North Carolina’s Ratification Debates Guaranteed Bill of Rights

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

The 1787-89 debates over ratifying the Constitution offer another example of North Carolina’s longstanding role as a battleground state in U.S. political history.

During the debates, the state’s population was divided over the necessity of a U.S. Constitution and what became known as the Bill of Rights.

After the framers drafted a new constitution at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, the document was submitted to respective state ratification conventions for approval. According to Article 7 in the Constitution: “The ratification of the conventions of nine states shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the states so ratifying the same.”

Nine states approved the Constitution, and the new Union was formed. In some, the vote was unanimous (Georgia, 26-0, and New Jersey, 38-0). In others, the vote was divided (Pennsylvania, 46-23, and South Carolina, 149-73).

Widespread criticism and skepticism, however, remained in key states: New York, Virginia, Rhode Island, and North Carolina. In New York, the recurring skepticism prompted Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to pick up quills, dip them into inkwells, and pen 85 essays that became known as The Federalist — one of the best commentaries regarding the Constitution’s meaning.

In North Carolina, Edentonian James Iredell, using the pseudonym Marcus, explained the Constitution’s meaning and pointed out the necessity of its adoption. Tar Heel Federalists, such as Iredell and William Davie, believed the “general government” needed more “energy,” such as more authority to tax and be able to have an army to defend the fledgling nation.

A strong Anti-Federalist sentiment, however, remained in North Carolina. Many North Carolinians remembered the Parliamentary abuses before the Revolutionary War and questioned giving more authority to what would become the federal government. Tar Heel Anti-Federalists, including the influential yet somewhat reticent Willie Jones and the vocal and somewhat bumbling Judge Samuel Spencer, questioned handing any more power from the individuals and the states to the general government.

Unlike other states, there were two ratification conventions in North Carolina. One was in Hillsborough (1788) and the other in Fayetteville (1789). James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” remarked more than once that the state ratifying conventions provide the key to unlocking an understanding of the Constitution’s meaning. That said, many historians consider North Carolina’s ratification convention minutes to be the most revealing and balanced regarding the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

(In most states, Federalists paid for transcribers, and many times convention minutes give the impression of erudite Federalists engaging Anti-Federalist ignorance; the Hillsborough minutes instead reveal a sophisticated exchange among delegates with opposing beliefs.)

At Hillsborough, Anti-Federalists preferred a quick vote and dismissal while the Federalists desired opportunities to provide commentary for the record. Ultimately, the delegates debated and discussed such issues as defining local and state responsibilities and the necessity of paper money and religious oaths of office. Much debate centered on questions regarding taxation. In many ways, the Regulator spirit remained in many parts of North Carolina, and many delegates were concerned with local authority or wanted a declaration of rights added to the submitted constitution.

In Hillsborough, the delegates voted neither to reject nor ratify the U.S. Constitution (184-84). Some historians have called this “the great refusal.”

In subsequent months, debate continued not only in North Carolina but also in other states regarding the necessity of the Bill of Rights. After being assured that a declaration of rights would be added to the Constitution, in November 1789 North Carolina ratified the Constitution by a vote of 195 to 77 at the Fayetteville Convention. The Old North State finally had joined the new Union.

In the end, North Carolina’s heated political debate and strong dissent contributed significantly to ensuring that Americans have a Bill of Rights.