The American Revolution in North Carolina

Creating the North Carolina State Constitution - 1776

The first steps towards creating the North Carolina State Constitution was made on April 13, 1776, the result of the Fourth Provincial Congress, which had focused on the subject of Independence and had issued the Halifax Resolves the day before.

Accordingly, on the 13th, Samuel Johnston, the President of the Congress, Abner Nash, Cornelius Harnett, Thomas Jones, Green Hill, Thomas Burke, Allen Jones, Francis Locke, Mr. Blount, Mr. Rand, John Johnston, Samuel Ashe, John Kinchen, Samuel Spencer, Mr. Haywood, Mr. Richardson, Mr. Bradford, Mr. Ramsay, and Thomas Person, were appointed a Committee to prepare a civil Constitution. John Penn and William Hooper were added later.

Before this august group of Patriots was fought one of the most desparate party battles to be recorded in the civil history of the State. The transition from a monarchical to a republican form of government was almost too gradual and easy to be perceived, but the project of a total abandonment of the conservative principles of the British Constitution, produced one of those violent political throes, which have so often stained with blood the career of revolutions.

The Whig party of North Carolina was, at this crisis, convulsed by this distracting question. The most important characters of the Provincial Congress were divided in opinion as to the principles of the new government; and each obstinately conceived the safety, welfare, and honor of the State, to depend upon the success of his favorite schemes.

From the members of the committee, I select the names of Samuel Johnston and Allen Jones, as the leaders of the conservative party. They had made immense sacrifices in the cause of the revolution. Samuel Johnston had succeeded John Harvey in the control of the Whig Party. He had published under his own name an order for the election of the Congress of August 1775; and had thrown himself forward in every crisis, as the civil head of the State. He had shrunk from no responsibility however heavy, from the performances of no duty however perilous, in the cause of the American Revolution. His mind, his body, and his purse were at the service of his country; and these resources he poured forth with all the profusion of a spendthrift. It is impossible to doubt the patriotism of such a man.

But when the reckless proposition to abolish even the very elements of the British Constitution, and to substitute in their stead the incoherent principles of democracy was gravely urged by a majority of the committee, he shrunk from it as from the most deadly contagion. He was an ardent lover of freedom and of the national independence of America, but he was no believer in the infallibility of the popular vote. He had seen the rights of colonies violated, not so much the rights of persons but the right of property, and against this usurpation he had zealously warred. The vagrant principle of universal suffrage, the popular election of judges, and the despicable dependence of authority upon the will of the people at large, were never heard of in the revolution of North Carolina, until the demagogues of the Whig party started on their career of popularity.

But, Samuel Johnston was not a man of that pliable and irresolute character that bends to every passing gale. He did not surrender the honest convictions of his mind to the mere majority of individuals, nor compromise the splendid uniformity of his political character to propiate the clamor of the soldiery. He was the honest advocate of a government of energy and of power, erected upon the most solid foundations. The restriction of the right of suffrage in all popular elections, the inviolable independence of the Judiciary, the permanence and respectability of office, and the most perfect security of property and all vested rights, constituted his conception of the elements of a good government. "Wise or fortunate is the man," who builds his own reputation as a statesman, upon the imperishable rock of such principles. The lovers of constitutional freedom will recur to him as their founder, and "fiercely chastise the guilt or folly of the rebels who shall presume to sully the majesty of" his name.

Against this conservative party was opposed all the radicalism which had gathered around the ball of the revolution, which had now been rolling in North Carolina for more than two years. While its progress and direction were controlled by Samuel Johnston, its career was one of principle; but now the growing strength of the peopl, and the arts of designing and ambitious men were endeavoring to impart a force, which instead of moving it forward, would have broken it into atoms, and perhaps have annihilated it forever.

