Opinion: Carolina Beat

Important N.C. Anti-Federalist had national impact

In history books, Anti-Federalists often are depicted as losers during the constitutional ratification debates. But in many ways, they were victorious.

For instance, they assured that a Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution, and their concerns prompted a vigorous political debate and constitutional commentary that Americans still reference.

One of the leading founders and proponents for a Bill of Rights was North Carolina planter Willie (pronounced Wiley) Jones. The Anti-Federalist Jones influenced many of his contemporaries’ political views and demands for a declaration of rights.

A Virginia native, Jones and his family moved to present-day Northampton County, N.C., in the early 1750s. The son of a large landholder, Willie was tutored at home and traveled to England for his formal education.

Willie married Mary Montfort, the daughter of Col. Joseph Montfort, on June 27, 1776. The couple had 13 children, of whom only five survived childhood (three girls and two boys), and only the three girls married. Jones died in 1801.

Jones’ political career is worth examining. While North Carolina was a royal colony, Jones had served in the House of Commons. Becoming disenchanted with the Royal Governors and the British Crown, Jones eventually became an ardent revolutionary.

Royal Gov. Josiah Martin remarked that Jones was one of the loudest voices encouraging secession from Britain and the establishment of an independent state.

During the Revolutionary War, Jones served in various political and military roles. He was a delegate of Halifax County at the Provincial Convention of 1774. He served in the 1775 and 1776 Provincial Congresses as a delegate of Halifax County. He was the president of the 1776 Provincial Council.

From 1777-80, he served in the General Assembly House. He then represented North Carolina at the Continental Congress of 1780. In 1782, 1784, and 1788, Jones served in the North Carolina Senate.

During the war, Jones also fought the British; he became a lieutenant colonel under the command of Nathanael Greene and led 300 men in the pursuit of Lord Charles Cornwallis. In 1787, Jones was elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (a meeting to solve the problems deemed inherent in the Articles of Confederation), but Jones declined, claiming to be too busy.

Once a new constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, Jones vigorously opposed its adoption. In North Carolina, two prominent Federalists (supporters of the Constitution) were James Iredell and William Davie.

Jones opposed ratification for several reasons: He feared a standing army, a U.S. Supreme Court that could overrule state court decisions, and a federal government that regulated the economy to benefit a few commercial interests.

To Jones, the Constitution could be a dangerous instrument of centralization. To prevent it from becoming so, he wanted the document to enumerate specific, individual rights. Until such a list was included, Jones encouraged his colleagues not to ratify the Constitution.

In great part because of Jones’ influence, North Carolina was the only state to have two ratification conventions; the state initially voted neither to ratify nor reject the Constitution.

North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution in 1789. And because of Jones and other Anti-Federalists, the Bill of Rights eventually was drafted.

After North Carolina ratified the Constitution, Jones never served in political office again, though he continued being a public servant.

Thanks in great part to Jones’ effort on a planning committee, the city of Raleigh was established in 1792. For his significant role in the establishment of the capital, Jones has been called the “real founder of Raleigh.”

Jones also served as a trustee for the University of North Carolina in the 1790s. For decades Jones had wanted (in true Jeffersonian spirit) a university that offered North Carolinians a means of enlightenment.

Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project.