.
However, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 states, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
North Carolina many times has been a battleground state and a determining factor in national debates. A study of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and in particular what has become known as the “Connecticut Compromise,” provides an example of how North Carolina politics was divided during the debate over ratifying the Constitution and how North Carolinians provided key votes in the budding new union.
The Connecticut Compromise was a result of much deliberation and political maneuvering. Modern-day patriots often forget that the Founders disagreed on many issues at the convention and worked assiduously and sometimes cunningly for compromise.
They were not of one political mind, agreeing with all the proposed passages in the Constitution. Some even chose not to attend. Patrick Henry, for example, a staunch federalist (later branded an Anti-Federalist), believed he “smelled a rat.”
Convention delegates were divided concerning such things as the length of terms, the frequency of elections, and where power should be placed. Heated debates continued after the Philadelphia Convention, as evidenced by the ratification process that prompted Founders, using pseudonyms, to argue publicly whether the United States should adopt the Constitution. At one point, disagreements concerning government structure and the representation issue almost disbanded the convention.
To make a detailed and long history short, let me explain it as follows: The “Connecticut Compromise” evolved from the “Virginia Plan” and the “New Jersey Plan.” The former based representation in the legislative branch on population and called for a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature.
Many opponents argued that it favored the most populous states, letting them dominate American politics. The “New Jersey” plan proposed a unicameral legislature and equal representation for all states. To no one’s surprise, “Virginia Plan” proponents had problems with a governmental structure so closely resembling the Articles of Confederation favoring small states.
The convention seemed to be at an impasse, but the Connecticut Compromise proposed an overall structure that still exists today: a bicameral legislature, with representation in one chamber based on population and the other with each state having equal representation.
The Connecticut Compromise required political acumen and planning and what historian Forrest McDonald calls “backstage maneuvering” that recruited the North Carolina delegation — in particular, Hugh Williamson’s support. The representation issue involved much more, including approval of treaties, the budget, the origination of taxation legislation, the western land issue, slavery, and exports.
In other words, Founders disagreed over which powers should belong in which chamber and other lingering questions. The issues reflected regional, demographic, and economic concerns that affected the balance of power and the preservation of liberty.
Williamson reportedly had criticized the plan, but eventually he was persuaded to alter his opinion. Regarding representation and population, North Carolina’s delegates had been divided: Williamson, William Blount, and Richard Dobbs Spaight voted for proportional representation while Alexander Martin and William Davie opposed it.
Initially, North Carolina was a “large state.” Blount soon left to serve briefly in Congress, and, meanwhile, John Rutledge of South Carolina discussed the compromise with Williamson, among others, in informal meetings and dinners.
Eventually, Williamson, Martin, and Davie voted for states to get equal representation in the Senate. Historian William Powell said, “North Carolina’s vote contributed toward keeping the convention in session, as the small states’ delegates might have left if their cause had been lost.”
As evidenced by Williamson’s role, North Carolina was a battleground state during the nation’s founding years.