I pretend not to scrutinize the motives of politicians, more especially of those who have passed from the stage of life, and whose actions are obscured by the distance of more than half a century; but that the leaders of the Whig party in North Carolina were actuated by different motives, and eagerly intent on different and conflicting results, is too obvious to be concealed. With many of the most eminent and zealous, such as Willie Jones and Thomas Person, the establishment of a democracy was an object of superior importance to the independence of the country. With the hope of consummating this darling project, their zeal would have abated, and even the independence of the country have been surrendered, as not worth a struggle, when the certainty of an American aristocracy was before them. But a very different, and I must say a much nobler motive animated the bosom of Samuel Johnston and his conservative friends, in their zealous support of the American cause. The national independence of their country was the very and the only element of their political enthusiasm. They did not look beyond it, and discover in the form of the government which they knew would be established, any principles of superior or even of equal magnitude. Their predilections were in favor of a spendid government, representing the property of the people, and thus giving by its own independence and splendor a high character of dignity to the State. But all schems or forms of government were as nothing when compared with the national indendepence of America; and with the achievement of this grand object they were prepared for either a monarchy, an aristocracy, or any other form of government except a wild and uncontrollable democracy.

The Radicals contended with much show of reason, that the success of the Revolution depended upon the adoption of a purely democratic form of government, and that the hope of such a thing was the sole cause of the enthusiasm of the lower orders of the people. The restriction of the right of suffrage which had prevailed in the Whig government, it was contended, had given the Tories an opportunity of seducing the non-freeholders to their interest, and that an extension of that most delicate and important right, to every "biped" of the forest, was the surest means of uniting the voice of the people. The vain hope, that even the dependent Highlanders of the Cape Fear would, if the prerogative of citizenship were conferred, desert from the standard of their chieftain, was encouraged; and that thus the war could be conducted with greater energy by the combined strength of the State. The coffers of the treasury were empty, and the only means of arousing and keeping alive the warlike spirit of the lower orders, was by conferring the highest political priveleges.

Upon the vital question, then, of enfranchising the lower order of the people, and upon the propriety of a splendid government, the Conservatives and the Radicals were divided; and in the ranks of both of those parties were found many of the most enlightened and patriotic citizens of the State. On the question of Independence, which was settled by the unanimous voice of the Provincial Congress on the day before the appointment of the committee to form a civil Constitution there was no division; and, with the settlement of that more important point, the two rival parties started up into an active existence. Independence had been so much talked of and so often acted upon in North Carolina that it was considered throughout the State, as the peculiar subject of the deliberation of the Provincial Congress; and the members assembled in Halifax predetermined to sanction and recommend the propriety of a national declaration. On the 5th of April, the day after the meeting of the Congress, Mr. Johnston wrote to James Iredell, and after touching on the case of General McDonald, he said, - "All our people here are up for independence. God knows when I shall have the pleasure of seeing you; there are very few among us capable of forwarding business, many of retarding it." On the 13th of April he again wrote Mr. Iredell, and concluded his letter in the following words, - "The House have agreed to impower their Delegates at Philadelphia to concur with the other colonies in entering into foreign alliances and in declaring an independence of Great Britain. I cannot be more particular; this is writtin in Congress. My love and compliments where due; farewell."

I shall draw from the same correspondence my materials in detailing the proceedings of the Committee; and now present an extract from a letter, of date the 17th of April. The Committee had been in session for only four days, and thus Samuel Johnston found himself in a minority. The letter says, - "I must confess our prospects are at this time very gloomy; our people are about forming a Constitution, and from what I can at present collect of their plan, it will be impossible from me to take any part in the execution of it. Numbers have started on the race of popularity, and condescend to the usual means of success."

The Radicals found themselves in the majority in the Committee, and about the 18th or 19th of the month of April, it was resolved "to establish a purely democratic form of government." The dissatisfaction of Samuel Johnston is obvious from the tone of his letters; and the concluding sentence of the one last submitted points plainly to the cause of his discomfiture. He was, however, a man of too much independence of opinion and of too much influence in the State to give up without a further struggle so important a question as the character of the government, under which he expected to live. The Radicals perceived at once the danger of alienating so important a personage from the interest of the new government; and, although they sapiently assumed to themselves the name of orthodox in politics, yet they prudently consented to make terms with their defeated rival.

While this violent schism in the Whig party was hanging over the fate of the American cause in North Carolina, Thomas Jones of Edenton, a personal friend of Samuel Johnston and a cunning and ingenious politician, interceded and appeased the rage of the contending factions. He was in truth more of a conservative than his friend; but, perceiving the strength of the Radicals, he avoided the issue which Samuel Johnston had the independence openly to confront. I have a mere note or billet of his to Johnston, dated the 19th of April, upon which I predicate this view of his character. In that paper he informs Johnston that he had adjusted the disagreeable difficulty, which had interrupted the harmony of the Committee; and then invited him to meet with the other members at his room on the evening of its date.

