North Carolina’s role in securing Americans a Bill of Rights got a bit of recognition Sunday, with unveiling of the 17th state historic marker on Churton Street, the town’s main thoroughfare.
This one is headlined “CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, 1788”; its text reads: “Delegates debated U.S. Constitution, July 21-Aug. 4, 1788, & voted to delay ratification until bill of rights was added. Met 100 yards S.W.”
“You know, the thousands of cars that ride up and down through Hillsborough, somebody’s going to say, ‘Oh, that happened here?’ That’s very exciting,” said Scott Washington, former assistant director of the Orange County Historical Museum. “This is exciting stuff,” he said.
About 25 people attended the unveiling at Dickerson Chapel AME Church, across Churton Street from the site – now occupied by the museum and First Presbyterian Church – where 270 delegates spent two weeks debating whether to sign on to the U.S. Constitution.
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When they met, 10 of the original 13 colonies had already ratified the Constitution and the 11th, Virginia, ratified after the North Carolina convention began.
“So there’s a lot of peer pressure to go ahead and ratify the thing and join the group,” Washington said. “It doesn’t happen.”
Instead, the North Carolinians voted by a 2-1 margin neither to ratify or reject the Constitution, but to wait and see whether the other states would consider a bill of rights restricting the central government’s powers and protecting the rights of states and individual citizens.
The national government began operating, but having two holdout states presented the first U.S. Congress with an awkward situation. Virginian James Madison consulted various bills of rights the individual states had already adopted and drafted a version he proposed the Congress consider adding to the new Constitution.
Congress approved the amendments in the summer of 1789 and sent them to the states for ratification. North Carolina held a second constitutional convention, in Fayetteville, and ratified the Constitution, becoming the 12th state in November 1789.
“North Carolina’s action ... becomes the tipping point for history,” said Washington, who inspired five historic churches in Hillsborough to observe Bill of Rights Day, Dec. 15, by ringing their bells together – one second for every year since the first 10 amendments were officially added to the Constitution in 1791.
“Your enthusiasm is infectious,” said Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, who helped Washington untie and bring down the blue tarpaulin that had veiled the aluminum marker.