Fayetteville Convention of 1789

Written By Jonathan Murray

Called by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1789, the Fayetteville Convention was the second meeting to consider ratification of the Federal Constitution in North Carolina. It followed the Hillsborough Convention of 1788. There, the delegates declined to either approve or reject the Constitution.

The refusal to ratify at Hillsborough stemmed principally from three Antifederalist concerns. First, Antifederalists objected to Article III of the Constitution, which entrusts jurisdiction in all cases arising under the Constitution and Federal law to a national judiciary. Second, Antifederalists feared that the new Constitution would disrupt the already precarious condition of North Carolina’s economy and, in particular, the status of its paper money. Third, Antifederalists argued that the Federal Constitution was too vague concerning the question of the national government’s powers. Though the Constitution stated that powers not held by the Federal government would fall upon the states, Antifederalists desired an explicit bill of rights.

Outside of North Carolina, most ascribed the refusal to ratify at Hillsborough to economic motives. Letters and newspaper columns written in the United States in early 1789 reveal a widespread perception that North Carolinian Antifederalists had an interest in preserving the state dollar. By the summer of 1789, however, the successful functioning of the new Federal government, along with the tariffs it had begun enforcing, had convinced many prominent North Carolinian merchants and businessmen that ratification would benefit the state’s economy.

Moreover, during the winter of 1789, James Madison publicly announced that he supported the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution. This bill of rights would take the form of amendments to the Constitution. It would thus be considered by the U.S. Congress, which would convene in March. Madison’s announcement eliminated a major Antifederalist concern.

Delegates to the Fayetteville Convention were elected in August 1789. Willie Jones, who had been the spiritual leader of the Antifederalist delegates to the Hillsborough Convention, did not run in 1789. Having resigned himself to the ratification of the Constitution, he ceased publicly supporting the Antifederalist cause around the time that Madison began advocating a bill of rights.

The debate at the Fayetteville Convention was, by and large, less heated than the debate at Hillsborough had been. Delegates weighed not only the Federal Constitution itself but also the bill of rights proposed by the U.S. Congress. The most interesting move of the convention was made by James Galloway of Rockingham County. He proposed five alternative amendments to the Constitution, each of which placed tight restrictions on the Federal government’s control over the states. His proposal was defeated by a 187–82 vote of the delegates. Immediately after Galloway’s proposal failed, the Federalist William Davie proposed that the delegates ratify the Constitution, and they did so by a 194 to 77 vote.

North Carolina’s entrance to the Union proceeded peacefully. Governor Samuel Johnston, who had presided over the Fayetteville Convention, resigned his post after the General Assembly elected him to the U.S. Senate, where he was joined by fellow Federalist Benjamin Hawkins. Nearly all of the North Carolinians who went north to join the U.S. government were Federalists. Of the five men elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from North Carolina, only Timothy Bloodworth was an Antifederalist.

Though Antifederalists in North Carolina felt marginalized by the Federalists’ disproportionate share of North Carolina’s seats in the U.S. Congress, the smooth transition to Federal rule and the perceived competence of the Federal government ensured broad public approval in North Carolina of the new political order in America.