The tone of Johnston's letters to Iredell changes from this date; and on the very next day we find him busily engaged in the consideration of the details of the new government. The compromise seems to have been so far satisfactory as to have overcome the almost insuperable objections of Johnston; although it is obvious from many articles in the present Constitution that the Radicals yielded much to gain the important service of his coöperation. I here present his letter, of date the 20th of April, which, it will be seen, is written with much good humor.

"From Samuel Johnston to James Iredell
Halifax, 20th of April 1776

Dear Sir,
We have not yet been able to agree on a Constitution. We have a meeting on it every evening, but can conclude on nothing. The great difficulty in our way is, how to establish a check on the Representatives of the people, to prevent their assuming more power than would be consistent with the liberties of the people; such as increasing the time of their duration and such like. Many projects have been proposed too tedious for a letter to communicate. Some have proposed that we should take up the plan of the Connecticut Constitution for a ground-work, but with some amendments; such as that all the great officers, instead of being elected by the people at large, should be appointed by the Assembly; but that the Judges of our Courts should hold their offices during good behaviour. After all, it appears to me, that there can be no check on the Representatives of the people in a democracy, but the people themselves; and in order that the check may be more efficient I would have annual elections. The Congress have raised four new regiments, making in the whole six, and three companies of light horse. General Lee promises us a visit soon. I want much to see that original."

The rest of this letter relates to domestic concerns, which would be uninteresting to the reader. The apprehension that no substantial check could be established for the control of the Legislature has been fully realized in the history of many of the States. The Reports of the Supreme County of the United States are adorned with innumerable cases, in which the learning and patriotism of the Judges are invoked, to check the vagrancy of State legislation. Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia have each in their turn reared the crest to the arbitrament of an independent judiciary; but North Carolina, quietly avoiding the path of the Federal Government, has submitted in all doubtful cases to the correction of her own courts.

The civil Constitution was however completed by the 25th of April, and was on that day laid before the Congress. "On motion, Resolved, That the temporary civil Constitution be taken under consideration to-morrow morning."

On the next day accordingly, the order of the day being read, "Resolved, The House resolve itself into a committee of the whole House, to take into consideration certain resolutions, proposed as a foundation for a temporary civil Constitution. The House resolved itself into a committee of the whole House accordingly, and chose William Cumming, Esq., Chairman, and, after some time spent therein, Mr. President resumed the chair and Mr. Chairman reported the several resolutions, which were odered to lie over until Monday."

On Monday the subject was again postponed until the next day, when the Committee of the Constitution was dissolved, and all hope of the establishment of a permanent government by that Congress abandoned. This conclusion seems to have been exceedingly gratifying to Mr. Johnston, who on the 2nd of May wrote the following letter to Mr. Iredell.

"Halifax, 2nd May, 1776

Dear Sir,
Affairs have taken a turn within a few days past. All ideas of forming a permanent Constitution are at this time laid aside. It is now proposed for the present to establish a Council to sit constantly, and County Committees to sit at certain fixed periods, but nothing is concluded. We find it necessary to emit a very large sum of paper money at the present emergency; a circumstance which gives me more concern than anything else, and yet it seems unavoidable. You can easily see the evils attending this measure. I am pretty well this morning, and have leave to be absent from the service of the House in order to prepare my public accounts for a settlement. Allen Jones is Vice-President."

On the 30th of April, Thomas Burke, Samuel Ashe, Richard Caswell, William Hooper, John Penn, Abner Nash, John Kinchen, Thomas Jones, and James Coor, were appointed a committee to propose "a temporary form of government until the end of the next Congress." The Radicals contrived not only to exclude Samuel Johnston from this committee, but from a seat in the new Council of Safety which was instituted by the Congress on the 11th of May. Their inveterate opposition was continued even after the adjournment of the Congress; and many, even of the most respectable of the Whigs, professed to doubt the sincerity of his attachment to the American cause. "The rancor of opposition," however, secured him "the idolatry of love;" and the firmness with which he was supported by his conservative friends, soon gave him an important influence in a general arrangement of the party. The Council of Safety, for no other reason than that he was not elected a member of that board, (as he had been a member of the former Council), looked upon him as their most deadly enemy; and professed to view his defeat as a signal instance of the displeasure of the Congress. Their excessive dread of his power among the people of the State at large, forced them to respect him in their public capacity; but the private letters of that day exhibit a well-concerted scheme of intrigue to ruin his character as a patriot and statesman.

