North Carolina Ratification Conventions: Five Quotes You Need To Know

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

“The majority of the Convention, under the guidance of Willie Jones, were obstinate to an astonishing degree. They have not absolutely rejected the Constitution, but proposed previous Amendments. We are however for the present out of the Union, and God knows when we shall get in to it again.” So commented leading Federalist and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Iredell to his wife Hannah on August 3, 1788. Approximately a year and four and a half months later in December 1789, at the Fayetteville Convention, North Carolina joined the Union then under the U.S. Constitution.

Many North Carolinians expressed Antifederalist sympathies and were skeptical of giving the national government more authority, especially without a Bill of Rights added to the Constitution. There might be problems with the Articles of Confederation, sure, but did Americans, many Tar Heels questioned, need to hurriedly give the national government more power?

After the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, the document was submitted to the state ratifying conventions for their approval or disapproval. North Carolina held two ratification conventions. In the first at Hillsborough in 1788, delegates chose not to outright reject the new form of government but also refused to approve it without a declaration of rights.

There are two broad schools of thought regarding the Constitution: originalist and living constitutionalist. Originalists believe that the Constitution’s original meaning can be more or less understood. The document was a contract, with an amendment process, and incorporated a federalism concept that allowed for the nation’s diversity. Proponents of a living constitution believe that the document’s meaning changes with time according to current thinking; there are “constitutional moments” in times of crisis, as Bruce Ackerman has argued, when popular public opinion makes constitutional interpretive change through means not according to the Constitution.

Many in both intellectual camps, however, overlook the state ratification conventions—the bodies of popularly elected delegates within each state that debated the meaning of constitutional phrasing, approved the Constitution, and gave the document its authority. An understanding of original intent can be gleaned from reading the various convention minutes.

Of all the state ratification conventions, the Hillsborough Convention minutes have been argued by more than a few historians to be the most insightful regarding original intent. That’s because historians have deemed the published North Carolina minutes to be the least partisan. North Carolina Federalists, who had paid a transcriber, had a lighter editorial hand than their counterparts in other states. Below are some interesting quotes culled from the 1788 Hillsborough ratification convention minutes.

1. “When Congress passes a law consistent with the Constitution, it is to be binding on the people. If Congress, under pretense of executing one power, should, in fact, usurp another, they will violate the Constitution.”—James Iredell

2. “There is no declaration of rights, to secure to every member of the society those inalienable rights which ought not to be given up to any government . . . They are the most inestimable gifts of the great Creator.”—Samuel Spencer

3. “I know it is said that what is not given up to the United States will be retained by the individual states. I know it ought to be so, and should be so understood; but, sir, it is not declared to be so. . . . There ought to be a bill of rights, in order that those in power may not step over the boundary between the powers of government and the rights of the people, which they may do when there is nothing to prevent them. . . . . I look upon it, therefore, that there ought to be something to confine the power of this government within its proper boundaries.”—Samuel Spencer

4. “The general objects of the union are 1st, to protect us against foreign invasion; 2d, to defend us against internal commotions and insurrections; 3d, to promote the commerce, agriculture, and manufactures, of America. These objects are requisite to make us a safe and happy people, and they cannot be attained without a firm and efficient system of union.”—William Richardson Davie

5. “The general government will have the protections and management of the general interests of the United States. The local and particular interests of the different states are left to their respective legislatures.”—James Iredell