A Speech at Edenton

Written By North Carolina History Project

On November 8, 1787 in Edenton at the Chowan County Courthouse, Hugh Williamson called for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  In February 1788, his speech was published in the New York Daily Advertiser and later in other publications, including Pennsylvania Packet, Charleston Columbian Herald, and Philadelphia American Museum.  

Although admitting that the Constitution (like any document) has imperfections, Williamson assuaged his audience that the Constitution protects liberties such as freedom of the press and the right to a trial by jury.  He considered the national government too weak and remarked that, under the Articles of Confederation, most state laws did not benefit the entire nation.  Williamson, however, reassured Edenton and Chowan County residents that states would keep the power that they had been given under the Articles  and would give up only those powers that have a national concern (the powers listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution).  If the nation continued under the Articles, Williamson predicted, the American Experiment would fail.  He warned Americans that foreigners were hoping that Antifederalists were successful in their efforts to defeat the ratification of the Constitution. 

To persuade North Carolinians, he mentions in particular how their state can benefit from being under the Constitution.  Compared to other states, North Carolina was at a geographic disadvantage with its shoreline limiting access to ports and limiting trade.  If the state was part of something bigger, it would indirectly benefit them, for the state would cooperate with other affluent states.  North Carolina owed approximately 90-percent of its war debt, and a Constitutional government would absorb that debt.  Williamson furthermore countered a popular argument: a Southern Antifederalists argument for free trade.  Williamson tells the audience that Congress should have the power to regulate trade, and that the economy should be run for all American interests.  It is better, he said, to ensure that your friends have money than to allow strangers access to American money.

Possibly the most famous part of this speech is its ending.  If Americans wanted a crumbling and dead nation, Williamson advised, then do not vote for the Constitution.  “If there is any man among you that [sic] wishes for troubled times and fluctuating measures, that he may live by speculations, and thrive by the calamities of the State, this Government is not for him.”  Williamson then urged Edenton residents to support the Constitution for the sake of the American economy.