Hillsborough celebrates N.C.'s role in Bill of Rights

Hillsborough salutes Dec. 15, 1791, the day the document secured final approval

abaird@newsobserver.comDecember 15, 2012 

— Blue skies and just-too-warm-for-a-coat weather made Saturday afternoon seem more distant from Christmas than calendars claim.

That worked out fine for a group that assembled around downtown Hillsborough to remind everyone in earshot that Dec. 15 is a special day in its own right.

On that day in 1791, Virginia became the 10th state to approve the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, states’ rights and an array of other closely held American ideals. But the document might never have been ratified if North Carolina hadn’t taken a stand for personal liberty.

Bill of Rights Day has been commemorated as early as 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt honored the 150-year anniversary, and it has been remembered through an annual presidential proclamation since President Gerald Ford.

On Friday, the White House issued a proclamation from President Barack Obama, which said the framers of the amendments “sought to balance the power and security of a new federal government with a guarantee of our most basic civil liberties. They acted on a conviction that rings as true today as it did two centuries ago: unlocking a nation’s potential depends on empowering all its people.”

But even with words of praise from presidents past and present, the holiday is still without an established set of traditions. No equivalent of Christmas trees, Thanksgiving dinners or Fourth of July fireworks come to mind at the mention of Bill of Rights Day.

“We want to give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Let freedom ring,’ ” said Scott Washington, assistant director at Hillsborough’s history museum.

To that end, Washington enlisted five historical churches of different denominations to ring their bells for one minute at 2 p.m. Saturday. A small cluster of people rang hand bells and shook keys in front of the downtown courthouse at the same time.

Washington wore a hat emblazoned with the seal of the USS Missouri – a Navy Iowa-class battleship used during the Second World War – and he boasted a lofty goal: “I want everyone from Hillsborough to Honolulu, where the USS Missouri has been retired, to ring their bells and remember the Bill of Rights this time a few years from now,” he said.

For what the bells tolled may have been a mystery to most – people walked along the town’s main drag oblivious to the ringing sounds that competed with road noise. But all traditions build slowly, Washington said, and the cheap cost for remembering such an important moment in history gives the idea a chance of catching on.

Steadfast for freedom

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby agrees some kind of tradition should form. In an interview Friday, he said he believes the importance of the freedoms tied to the document and North Carolina’s influence on it can’t be overstated. And more people should know about it.

Newby said delegates from around North Carolina – which then included much of modern-day Tennessee – took a unique and stubborn stance when they convened in Hillsborough and later in Fayetteville. They refused to ratify or reject it without explicitly guaranteed rights of individual freedom. They were the only state to do so.

“On an almost two-to-one vote, North Carolina said they wouldn’t ratify absent the Bill of Rights,” Newby said. “The first Congress moved so quickly to pass it in large part because of North Carolina.”

Even though many of the rights are still points of contention – particularly the right to bear arms, given recent headlines – Newby said he’s “thankful to God that our folks here insisted that there be a Bill of Rights.”

“Looking around the world, the turmoil of the world, fundamental freedoms are continually under assault,” he said. “The beauty of the American system is that we have clearly articulated what our rights and freedoms are.”

Baird: 919-829-4696

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