On this day in 1789, North Carolina becomes the 12th state to join the Union. The state was pretty late to the party. By November 1789, George Washington had already been elected to his first term as President and the First Congress had already completed its first session.
North Carolina had finally gotten what it wanted, though.
The state’s late ratification of the Constitution stemmed from its concern about the lack of a Bill of Rights. Fortunately for North Carolina, the first Congress had debated and approved a proposed Bill of Rights by the end of September 1789. The way was cleared for North Carolina to join the Union.
One important (but today relatively unknown) Founder hailed from North Carolina: Hugh Williamson was a doctor, a scientist, and a scholar respected on both sides of the Atlantic. He happened to be in Boston during the Tea Party and was in England immediately afterwards. In England, he wrote an open letter, “The Plea of the Colonies on the Charges Brought Against Them.” The letter explained the colonists’ grievances and later became a well-known pamphlet during the American Revolution.
Williamson was later appointed as one of North Carolina’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention. He was an active member and contributed often to the discussions. Notably, he expressed concern about a national direct popular election for President. He worried that the small states would be forgotten in such a process.
“The people will be sure to vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will be sure to succeed,” he explained in July 1787.
Williamson returned home and worked toward ratification of the Constitution, but it became apparent that North Carolina would not ratify without a Bill of Rights. On September 25, 1789, North Carolina got its wish. The first U.S. Congress approved twelve amendments to the Constitution. Ten of them would be ratified by the states and would become our Bill of Rights.
North Carolina was the second-to-last state to join the Union. Rhode Island—then sometimes called Rogue’s Island because of its stubbornness—refused to join the Union until May 1790.
Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2002)
Hugh Williamson, North Carolina (National Archives website)
Hugh Williamson, Speech in the Constitutional Convention (July 17, 1787) (reprinted HERE)
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010)