On the 9th of August, 1776, while the Council of Safety was in session, the subject of the Constitution was introduced in connexion with that of Independence; and it was solemnly recommended to the people of North Carolina to pay the greatest attention to the election of members of Congress on the 15th of October; and to have particularly in view the important consideration, that it would be the business of the Congress not only to make laws, but also to for a Constitution, "which as it was the corner-stone of all law, so it ought to be fixed and permanent; and that according as it was well or ill ordered, it would tend in the first degree to promote the happiness or misery of the State." It was likewise recommended to the people to elect five delegates properly qualified to sit and vote in the Congress, as business of the last importance would undoubtedly come before them.

I have never understood the reason of this urgent recommendation of the Council of Safety. Ever since the first Provincial Congress, in August 1774, the elections of the leading members had been conducted without even the apprehension of opposition. The public good required their aid and presence in the deliberations of the Congress, and the people biennally acknowledged the merit of their services by a general reëlection. But the Council of Safety now issued a solemn warning to the people of the State, as if there was some doubtfulness in the camp of the Whig party, and concludes by an indefinite allusion to business of the last importance. The whole force and energy of the Radical party of the State was directed to the single object of defeating Samuel Johnston in the Chowan election; and I condemn this recommendation of the Council as a mere instrument of party warfare. The subject of a Constitution, now that the question of Independence was settled by a National Declaration, was more prominently before the people than any other question; and, as it had been discussed in the previous Congress, the people could scarcely have forgotten its importance. The idea was constantly put forth that the Conservatives were intent on the erection of a system of government adverse to the liberty of the people, and that they were in reality the advocates of a monarchy. By such rumors the Radicals, abetted by the Council of Safety, endeavoured to alarm the minds of the people, and to destroy the influence and power of the President of the Congress.

The obtuse perception of the Radicals refused to acknowledge that there was any intermediate ground between themselves and the advocates of a monarchy upon which the people could erect the basis of their newly acquired freedom. The dangerous heresies of universal equality and of an agrarian law were better suited to their comprehension than the encouragement of morality and industry by the securing of property and the maintenance of the natural divisions of society. In their intense hatred of England, they lost sight of the virtue and excellence of many of the principles of the British Constitution; and, in abjuring all allegiance to the sovereign they ventured to include all respect for the most venerable monument of freedom that the world had ever seen. But the wisdom and prudence of Mr. Johnston could not second so heedless a career. Despisingly, as deeply as could the most zealous Radical, the usurpations of King George, upon the property of the people of America, and acknowledging the utter impossibility and inexpediency of any thing like a monarchical form of government, but the mere will of the people. The amount of property which a merchant may own in a ship at sea is the best ratio by which to compute the degree of his anxiety for her safety and success; and the same principle might be successfully applied in the composition of the government of a State. The principle that all men are by nature free and equal is true, because, like a thousand other maxims, no one thinks it worth a refutation or qualification; but the statesman, who shall undertake to build up a government upon such a foundation, will find even his own learning, integrity, humanity, and prosperity poixed at the polls by the bought suffrage of a menial slave.

The Radicals, however, gained the object of their strife, and Mr. Johnston was not returned a member from Chowan at the election on the 15th of October. I do not know that he actually canvassed for the election, for he had perceived and acknowledged the growing strength of his antagonists and may probably have prudently declined the contest. The Congress assembled at Halifax on the 12th of November, and, at the instance of Allen Jones, Richard Caswell was elected President. On the second day of the session, Mr. President Caswell, Thomas Person, Allen Jones, Mr. Bright, Mr. Neal, Samuel Ashe, Mr. Haywood, Griffith Rutherford, Mr. Abbot, Luke Sumner, Thomas Respiss, Jr., Mr. MacLaine, Mr. Hogan, and Mr. Alexander, were appointed a Committee to form and lay before the Congress a Bill of Rights, and form a Constitution for the government of the State. Mr. Hewes, Mr. Harnett, Mr. Sharpe, Mr. Spear, Mr. Avery, Mr. Eaton, Mr. Birdsong, Mr. Irwin, Mr. Whitmell Hill, and Mr. Coor, were subsequently added; and, thus completed the Committee proceeded to the discharge of the duty assigned to them.

