North Carolina Signers of the U.S. Constitution

William Blount

Richard Dobbs Spaight, Sr.

Hugh Williamson

The first attempt to remedy some of the ills brought on by too much state influence on the national economy came during the Mount Vernon Conference in March of 1785. Meeting at the home of George Washington, delegates from Virginia and Maryland sat together to discuss their mutual problems concerning harbor facilities and interstate waterways. These representatives resolved to work together to overcome conflicts on fishing rights, navigational safety, piracy and interstate currency rates. Most importantly, the delegates identified the need for more states to participate in future discussions.

The Virginia House of Delegates, when it ratified the Mount Vernon Accord in 1786, also called for a second meeting to be held in Annapolis to discuss “such commercial regulations [as] may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony.” The call went out to all the states to send delegates to attend this second meeting. In the end, only five states sent representatives to Annapolis for the meeting, which convened in September of 1786. North Carolina, like several other states, had appointed delegates. Hugh Williamson, North Carolina’s representative, apparently arrived in Annapolis the day the convention adjourned.

The lack of a quorum at the Annapolis convention frustrated attempts to resolve the economic and political problems plaguing the new nation. The Annapolis convention did, however, pass one significant measure — delegates agreed to Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to call for yet another meeting, this time in Philadelphia. On February 21, 1787, the Confederation Congress called a convention of state delegates to meet in May of 1787, “to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the existence of the Union…” The Confederation Congress agreed to issue a call for a convention in Philadelphia and every state except Rhode Island appointed delegations to attend.

On the appointed day, May 14, 1787, only the Virginia and Pennsylvania delegations were present, and so the convention's opening meeting was postponed for lack of a quorum. A quorum of seven states met and deliberations began on May 25. Eventually twelve states were represented; 74 delegates were named, 55 attended and 39 signed.

James Iredell, one of North Carolina’s leading attorneys, was concerned for the health of the fledgling nation and keenly aware of how North Carolina’s society and economy had changed since the American Revolution. He felt that if the nationalists were to succeed in strengthening the union, they needed to move promptly. Iredell, however, was in New Bern, not Philadelphia, on May 25.

Why such a staunch advocate of changing the current national political arrangement did not attend a convention clearly intended to do just that is unknown. Regardless of his tardiness, however, Iredell took a commanding role in defending the new Constitution before the people of North Carolina four months later. Blessed with a quick pen and an insightful mind, Iredell was a formidable proponent of a strengthened American union.

Four years earlier, Iredell had been the anonymous author of a set of instructions to the Chowan County representatives in which he outlined the requirements for a more effective state government within the context of a national union. He had then called for payment of North Carolina’s requisition to the Continental Congress; stringent controls over the printing and redemption of the state’s paper money; prohibition of legislative intrusion into civil suits; better organization of the administration of the state; an independent judiciary; and support of trade, commerce and manufacturing. Many of these same issues faced the delegates from the states as they met in Philadelphia to begin their deliberations.

Five North Carolina delegates eventually made their way to the convention. In Novemberof 1786, the North Carolina General Assembly selected five state leaders to participate in the Philadelphia convention: Governor Richard Caswell, William Richardson Davie, Willie Jones, Alexander Martin, and Richard Dobbs Spaight. Jones declined to attend, some said because it would then free him to oppose any changes proposed by the Philadelphia convention. Governor Caswell also declined for reasons of health. He then appointed William Blount and Hugh Williamson to complete the North Carolina delegation.

Richard Dobbs Spaight, first of North Carolina’s delegation to reach Philadelphia, arrived at the convention on May 15, 1787. Spaight was also among the youngest and least experienced of the delegates. He spoke little in the convention, but returned home an ardent federalist and supporter of the Constitution. He was one of three North Carolina delegates who remained at the convention long enough to sign the Constitution on September 17th.

William Richardson Davie was the second delegate to arrive in Philadelphia. With Hugh Williamson, Davie was the leading spokesman for North Carolina at the convention. An early advocate of both state and popular representation in the national legislature, Davie sat on the committee that drafted a compromise between the Virginia plan, which based a state’s national representation on its population, and the New Jersey plan, which relied upon the old Confederation formula of one state, one vote. The committee forged this first great compromise of the convention over the Fourth of July recess, supporting the idea of Roger Sherman of Connecticut that representation in the House be based on population, while that of the Senate reflect equal representation among the states.

Davie was forced to leave the convention early to return to his law practice. During the next two years of debate in North Carolina, Davie’s voice rang out as one of the principal advocates of the Constitution. Of the five North Carolinians who participated in the Philadelphia convention, only he and Spaight also served at the first ratification convention in North Carolina.

When the Philadelphia convention opened on May 25, 1787, two more North Carolina delegates were in attendance: Hugh Williamson and Alexander Martin. Both settled into the Indian Queen Inn, where James Madison, George Mason, Alexander Hamilton and other leading delegates were lodged. William Pierce of Georgia, who wrote brief character sketches of the delegates, characterized Williamson as “a worthy man, of some abilities, and fortune,” although public speaking was apparently not among those abilities. Williamson, however, still contributed his share to the debates. He served on the committee that recommended the initial number of representatives in the House for each state and it was Williamson who proposed a decennial census to determine changes in representation, a practice subsequently adopted and followed to this day. Williamson was also greatly concerned with the powers and limitations of the executive branch. He feared a single executive and thought that the executive should serve only one term. Williamson spoke in favor of limited executive veto. Both Williamson and Davie expressed strong approval of an impeachment process, Williamson believing that impeachment was “an essential security for the good behavior of the Executive.”

