On this day in 1789, North Carolina ratifies the Bill of Rights. The state’s action came just one short month after it had ratified the Constitution.
The close timing between these two events was no coincidence.
North Carolina had been purposefully late in approving the Constitution: It was the second to last colony to join the Union! But, if it was slow to approve the Constitution, it was equally quick to ratify the Bill of Rights: It was the third state to approve those ten amendments.
Indeed, but for North Carolina, you have to wonder if we would have had a Bill of Rights at all.
The Constitution was proposed to the states in September 1787. Many in North Carolina were uncomfortable with the lack of a declaration of rights. The state waited and did not even consider ratification of the Constitution until the summer of 1788. By then, the requisite nine states had already approved it, and the document was already in effect. North Carolina would have been required to do nothing more than join a majority of already-approving states.
Yet, during the summer of 1788, public opinion in North Carolina was fairly clear: Anti-Federalists outnumbered the Federalists (pro-Constitution) by a hefty margin. The Federalists were perhaps lucky to obtain the result they got. It was decided that the state would neither ratify nor reject. Instead, it would wait. It was understood that North Carolina would not join until a Bill of Rights was proposed. The state even proposed a list of rights to be included in the Constitution.
A leading Federalist in the state wrote to his wife: “[The majority of the Convention] were obstinate to an astonishing degree. They have not absolutely rejected the Constitution, but proposed previous Amendments. We are however for the present out of the Union, and God knows when we shall get in to it again.”
Ultimately, North Carolina seems to have gotten its way. The state did not join the Union until after America’s first presidential and congressional elections. Yet North Carolina still managed to be a voice in the conversation that ultimately led the First Congress to approve twelve amendments to the Constitution. Ten of these, of course, were eventually approved as our Bill of Rights.
Several voices combined to bring us our Bill of Rights. We can think the State of North Carolina for being one of them.
Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2002)
Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 (1986 reprint)
Dr. Troy L. Kickler, North Carolina Ratification Conventions: Five Quotes You Need To Know (North Carolina History Project)
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010)
Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of North-Carolina (1788) (reprinted HERE)
Why We Celebrate “Bill of Rights Day” on December 15th: The Hillsborough Connection (Orange NC History website)