On the second day of the session of the Congress, a grave question arose as to the mode of determining questions; and now it was proposed as a preparatory step to the adoption of a Constitution that all questions should, in the future, be determined by voice, and not by counties and towns. There was a division on the question; and only the following counties and towns voted against the proposition; - Beaufort, Brunswick, Pitt, Town of Brunswick, and Town of New Berne. The other counties and boroughs, making a heavy majority, voted in the affirmative, and henceforth all questions were decided by the voice of the members.

On Friday the 6th of December, Thomas Jones, from the Committee on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, informed the House that the form of the Constitution was prepared and ready for consideration. Mr. Jones read the Constitution in his place and then delivered it in at the table. The Secretary was ordered to employ clerks and to have numerous transcripts ready for the members, and the succeeding Monday was fixed upon as the day for its consideration. On Monday the 9th, Tuesday the 10th, and on Thursday the 12th, it was debated, and on the last day the subject was postponed to Saturday the 14th, to give precedence to the Bill of Rights which Mr. Jones that day laid before the Congress. On Saturday the 14th of December, the Bill of Rights was first debated, paragraph by paragraph, and passed its first reading, and then the Constitution was likewise passed. On Monday the 16th, both instruments were again considered, but only the Bill of Rights was passed upon, the other being deferred to Tuesday. On Tuesday the 17th, the Bill of Rights was finally passed and ordered to be engrossed. The final consideration of the Constitution was postponed to the next day, Wednesday the 18th, when it was finally adopted as the Consitution of North Carolina.

Thus were the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the State formed. They are said to have come from the pen of Thomas Jones, aided and assisted by Willie Jones. I find in one of Samuel Johnston's letters that he alludes to it as Jones's Constitution, and the reader will observe that Thomas Jones was throughout the organ of the Committee. The Constitution was the child of the instrument which was debated before the Congress of the preceding spring; although much improved by the various revisions and amendments which it underwent before its final adoption.

Samuel Johnston, the most profound statesman in the State, although not a member of the Congress, repaired to Halifax on the business of the treasury, and on the 7th of December wrote the following letter to Mr. Iredell:

"Halifax, Dec. 7th, 1776.

Dear Sir,
I got here this afternoon, and, though I made short stages, find myself a good deal fatigued. My health is much the same as when I left home. God knows when there will be an end of this trifling here. A draft of the Constitution was presented to the House yesterday, and lies over for consideration. The members are furnishing themselves with copies of it. I have had a glance of it, and wished to send you a copy of it, but it was impossible; perhaps the bearer of this, Col. Dauge, may have one. As well as I can judge from a cursory view of it, it may do as well as that adopted by any other colony. Nothing of the kind can be good. There is one thing in it which I cannot bear, and yet I am inclined to think it will stand. The Inhabitants are impowered to elect the Justices in their respective counties, who are to be the Judges of the County Courts. Numberless inconveniences must arise from so absurd an institution."

The rest of this letter does not refer to the Constitution. On Monday the 9th of December, Mr. Johnston again wrote to Mr. Iredell, and I submit the following extract on the subject of this chapter:

"Halifax, 9th Dec., 1776

Dear Sir,
I wrote you the evening after I got here, since which I have been endeavouring to descern what will be done, but am as much at a loss as ever. The Constitution is to be debated to-day, and some talk of finishing as soon as that is agreed on; while others are for staying to appoint all the officers of the State, and to establish Courts of Justice. Which of these plans will take place is uncertain. No one appears to have sufficient spirit to set them right. I am in great pain for the honor of the Province; at the same tiem, when I consider only my own ease and peace, congratulate myself on being clear of any share of the trouble I must have had, if I had been a member. Every one who has the least pretensions to be a gentleman is suspected and borne down per ignobile vulgus, - a set of me without reading, experience, or principle to govern them."