Near the close of the convention, Williamson published a series of essays under the pseudonym “Sylvius.” Although authored before the convention, their contents spoke directly to some of the major concerns about a strong national government. He outlined the need for a strong national government to take command of the economy and foreign affairs, as well as expounded upon the ills created by a paper money economy.

Williamson was the second of North Carolina’s delegates to sign the Constitution. He did not attend the first ratification convention in Hillsborough in July of 1788, opting instead to attend the Continental Congress in order to protect the state’s interests. He remained there even after the new government was formed in the spring of 1789 without North Carolina’s official participation, returning only to take part in the Fayetteville convention in November of 1789.

Alexander Martin, the fourth of the state’s delegates, was a former governor of North Carolina and a Colonel during the American Revolution. Judged a moderate and practical politician, Martin stood midstream between the federalist and anti-federalist camps in North Carolina. A fellow delegate of Martin’s described, rather tartly, his contribution to the convention:

“The great exertions of political wisdom in our late Governor, while he sat at the helm of our State, have so exhausted his fund, that time must be required to enable him again to exert his abilities to the advantage of the nation.”

Martin ultimately contributed little to the discussions on the new Constitution. Like Davie, he was unable to stay to the close of the convention.

The last of North Carolina’s delegation to arrive in Philadelphia was William Blount, who reached the convention on June 20, 1787. He had been involved in representing North Carolina’s interests in the Continental Congress meeting in New York. Although he took no part in the debates at Philadelphia, he was there to sign the document — the third of the state’s signers. Blount was not elected to the convention at Hillsborough, but was involved in the ratification convention at Fayetteville, where he may have played a key role in securing the necessary votes for the Constitution in 1789.

The Philadelphia convention’s final product received a chilly response in North Carolina. A long battle began with leading federalists like Iredell and Archibald MacLaine of Wilmington preparing lengthy defenses of the Constitution. In a series of essays published in January of 1788, under the name “Marcus,” James Iredell sought to refute the criticisms of George Mason. Mason’s attack on the Constitution was especially threatening since he had been at the convention — where he refused to sign the Constitution — and was widely respected for his disinterested dedication to the new nation. Mason opposed the Constitution on numerous grounds, principally its lack of a bill of rights.

Iredell responded to each point of Mason’s attack, examining why the Constitution did not need a bill of rights; why it was representative of the people; why the Senate could amend money bills; why the country needed a national judiciary; and why the Constitution proposed a single executive without a constitutional council. While his refutation of Mason’s objections proved thoughtful and measured in tone, other defenders of the Constitution were less willing to adopt a dispassionate, reasoned argument. Archibald MacLaine was particularly vitriolic, referring to the Constitution’s opponents as “petty tyrants.”

The principal confrontation of ideas and interests came, naturally, during the Hillsborough convention held from July 21 to August 4, 1788. The convention should have been somewhat anti-climactic, starting as it did after ten states had already ratified the Constitution and thus assured the formation of a new national government under its auspices. The imminent inauguration of a new national government, however, did not deter a majority of the Hillsborough convention from rejecting the Constitution by a 184-83 vote. Two issues stood out above all others in the attack on the Constitution — the lack of a bill of rights and concerns that the new national arrangement vested too much authority in a distant government.

Thomas Burke’s suspicions of centralized government remained potently alive in a North Carolina where memories of the bloodshed and agony required to escape the control of a distant colonial government were recent.

Willie Jones of Halifax, Samuel Spencer of Anson, Thomas Person of Granville, David Caldwell of Guilford and William Lenoir of Wilkes led the opposition to the Constitution at the Hillsborough convention. There was, however, little unity among the opponents. Some like Samuel Spencer were most concerned about the loss of authority for the states. As one of the three highest judges in North Carolina, Spencer appeared especially concerned at the prospect of his authority being overshadowed by a federal judiciary. David Caldwell provides a notable contrast to Spencer. A Presbyterian minister renowned for the school he operated in Guilford County, Caldwell objected to the lack of a fundamental philosophical framework through which Americans might accurately judge the Constitution. Willie Jones seemed concerned, along with many others, about the danger of removing power so far away from the people without, in turn, safeguarding their interests with a bill of
rights.

The federalists, though not in the majority at the Hillsborough convention, suffered none of these fissures of opinion. They prepared admirably for the event, anticipating the arguments that opponents of the Constitution would make and practicing their own responses. James Iredell took on the role of theorist and Governor Samuel Johnston acted as a peacemaker, while Archibald MacLaine and William Richardson Davie played the proverbial “loose cannons” at the convention. Yet, despite all the federalists could say, in and out of convention, the Constitution was doomed to defeat from the outset.

Ratification waited another fifteen months, coming only in November, 1789, at Fayetteville on a vote of 194-77. Historians know quite a bit about the Hillsborough convention because James Iredell and Samuel Johnston hired a secretary to record the debates. Nothing like that was done for the Fayetteville convention, however. This gap in the historical record renders subsequent explanations of why sentiment among the delegates shifted so dramatically in a year’s time far more conjectural.

The decision by the U.S. Congress to present a "Bill of Rights" to the states for ratification may well have paved the way for North Carolina’s decision to join the Union. Fear of being left outside the Union — and in a subsequently precarious position when it came to trade and commerce — may also have convinced the delegates at Fayetteville to approve the Constitution. George Washington’s election as president probably dampened fears of an over-mighty chief executive. Whatever the reason, the convention took only seven days to ratify and report out their vote.

One month later, North Carolina became the second state to ratify the Bill of Rights. The legacy of the Constitutional debates in North Carolina fostered a lasting appreciation among the state’s citizens of the role of popular discussion in settling critical issues and how political power may be rationally — and peacefully — balanced between the nation, the states and the people.


Immediately above comes mostly from Pages 848-853 of the 2005-2006 North Carolina Manual, with minor edits.


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