Tar Heel State Helped Protect American Freedom

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

In 1788, North Carolina undoubtedly played a role in ensuring that the U.S. Constitution included a Bill of Rights.

Although the nascent United States, under the Articles of Confederation, defeated the British Empire during the American Revolution, nationalists considered the existing national government too weak and asked for a more powerful central government. In the summer of 1787, delegates from various states convened in Philadelphia. Many wanted only to revise the Articles; others wished to draft a new document and thereby institute a new form of government. After much debate, nationalists reigned supreme: the U.S. Constitution was drafted and submitted to the states for ratification (approval).

North Carolina was one of the latter states to consider the U.S. Constitution, and after much debate at the Hillsborough Convention in 1788, delegates chose neither to ratify nor reject the document. Convention delegates were divided into two groups: Federalists and Anti-Federalists. (Of the two, the former were nationalists who had taken the name Federalists, for they knew the term resonated among a populace who endorsed a federal form of government.)

The Hillsborough Convention allowed leading Federalists and Anti-Federalists to articulate constitutional arguments. Key Federalists included James Iredell Sr., who had gained widespread respect during the American Revolution for challenging Blackstone’s ideas regarding parliamentary sovereignty. Before North Carolinians convened, James Iredell Sr. had been declaring the necessity and positive elements of the document. At the convention, Iredell showcased great oratorical skill and answered many Anti-Federal questions concerning the nature of the Constitution and the threat it made regarding individual liberty. The Edenton delegate championed the document as a protector of rights because it incorporated rights into the document by limiting the central government’s power. Other key Federalists included William Blount and William Richardson Davie.

Although he said little, Willie Jones (pronounced Wiley) led the Anti-Federalists; however, Samuel Spencer became their spokesman. Timothy Bloodworth was another key Anti-Federalist. These men distrusted the central government and believed states’ rights best protected individual liberties. After debating for 11 days, it became clear that the Constitution would not be ratified in North Carolina until a Bill of Rights was added. By a vote of 184 to 83, North Carolina decided not to ratify or reject the Constitution and provided a list of rights and suggested amendments for Americans.

During the latter months of 1788 and until November 1789, North Carolina was out of the Union, yet at times, the state acted as if it were in the Union. North Carolina remained out of the Union because its citizens feared the national government might encroach on individual liberties. Yet North Carolina levied a tariff on foreign goods and then turned over the profit to the United States. Meanwhile, Hugh Williamson, a delegate to the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, served as an ambassador for North Carolina at Philadelphia, then the United States’ capital. There he expressed that his government acted primarily out of a concern for liberty rather than abhorrence for the new U.S. government. The United States meanwhile encouraged North Carolina to join the Union (the nation, for example, allowed North Carolina vessels to enter U.S. ports free of charge), and Williamson asked for the U.S. government to amend the Constitution in ways that might make it acceptable for North Carolinians. While Williamson garnered good will among Americans, North Carolina Federalists campaigned for another ratification convention.

A second convention was held in Fayetteville. By the time it convened in November 1789, George Washington had been elected President of the United States, and almost all expected North Carolina to ratify the Constitution. A Bill of Rights had been added to the U.S. Constitution, too. North Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution on November 21, 1789, and from the beginning, the state enjoyed the same rights as existing states.

Although it joined the Union, North Carolina remained skeptical of government power from the beginning.