I often have wondered how many North Carolinians have taken the time to study or at least generally refer to the North Carolina Constitution. Most likely, more than a few from the Old
North State would be surprised to learn that such a document exists.
In this regard, North Carolinians probably are not alone. Most certainly, we are no more ignorant regarding our state’s constitution than our counterparts in our sister states are of theirs.
Even those who promote constitutionalism and decry a lack of constitutional understanding speak only rarely about state constitutions. This constitutional deficiency is understandable, to some degree, for many decisions that once were decided at the state level increasingly are being settled at the national level.
As a result, more people pay attention to the U.S. Constitution.
It is important to study the North Carolina Constitution, too, for we live in a national polity that includes federalism. I am not an attorney, but, as a nongambler, I am tempted to venture that the North Carolina Constitution affects some aspect of every case in the North Carolina courts.
Although the length of constitutions varies from state to state, every state constitution is longer than the U.S. Constitution; they are more detailed and therefore are more easily amendable.
State constitutions can include varying rights, liberties, and protections. State constitutions therefore reveal that states can have widely differing governing documents while co-existing and operating as part of the same general, constitutional union.
Since separation from Great Britain, North Carolina has had three state constitutions — ratified in 1776, 1868, and 1971. Extensively amended in 1835 at a constitutional convention, the 1776 constitution survived.
There are several fascinating and intriguing histories within the history of the 1835 convention, including the paradoxical debates regarding the free black vote and William Gaston’s speech regarding Article 32 and religious qualifications for office.
Although different, the North Carolina constitutions have similar passages, and it is evident how elements of the 1776 constitution were incorporated into the 1868 constitution and how many parts of the 1868 constitution were incorporated into the 1971 constitution.
All three have a Declaration of Rights, albeit the number of declarations is different. All three, however, include a reminder that the study of history can affect current policy: “a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.”
The 1971 Constitution of North Carolina is now the governing document of Tar Heels. As noted previously, state constitutions are more specific, thereby creating a political environment fostering frequent constitutional amendments. After the 1868 constitution, approximately 70 amendments were passed within a century — more than half of them between 1933 and 1968.
With so many amendments, many wondered if a new constitution was in order, and after a commission report and recommendation, a General Assembly deliberation and vote, and a general election, North Carolina had its third constitution.
What is the general overview of the current North Carolina Constitution? Here are the basics:
The state constitution has a preamble and 14 articles. The first article lists the Declaration of Rights. Articles 2-4 describe the three branches of government in the exact order as the U.S. Constitution: legislative, executive, and judicial.
The remaining articles deal with finance; suffrage and eligibility for public office; local governments; corporations; education; homesteads and exemptions; punishment, corrections, and charities; military forces, and constitutions and constitutional amendment and revision. The last article, “Miscellaneous,” addresses issues such as the conservation of natural resources and marriage.
Concerned citizens should consult the U.S. Constitution when discussing national policy. Far fewer have been encouraged to pick up their respective state constitutions when discussing state policy. That should change: The North Carolina Constitution, in particular, should be a constant part of our state’s political discourse.
Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project.