North Carolina has had three state constitutions. The first one was adopted on Dec. 18, 1776. This column explores some historical context and a few particulars of that constitution.
The three state constitutions were adopted in the following years: 1776, 1868, and 1971. (Many revisions were made in 1835 to the first state constitution, yet the 1776 North Carolina Constitution remained intact.) It was not until after the American Civil War that North Carolina had a new state constitution in 1868. From then on, from 1869 to 1968, there were 70 amendments added to the document.
After a century, public leaders decided a new constitution was needed. The general public (voters and citizens) agreed in 1970. Therefore, we currently operate under the latest North Carolina Constitution of 1971.
During the genesis of American independence among the former 13 colonies, North Carolina’s Fifth Provincial Congress met from Nov. 12 to Dec. 23 of 1776. This assembly approved the first state constitution. Richard Caswell, namesake of Caswell County, led the delegates. A former royal governor labeled him as the “most active tool of sedition.” He was elected the president of the convention. When the dust settled after the convention’s closing, Caswell became North Carolina’s first governor.
Delegates were elected to the Fifth Provincial Congress. There were 183 members. Scholars such as Robert L. Ganyard, in “The Emergence of North Carolina’s Revolutionary State Government” (1978), estimate that 33% of the legislature were newbies to state government.
Caswell had a strong presence, to be sure. One of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, though, had a strong influence, even though not present. His name was William Hooper. The Wilmingtonian exchanged extensive correspondence with North Carolina delegates.
He was what some historians have described as the “intellectual” among the three North Carolina signatories of the Declaration of Independence. His colleagues were John Penn and Joseph Hewes. A celebrated American artist, Howard Chandler Christy portrayed the scene of the North Carolina delegation. His famous 1937 portrait, “The Signing of the Constitution” was presented in the US Capitol Rotunda in 1940.
John Adams wrote his commentary regarding the American founding to Hooper in his “Thoughts on Government.” The letter is even in his actual penmanship. Hooper let North Carolina legislators know what Adams thought about the ideas of John Locke, annual elections, bicameral legislatures, and the principle of separation of powers.
So what other factors influenced the North Carolinian’s deliberation and thinking? Some possessed knowledge of the English Declaration of Rights (1689). That knowledge helped influence the creation of North Carolina’s Declaration of Rights. They consulted other constitutions and used, in particular, what was good in the state constitutions of Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Several influential counties, such as Mecklenburg, Orange, Rowan, and Halifax, submitted “instructions” to the Fifth Provincial Congress. The Church of England had little influence.
There were two major factions in the Fifth Provincial Congress: a more aristocratic one (conservatives) and a more democratic one (radicals). The former included men such as Samuel Johnston, who later became one of North Carolina’s first United States senators. The latter included Thomas Person, Griffith Rutherford, and, ironically (due to his large slave holdings), Willie Jones.
What were the major highlights of the first state constitution?
One: It provided for three branches of government (executive, judicial, and legislative) while giving the General Assembly the most power. In doing so, the delegates also explicitly emphasized the separation-of-powers doctrine.
Two: Delegates limited the governor to a one-year term. The position could be filled for only three consecutive terms within a six-year period. The governor had no veto power and was to be elected by the legislature. Delegates remembered the actions of previously strong royal governors.
Three: Taxpaying free men, including black citizens, could elect members of the lower house. To vote for a member of the state senate, one had to own at least 50 acres.
There were other provisions, too, that later received attention and amendments. During his first term as governor, Richard Caswell unsurprisingly complained about the position’s limited power. In time, others criticized certain religious qualifications for office. Many revisions were made in 59 years, until a convention was called in 1835. It revised the 1776 North Carolina Constitution, yet delegates kept it. It would not be until 1868 until North Carolina had its second state constitution.