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Ratification Debates

Although the nascent United States, under the Articles of Confederation, defeated the British Empire during the American Revolution, nationalists considered the existing national government too weak and asked for a more powerful central government.   In the summer of 1787, delegates from various states convened in Philadelphia.  Some such as Patrick Henry (VA) chose not to attend; he “smelled a rat.”   Many wanted only to revise the Articles; others wished to draft a new document and thereby institute a new form of government.  After much debate, nationalists reigned supreme: the U.S. Constitution was drafted and submitted to the states for ratification (approval).

North Carolina was one of the latter states to consider the U.S. Constitution, and after much debate at the Hillsborough Convention in 1788, delegates chose not to ratify or reject the document.  Convention delegates were divided into two groups: Federalists and Anti-Federalists. (Of the two, the former were nationalists who had taken the name federalists, for they knew the term resonated among a populace who believed in states’ rights).   Although Federalists and Anti-Federalists traveled to Hillsborough from across the state, Federalists represented primarily eastern, urban, and commercial interests.  Anti-Federalists journeyed from the Piedmont and the western counties, areas referred to by historian J. Edwin Hendricks as the “less-well-to-do, backcountry, and less populated areas.”

The Hillsborough Convention offered opportunities for leading Federalists and Anti-Federalists to put forth their arguments.   Key Federalists included James Iredell, Sr., who had gained widespread respect during the American Revolution for challenging Blackstone’s ideas regarding parliamentary sovereignty.  Before North Carolinians convened, James Iredell, Sr., had been declaring the necessity of the document and championing its positive elements.  Other key Federalists included William R. Davie and Richard Caswell.   Iredell, in particular, showcased great oratorical skill and answered many Anti-federal questions concerning the nature of the Constitution and the threat it made regarding individual liberty.  The Edenton delegate championed the document as a protector of rights because it incorporated rights into the document by limiting the central government’s power.  Although he said little, Willie Jones (pronounced Wiley) led the Anti-Federalists; however, Samuel Spencer became their spokesman.  Other key Anti-Federalists included Timothy Bloodworth.  These men distrusted the central government and believed states’ rights best protected individual liberties.  After debating for eleven days, it became clear that the Constitution would not be ratified in North Carolina until a Bill of Rights was added.   By a vote of 184 to 83, North Carolina decided not to ratify or reject the Constitution and provided a list of rights and suggested amendments for Americans.   

During the latter months of 1788 and until November 1789, North Carolina was out of the Union, yet in more than a few ways, the state acted as if it was in the Union.  The Hillsborough Convention had sent suggested amendments to other states so that North Carolinians’ concern to protect liberty might be made known.  It remained out of the Union because its citizens feared the national government might encroach on their liberties.  Yet, North Carolina, at times, acted as part of the Union.  North Carolina, for instance, levied a tariff on goods and then turned over the profit to the United States.  Meanwhile, Hugh Williamson, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, served as an ambassador for North Carolina at Philadelphia, then the United States’ capital.  There, he expressed that his government acted primarily out of a concern for liberty rather than abhorrence for the new U.S. government.  The United States meanwhile encouraged North Carolina to join the Union (the nation, for example, allowed North Carolina vessels to enter U.S. ports free of charge), and Williamson asked for the U.S. government to amend the Constitution in ways that might make it acceptable for North Carolinians.  While Williamson garnered good will among Americans, North Carolina Federalists campaigned for another ratification convention.  

A second convention was held in Fayetteville.  By the time it met in November 1789, George Washington had been elected as President of the United States, and almost all expected North Carolina to ratify the Constitution; a Bill of Rights had been added to the U.S. Constitution.  The outlook looked bleak for the recalcitrant Anti-Federalists, so Willie Jones refused even to attend the Fayetteville Convention.  Minimal debate occurred at the Fayetteville Convention, and Federalists easily won the day.  North Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution on November 21, 1789, and from the beginning, the state enjoyed the same rights as existing states.


Sources:

Lindley S. Butler and Alan Watson, eds., The North Carolina Experience: An Interpretive & Documentary Experience (Chapel Hill, 1984); Stephen E. Massengill, North Carolina Votes on the Constitution: A Roster of Delegates to the State Ratification Conventions of 1788 and 1789 (Raleigh, 1988); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of North-Carolina, Convened at Hillsborough, on Monday the 21st Day of July, 1788, for the Purpose of Deliberating and Determining on the Constitution Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia, the 17th Day of September, 1787: To Which is Prefixed the Said Constitution (Edenton, 1789); Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, 2005).

By Troy L. Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project


See Also:

