Point of View

Acquiring rights, 223 years ago

November 22, 2012 

Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, no unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to trial by jury – these are just five of the important liberties listed in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Americans cherish them. But would we have these expressly written guarantees of liberty in the Constitution if the majority of North Carolinians had not insisted on them?

Today, Nov. 23, is a perfect day to remember the instrumental role North Carolina played in securing a Bill of Rights. The date marks the 223rd anniversary of the Tar Heel State’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Convening in Fayetteville in 1789, North Carolina delegates approved the nation’s governing document, 194-77.

Ratification was not guaranteed. Meeting in Hillsborough in 1788, delegates from six towns and all but one of the state’s then 58 counties had refused to ratify the Constitution. The vote wasn’t even close. The margin? 184-84.

The Tar Heel State ended up being the only one of the original 13 states to hold a second ratification convention. Why had the vast majority of delegates refused to ratify the Constitution the first time around?

For two weeks in 1788 – July 21 to Aug. 4 – Federalist proponents of the Constitution and Antifederalist opponents debated the merits of giving a new, national government more authority and power, or “energy” as they then described it. Delegates such as future Supreme Court Justice James Iredell had championed the Constitution and the new form of federal government from the day the idea was proposed. Others had recurring doubts. They needed clarifications regarding constitutional phrasing and would not vote for a constitution until they were convinced that it would include a bill of rights protecting individual rights.

Most North Carolinians lived and worked on their small farms, which dotted the countryside, and many delegates had participated in or remembered the Regulation movement that two decades prior had protested what many Piedmont farmers believed to be political corruption and collusion. That disagreement had been settled on a Piedmont field in 1771 during the Battle of Alamance.

Still, the Regulator spirit lingered on, manifesting itself in some ways at the 1788 Hillsborough Convention.

Critics of the proposed Constitution recalled an even more recent past as they considered why patriots had fought in the American Revolution. These Antifederalists wanted to ensure that government did not trample on individual liberties. They wanted reassurance that government faced restrictions of its power.

Indeed, these initial opponents of the Constitution at the 1788 Hillsborough Convention and delegates to the 1789 Fayetteville Convention set limits on constitutional interpretations. In other words, they would not allow Federalists, as constitutional historian M.E. Bradford has argued, to interpret the Constitution in a way that was more ambitious than what Antifederalists were willing to accept.

So what changed the Antifederalist mind-set? Some, like Willie Jones, the Constitution’s leading opponent, never changed their opinions. But most North Carolina Antifederalists altered their views when certain political fears were assuaged and when James Madison of Virginia openly declared that he supported and would work to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. Madison kept his promise.

North Carolina delegates – Antifederalists and Federalists alike – hammered out their differences concerning personal rights, limited government and sufficient national power and reached a settlement on Nov. 23, 1789. Their arguments helped start a lasting – sometimes contentious – discussion that continues within American politics.

This week, we enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday, visit with family and cherished friends, and more than once hear comments about overeating, followed ironically by a request for “just a sliver” of pumpkin pie or cheesecake for dessert. We remind ourselves of what is good in our lives – even if our favorite football team loses. It is also appropriate to be thankful for the liberties we have in the United States and to recall our state’s role in ensuring that our liberties were acknowledged in the Bill of Rights.

Troy Kickler is founding director of the North Carolina History Project and editor of northcarolinahistory.org.

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