The character of Samuel Johnston does not need the aid of my pen to support it, by any other means than a mere record of the services of his life. By his wise and magnanimous administration of the government of the State, during the time that North Carolina was out of the Union [the years between the end of the Revolution and when the Nation was actually formed in 1788], the most critical period of her existence, he secured himself an imperishable fame; and by his unwearied perserverance and zeal he procured the adoption of the National Constitution and thus gave character, integrity, and consistencey to the union of the States. In 1788 and 1789, as in 1776, he boldly stood forth as the uncompromising advocate of the great conservative principle, the perfect security of property and all vested rights from the reach of the changeable will of the people; and although all such statesmen must of necessity be unpopular in democratice governments, yet such is the effect of an independent course among an honorable people, that Samuel Johnston was honored with their confidence by his election as the first Senator from North Carolina, then to the Bench, where he might appropriately and zealously support the principles he had so long cherished.

I shall neither record, nor discuss in detail, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. They have been transmitted to the present generation, unimpaired and without amendment; and are, at this period [1833], the only instruments of the kind formed by the the sages of the Revolution, which have come down unscathed by the hand of innovation. Samuel Johnston objected to it on account of its "radicalism" in 1776; but in 1833 it is censured as containing high conservative principles, inconsistent with the proper notions of modern democracy. The old Constitution of Virginia, although fortified by a restriction of the right of suffrage, was at lenght overthrown by the clamor of the unrepresented class, and the same fate has been for many years past predicted for that of North Carolina. But, hitherto, the Constitution has withstood triumphantly every assault. Conventions have been proposed to destroy it entirely, and begin anew the art of government; irresponsible assemblages of designing and ambitious men have appealed dierectly to the people without the intervention of the Legislature and called upon them to vote upon the propriety of a revolution; and bills have been presented to the Assembly praying that specific amendments might be submitted to the people for ratification; but there is somewhere in the venerable instrument the great principle of self-preservation, which has hiterto been able to defy the craft and cunning of the demagogue. All such schemes have failed. The cry is - the inequality of representation; the mere territory and not the people of a county being the "thing" represented.

The County of Jones, with a population of scarcely more than three thousand, has as much influence in the State as the County of Orange with a population of twenty-five thousand; and the Borough of Halifax, with scarcely any population at all, balances, in the House of Commons, one half of any county in the State. And yet, strange as it may seem, the history of the past will tell us that these small counties and rotten boroughs have contributed the most eminent and enlightened members of the House; and, at no very remote period, the seven boroughs returned to the Commons seven members who might have been fairly estimated the first men in the State and who controlled by their talents alone the whole Assembly.

This inequality of representation is an evil which should be removed, whenever the people shall have thrown off the "despotism of party," or shall have learnt to heed less the rant of a Radical, than the wise and honest counsel of a virtuous patriot. It is an unpropitious period for conventions. The order of the day is change and reform, and the most venerable principle of the American Revolution, - the independence of the Judges, - has already in many States been annihilated by frequent elections and variable salaries. If in the election of members of a convention, the right of suffrage could be restricted to the land and slave holders, instead of being extended to every vagrant of the fields, the danger might be avoided, and the present inequality of representation, as well as many other faults of the Constitution, be amended to the general satisfaction of the people.

There is one feature in the Constitution of North Carolina which deserved to be particularly mentioned, as the only part which excited the enthusiasm of Samuel Johnston, and which reconciled him to it as the foundation of a permanent government. It is the principle upon which the Senate is constituted. To be eligible to the Senate, a citizen must own in fee simple in the county which he represents, not less than three hundred acres of land, and the elector of a Senator must likewise be the proprietor of fifty acres. Thus the Senate is emphatically the representative of the landed interest of the State, and to such an extent, too, as to prove an admirable shield for the protection of property in times of general commotion and distress. Whenever the Constitution is assailed, the Senate is peculiarly its champion; and the land-holders of the State should cautiously guard every encroachment on the integrity of an instrument, in which their rights as well as the safety of their property are so well secured.

I shall conclude this chapter by a notice of a few of the Ordinances passed by the Congress as incidental to the Constitution. The first elected Richard Caswell Governor, Cornelius Harnett, Thomas Person, William Dry (formerly one of the King's council), William Haywood, Edward Starkey, Joseph Leech, and Thomas Eaton members of the Council of State, and James Glasgow, Secretary of State; and thus the government was organized.

