by Dr. Troy Kickler
Senior Fellow and Managing Director, North Carolina History Curriculum Project
In recent elections, North Carolina has often been referred to as a battleground state. In some ways, that was the case in the late 1780s. On November 21, 1789, North Carolina approved the U.S. Constitution. It was not a quick decision.
In 1787, the framers in Philadelphia drafted a document for state ratification conventions to approve. Article 7 states that there needed to be at least nine states to ratify the Constitution before it went into effect. Some, including George Mason of Virginia, raised concerns that the document did not have a declaration of rights. (We refer to such a list in modern-day discourse as a Bill of Rights.) Each state’s constitution included a declaration of rights. More than a few delegates asked why the proposed national constitution didn’t have such guarantees of liberty.
Nine states, however, approved the Constitution in rather quick fashion. Four states remained skeptical and had more questions: New York, Virginia, Rhode Island, and North Carolina.
In the Old North State, two groups emerged: Federalists and Anti-Federalists. In many ways, the Anti-Federalists promoted a stronger sense of federalism while the Federalists, including James Iredell and William Davie, proposed that the “general government” needed more “energy.” The Anti-Federalists, including Samuel Spencer and Willie Jones, questioned handing over any more power to a national government. They also wanted a declaration of rights.
North Carolina was the only state to have two ratification conventions. For the first one, delegates convened in Hillsborough in 1788. The debate lasted for two weeks. In the end, the well-spoken Federalists, with Iredell at the helm, failed to assuage Anti-Federalists’ fears. North Carolina delegates needed a declaration of rights to be convinced to approve the Constitution. North Carolina neither approved nor rejected the Constitution at Hillsborough.
Modern-day scholars often wonder about original intent. The “Father of the Constitution” and future fourth president of the United States, James Madison, remarked throughout his political career that the actual text of the document and the state ratifying conventions provide the key to unlocking understanding. Historians have considered North Carolina’s minutes to be most helpful. For one, the notes are extensive. More importantly, though, Federalists often paid for transcribers. A lighter editorial hand was wielded in North Carolina. As a result, the Hillsborough Convention minutes reveal a more sophisticated exchange among delegates with opposing beliefs.
Afterward, the U.S. still encouraged North Carolina to approve the Constitution and emphasized the benefits of doing so. Meanwhile, a former signer of the Declaration of Independence, Hugh Williamson of Edenton, traveled to the national capital to maintain goodwill. He also emphasized that a declaration of rights should be added to the Constitution.
In November 1789 at Fayetteville, North Carolina delegates reconvened for a second ratification convention. By that time George Washington had been elected as the first president of the United States. Most delegates were assured that a Bill of Rights would be added. Willie Jones, a staunch Anti-Federalist, refused to attend. Unlike at the Hillsborough Convention, minimal debate occurred in Fayetteville.
In the end, North Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution on November 21, 1789. The state’s previous political debate and delay in ratification had assured that Americans have a Bill of Rights.