RALEIGH — Now that North Carolinians can put “First in Freedom” on their license plates, again, it’s worth taking a moment to remember key moments in American history when people from our state played an outsized role in the fight for freedom — that is, for individual liberty, the rule of law, and limited, constitutional government.
If you’re a native or longtime resident, you may well be familiar with two of the dates, as they can be found on North Carolina’s state seal and flag. On or about May 20, 1775, a group of community leaders in Mecklenburg County issued one of the first-known proclamations of an independently constituted government in the American colonies.
Exactly what they wrote has been the subject of great controversy. There is a document called the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, bearing the signatures of some two dozen leaders (including two ancestors of mine, Adam Alexander and John Queary). Its authenticity is disputed. But another document, called the Mecklenburg Resolves, is undisputed and still significant. It declared that the laws, offices, and constitution of the British crown were, respectively, “annulled,” “vacated,” and “wholly suspended.”
Why were these backcountry Carolinians willing to go so far? The colonial government had taxed them unfairly and squandered the proceeds. It had refused to allow the mainly Presbyterian settlers to set up their own schools and even be legally married by Presbyterian ministers. When word arrived the British had fired on American militiamen at Lexington and Concord a month earlier, Mecklenburg leaders decided to act. Other communities soon followed their lead.
The second date, April 12, 1776, refers to another important meeting of North Carolina leaders. The 83 delegates — including some who had participated in the Mecklenburg meeting the previous year — gathered in the town of Halifax as the Fourth Provincial Congress. They voted unanimously to issue what became known as the Halifax Resolves, which instructed North Carolina’s delegates to the coming Continental Congress in Philadelphia to vote for independence. This was the first official call by a full colonial assembly for American freedom from British rule.
The next date may not be as familiar: August 1, 1788. On this day, another convention of North Carolina leaders, this time meeting in Hillsborough, concluded its consideration of the proposed new United States Constitution. Over several weeks, more than 270 delegates had debated the pros and cons of forming a stronger central government. On Aug. 1, only 84 delegates voted to ratify, with 185 declining to do so. This was the only instance in which an American state held a constitutional convention but failed to ratify. As a result, in fact, North Carolina did not participate in America’s first election for president.
Why was this important? North Carolina delegates complained that the Constitution lacked a clear enumeration of individual rights, and even drafted a number of proposed amendments to rectify the problem. Other colonial leaders were thinking along similar lines, but it helped that North Carolinians had cited the problem as a reason not to ratify. By the fall of 1789, when it became obvious that a Bill of Rights would be enacted, North Carolina ratified the Constitution.
The final date I have in mind is probably the least familiar to you: Dec. 16, 1937. This was the date that the self-styled “Conservative Manifesto,” a policy statement by Democratic and Republican members of Congress, was published in full by the New York Times. The primary author of the manifesto was U.S. Sen. Josiah Bailey of North Carolina. He and other signatories opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court and other efforts by the president to concentrate governmental power in Washington at the expense of free enterprise and private property.
After 1937, the Roosevelt administration moderated on multiple fronts. The strength and salience of the movement exemplified in the Conservative Manifesto was one of the reasons.
As we know, North Carolina leaders haven’t always stood for freedom. But on these occasions, they did — to the benefit of all Americans.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.