Willie Jones saw the Constitution as a dangerous instrument of centralization and opposed ratification until the document guaranteed individual rights. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.
A man of many titles, including “the Jefferson of North Carolina,” Willie Jones (pronounced Wiley) deserves more attention.
Jones (1741-1801) started his political career in 1767 as a representative of Halifax County in the House of Commons. In his early career, he was a die-hard Tory and even battled the Regulators in 1771. Growing disenchanted with British colonial rule, Jones switched sides not long afterward in 1774. During the Revolutionary War, he served at four of the five Provincial Congresses, on the Council of Safety, in the Continental Congress, and emerged as the foremost leader of “radicalism” in North Carolina.
Although Jones lived an accomplished life and his biography would certainly be entertaining--as a young man he took a vow of celibacy for three years, and as an old deist he declared in his will that no tombstone should be placed on his grave--I will emphasize his Anti-Federalism.
Many times, Anti-Federals (who were more federal than the Federalists) have been described primarily as provincials lacking vision and offering nothing but criticisms of the Constitution. Anti-Federals, however, attempted to settle the tension between seemingly opposite values, such as a republican government and self-governing communities, commerce and civic virtues, and private gain and the public good. They believed, argues political scientist Herbert J. Storing, “the American polity had to be a moral community if it was to be anything, and . . . that the seat of that community must be the hearts of the people.”
Believing states’ rights and individual rights were intertwined, Willie Jones, in particular, criticized the Constitution as an instrument of centralization and an encroachment of community rule. Only the states, not the federal government, he argued, should have the power to tax and control the time, manner, and place of elections. He feared the Constitution created the possibilities of a standing army, a Supreme Court that overruled state court decisions, and a federal government that regulated the economy to benefit a few commercial interests.
Jones’s insistence for an elucidation of individual rights in the Constitution contributed greatly to the eventual adoption of the Bill of Rights. It was expedient, Jones reasoned, for North Carolina to ratify the Constitution only after certain individual rights were guaranteed. Jones heeded the advice of Thomas Jefferson: for the sake of the Union, at least nine states should ratify the Constitution, but to ensure that a Bill of Rights was adopted, at least four states should not ratify it. Jones made sure North Carolina was one of the four: “I would rather be eighteen years out of the Union than adopt it [Constitution] in its present defective form.”
In 1788 North Carolina passed a resolution (184 to 84) not to approve or reject the Constitution. Although Jones seldom spoke at the 1788 ratification debates, Federalists resented his presence, for the radical Jeffersonian marshaled the forces of opposition: “We might have carried our point . . .,” remarked Federalist Archibald MacLaine in 1789, “but for Willie Jones.”
For a year North Carolina was out of the union. But when the U.S. Congress passed a Bill of Rights, North Carolina voted for the Constitution (195 to 77) in 1789. That year Jones remained reticent, knowing his political work was done.
Jones’s ideas lived long after his political career, however. They influenced such men as Nathaniel Macon and Thomas H. Hall. And, the Anti-Federal political tradition continues to inform debate over the nature of American polity and constitutional interpretations; the jurisprudence of the late Justice Rehnquist has even been described in legal journals as essentially Anti-Federal and Jeffersonian.
All that is said to say this: Although not a framer of the Constitution, Jones co-founded our nation. Next time you walk or drive down Jones Street in Raleigh, remember its namesake, Willie Jones, and his fight to preserve liberty.
Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill, 1999); Blackwell Pierce Robinson, “Willie Jones of Halifax,” North Carolina Historical Review 28 (January, April) 1941: 1-26, 133-70; and Herbert J. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution (Chicago, 1981).
By Troy L. Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Political History, Ratification Debates