Related Categories: Ratification Debates, Early America
Related Encyclopedia Entries: Anti-Federalism, Alfred Moore (1755-1810), Elizabeth Dole (1936 - ), William Blount (1749-1800), William Barry Grove (1764-1818), Timothy Bloodworth (1736-1814), William Richardson Davie (1756-1820), An Address to the Freemen of North Carolina (Publicola), Republicanism, James Holland (1754-1823), Caleb Bradham (1867-1934), Affirmations, Hillsborough Confrontation (1768), Tryon’s Stamp Act Assembly, Non-Importation Movement, Angus W. McLean (1925-1929), Containerization, Headache Powders, Goody's Headache Powder, Cotton Textile Institute, Brookings Plan, Capital Punishment , The Nutbush Address (1765), Wake County (1771), Royal Governor William Tryon (1729 - 1788), The North Carolina Highway Patrol, Benjamin Everett Jordan (1896 - 1974), William Hooper (1742-1790), Federalist Party, Francis Oliver (1740-1808), James Iredell, Sr. (1751-1799), Principles of an American Whig, Hillsborough Convention of 1788, Hugh Williamson (1735-1819), A Speech at Edenton, Archibald Maclaine (1728-1790), Person County (1792), Jones County (1779), William Henry Hill (1767-1808), Furnifold McLendel Simmons (1854-1940), Alfred Moore Waddell (1834-1912), Henry Toole Clark, Robert Rice Reynolds (1884-1963), Graham A. Barden (1896-1967), Robert L. Doughton (1863-1954), Racial Justice Act , Locke Craig (1860-1924), Robert Brodnax Glenn (1854-1909), Robert Gregg Cherry (1891-1957), William Kerr Scott (1896-1958), David Settle Reid (1813-1891), Thomas Bragg (1810-1872), William Walton Kitchin (1866-1924), Raleigh News and Observer, Lee S. Overman (1854 - 1930), The 1950 Smith-Graham Senate Race, William H. Haywood, Jr. (1801 - 1852), Herbert C. Bonner (1891 - 1965), Bedford Brown (1795 - 1870), Willis Smith (1887 - 1953), Constitution of 1835, Lieutenant Governor, Wilson Carey (1831-1905?), Joseph Carter Abbott (1825 - 1877), William J. Gaston (1778-1844), David Lowry Swain (1801-1868), John W. Ellis (1820-1862), Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, Secession, Salem Brass Band, Confederate States Navy (in North Carolina), United States Navy (Civil War activity), James Iredell Waddell (1824-1886), CSS Neuse, USS Underwriter, Warren Winslow (1810-1862), Prelude to the Battle of Averasboro, The Battle of Averasboro-Day One, Louis Froelich and Company, Louis Froelich (1817-1873), North Carolina Button Factory, CSA Arms Factory, Peace Party (American Civil War), Braxton Bragg (1817-1876), Daniel Harvey Hill (1821-1889), Battle of Bentonville, Bryan Grimes (1828-1880), Fort Hatteras, Fort Fisher, Fort Clark, Fort Macon, Daniel Russell (1845-1908), The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, Union League, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Levi Coffin (1798 – 1877), Battle of Forks Road, Aaron McDuffie Moore (1863-1923), Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) , Fort Anderson (Confederate), Battle of Deep Gully and Fort Anderson (Federal), James T. Leach (1805-1883), Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock (1839-1903), Curtis Hooks Brogden (1816-1901), John Motley Morehead (1796-1866), Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-1894), Alamance County (1849), Gates County (1779), Clay County (1861), Lenoir County (1791), Union County (1842), Teague Band (Civil War), Fort Hamby Gang (Civil War), Shelton Laurel Massacre , Parker David Robbins (1834-1917), Henry Eppes (1831-1917), Washington County (1799), Hertford County (1759), Rutherford County (1779), Granville County (1746), Salisbury Prison (Civil War), Stoneman's Raid, James City, Fort York, Asa Biggs (1811 - 1878), Thomas Clingman (1812 - 1897), Matt W. Ransom (1826 - 1904), St. Augustine's College, Peace College, Election Case of Joseph Abbott and Zebulon Vance, Stephen Dodson Ramseur (1837 - 1864) , Vance Birthplace, Matthew Calbraith Butler (1836-1909), Wade Hampton III (1818-1902), The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads (March 10, 1865), Carolinas Campaign (January 1865-April 1865), William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), Confederate Surrender at Bennett's Place (April 17-26, 1865), Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (1836-1881) and the Carolinas Campaign, Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) and the Carolinas Campaign
Related Commentary: Nathaniel Macon: American Patriot and Defender of Liberty, Questions About the Role of Original Intent: Antifederalists played important role in founding era, Overlooked Founders and the Key to The Constitution, North Carolina Ratification Conventions: Five Quotes You Need To Know, Constitution Day: Tar Heels Take Center Stage in Famous Painting, An Overlooked Jeffersonian Argument: Thomas H. Hall and Internal Improvement Legislation, 1771 Alamance: The First Battle of Our American Revolution, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, A Duel to End All Duels: Richard Dobbs Spaight Vs. John Stanly, Toward an Inclusive History of the Civil War: Society and the Home Front, Edward Bonekemper on the Cowardice of General McClellan, Freedmen’s Bank Served Blacks in Post-Civil War Economy
Related Lesson Plans: Discussion of the Lunsford Lane Narrative
Timeline: 1776-1835 , 1836-1865
Region: Statewide

Leading the Federalists, James Iredell, Sr., pictured above, was ultimately successful in aiding the efforts for ratification. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries.

Leading the Federalists, James Iredell, Sr., pictured above, was ultimately successful in aiding the efforts for ratification. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries.


Anti-Federalists' leader, Willie Jones, said relatively little at either convention. Instead, the group relied on the powerful words of Samuel Spencer who became the de facto leader of the Anti-Federalists. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of A

Anti-Federalists' leader, Willie Jones, said relatively little at either convention. Instead, the group relied on the powerful words of Samuel Spencer who became the de facto leader of the Anti-Federalists. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of A


Many Anti-Federalists refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution without a bill of rights. Image courtesy of Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.

Many Anti-Federalists refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution without a bill of rights. Image courtesy of Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.



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