RALEIGH — Many Americans forget the role that states played during the American Revolution and in the formative years of the United States. And many North Carolinians forget the valuable role that our state played in that war and in constitutional thought. This memory loss has contributed greatly to chipping away at the federalist foundation of the American form of government.
We have an opportunity to revisit a crucial chapter of that history Tuesday, when North Carolina commemorates the 235th anniversary of the Halifax Resolves. With the adoption of the Resolves, North Carolina became the first colony to declare independence from the crown, nearly three months before the Continental Congress announced the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. The General Assembly will mark the anniversary by holding session in the Capitol Building.
Definitions are important for a proper historical understanding of the founding era. Let’s consider the Declaration of Independence — the 29 grievances against King George III listed by the American colonies. The words “State” or “States” are mentioned throughout, and the “united States of America” complained about the monarch’s abuse of power. The capitalization of states is important. Americans meant something different when using the word state then than they do nowadays.
Today, states act more like functionaries of the national government, and state legislatures fear losing national money and therefore implement national programs that legislators might otherwise reject. When the Founders used “State” in 1776 and in 1789, a state possessed more sovereignty that it does now, and it was more on par with England and France than with its counterparts such as Yorkshire in England or Brittany in France.
Americans also use “Congress” differently now, too. In the late 1700s, the word was understood to mean a meeting of delegates from sovereign states who voted on matters. This understanding derived from The Congress of Westphalia (1648), in which delegates from various sovereigns voted on a peace treaty and its provisions and thereby ended the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War in Europe.
I hear federalism (or states’ rights) mentioned now on radio and television talk shows more than I’ve heard in some time. That’s good. But in an age when even conservatives have adopted a modern, political mind-set and believe all answers originate in Washington, D.C., history needs to be taught now — maybe more than ever. Because as the prolific, conservative political thinker Russell Kirk reminds readers in his The Conservative Constitution, all political terms have a history, and even good statesmen can commit egregious errors if they are ignorant of those histories.
The Declaration of Independence is an important document, to be sure. But Americans view it many times with an anachronistic lens that distorts the past and obscures the documents’ federalist underpinnings. Americans, many of them at least, are unaware that many states basically had declared their independence from Great Britain before the colonies did collectively. In North Carolina, The Fourth Provincial Congress empowered delegates to vote for independence with delegates from other states. Virginia, to name another example, acted similarly a couple months later.
It was a great concern for North Carolinians, and colonists elsewhere, to know that their state approved such an action, and many would never have approved the Declaration of Independence without the Halifax Resolves adoption.
The last paragraph of the Halifax Resolves reads: “Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be impowered to concur with the delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming foreign Alliances, reserving to this Colony the Sole, and Exclusive right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony, and of appointing delegates from time to time (under the direction of a general Representation thereof) to meet the delegates of the other Colonies for such purposes as shall be hereafter pointed out.”
The Declaration of Independence was not written in a top-down approach in which national leaders had an idea, expressed it, and state leaders followed suit. It was an approach that came from the bottom-up — from the colonies, from the states.
First, there was the Halifax Resolves. Then there was the Declaration of Independence.
Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org).