'Little Rhody' fires back

Staff WriterMay 27, 2003 

Who knew diplomatic Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger would offend anyone in Rhode Island by bragging recently on North Carolina?

For that matter, who knew Rhode Island's legislature, wrestling with a $225 million budget deficit, had time to read The News & Observer?

But it's true, according to the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations' May 1 "Senate Resolution Protesting Comments Marginalizing Rhode Island's Critical Role in the Founding of our Nation, and Proclaiming Pride in our State's Many Historical Contributions."

Dellinger, a constitutional scholar and former acting U.S. solicitor general, was quoted in an N&O article March 20 discussing the significance of the apparent recovery of North Carolina's stolen copy of the original draft of the U.S. Bill of Rights -- the Constitution's first 10 amendments, which protect individual freedoms against the government.

"North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights is uniquely important," Dellinger said. "We're the state, with Rhode Island, that held out and declined to join the union until there was a Bill of Rights. We could have done without Rhode Island, but we were hardly going to be a contiguous union with a foreign country between South Carolina and Virginia."

My, my, but that went over poorly in "Little Rhody."

Rhode Island Sen. Leo Blais, a pharmacist and Republican from the western town of Coventry, submitted the resolution to assert his state's importance, bless his heart.

It had nine "whereas" statements, including, "Although the professor may have been referring to geographic considerations in the creation of our union, the remark can be interpreted as disregarding the critical role of the State of Rhode Island in modeling the freedoms, ideals, and independent spirit that inspired the founding of our great nation ..."

Blais had a point. Colonists established Rhode Island to promote personal, political and religious liberties. It was the first colony to declare independence. And it was the last, after North Carolina, to approve the Constitution -- and then only narrowly, and only after the Bill of Rights was written.

The resolution "hereby protests the suggestion that the Union 'could do' without Rhode Island, and hereby expresses pride in the instrumental actions our state's forefathers took to guarantee the development of a nation that lived up to the promise of liberty..."

Rhode Island's secretary of state sent signed, certified copies to Dellinger and to The N&O.

Maybe North Carolina isn't a valley of humility anymore, but Dellinger hadn't meant any harm. And he turned on the Southern charm to make up for it. He sent Blais a letter May 5 saying his resolution "was entirely correct."

"As a constitutional historian, I have always considered Rhode Island just about my very favorite state," Dellinger wrote. "The nation owes a debt of gratitude to Rhode Island for holding out and refusing to join the union until a Bill of Rights was added. North Carolina was with you."

He signed it, "Kind regards from a repentant Tar Heel."

Dellinger reports Blais received the letter in good humor.

"He professed to be pleased and said they will not mount an army to invade North Carolina," he said. "I think what this shows is that both North Carolina and Rhode Island still have the same feisty quality that led them to hold out for the Bill of Rights."

Right on, professor.

By staff writer Matthew Eisley, who can be reached at 829-4538 or meisley@newsobserver.com.

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