Another Ordinance, which was introduced by Thomas Jones, secured to the Church the titles of Church lands and houses of public worship, and "quieted the proprietors in the peaceable possession of the same." The prejudice against the Church, on account of its connextion with the Royal government, though very strong in North Carolina as in the other States, was not sufficiently so to destroy its rights, and this Ordinance seems to have passed without opposition from any quarter. Another Ordinance appointed Thomas Jones, Samuel Johnston, Archibald MacLaine, James Iredell, Abner Nash, Christopher Neal, Samuel Ashe, Waightstill Avery, Samuel Spencer, Jasper Charlton, and John Penn, to review and consider all such Statutes and Acts of Assembly as had been or were in force in the State, and "to prepare such Bills to passed into Laws, as might be consistent with the genius of a free people," and to lay before the next Assembly.


From "A Defence of the Revolutionary History of the State of North Carolina From the Aspersions of Mr. Jefferson," by John Seawell Jones, Turner & Hughes, Raleigh, NC, 1834, pp. 272-292 (with minor edits).

Interestingly, within a year after the above book was published, North Carolina held a Convention for the express purpose of reworking the existing constitution.

Dissatisfied with the central role of the General Assembly, a state constitutional convention was called in 1835. Out of the convention came many amendments. Among those changes was fixing the membership of the Senate and House at their present levels, 50 and 120. Also, the office of Governor became popularly elected. The convention’s proposed changes were adopted by vote of the people on November 9, 1835.

A Convention of 1861-62 was called to revise the constitution to remove North Carolina from the United States and to align the State with the Confederacy. The procedure used to amend the constitution did not need vote of the people, a procedure that was active until removed in 1971.

After the Civil War, there were several unsuccessful attempts to alter the constitution. In 1868, a second constitution was adopted and it drastically altered North Carolina government. For the first time, all major state and local officers were elected by the people. The governor and other executive officers were elected to four-year terms, while the justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the superior court were elected to eight-year terms. All property qualifications for voting and office holding were abolished. It also called for the creation of free public education and the establishment of charitable state agencies. The ability of the General Assembly to tax was granted and the use of public debt limited.

Since the 1868 constitution was created by initiative of Congress and pushed through in part by carpetbaggers, it was highly unpopular with conservative elements in the state. Critics sometimes called it the "Canby Constitution," after Major General Edward Canby, who had military responsibility for North Carolina at the time.

After regaining power, the conservative element amended the constitution many times between 1870 and 1875. The principal effect of the amendments was to restore the former power of the General Assembly, particularly with the courts and local government. Other effects were to disenfranchise African-Americans and to establish a system of segregation.

Between 1870 and 1971, many proposals for amendments to the constitution were made. The majority of successfully approved amendments were detailed changes, not drastic restructuring. Although often amended, a majority of the provisions of the Constitution of 1868 remained intact until 1971, and the Constitution of 1971 brought forward much of the 1868 language with little or no change.

From 1869 through 1968, there were submitted to the voters of North Carolina a total of 97 propositions for amending the constitution of the State. All but one of these proposals originated in the General Assembly. Of those 97 amendment proposals, 69 were ratified by the voters and 28 were rejected by them.

Due to the many amendments, many provisions in the constitution became antiquated, obsolete and ambiguous. Simply, the document had become difficult to read and interpret. The draft that later became the Constitution of 1971 began with a study into needed changes by the North Carolina State Bar in 1967. The study outlined a vastly improved and easily-ratifiable document.

The draft constitution logically organized topics and omitted obviously unconstitutional sections. The language and syntax was also updated and standardized. The study separated from the main document several amendments that it felt were necessary, but were potentially controversial. The main document passed the General Assembly in 1969 with only one negative vote in seven roll-call votes.

On November 3, 1970, the proposed Constitution of 1971 was approved by a vote of 393,759 to 251,132.

Since the Constitution of 1971, there have been over twenty amendments. The majority of these amendments extends the rights of citizens and extends the government the ability to issue bond. The following are significant amendments made since the 1971 constitution:

- Prohibiting all capitation and poll tax.
- Omitting the limitation of $0.20 of property tax on the $100 valuation.
- Creating a state income tax to be computed on the same basis as the federal income tax
- Allowing the Governor/Lieutenant Governor to serve two consecutive terms (previously limited to one term).
- Requiring the state run a balanced budget.
- Requiring judges to be lawyers.
- Adding Victims Rights to the Declaration of Rights.
- Giving the Governor the veto power.



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