As important milestones in the history of North Carolina go, November 21 is probably not a memorable date to most North Carolinians, but it is a significant one.
On that day in 1789, North Carolina became the 12th state to ratify the new U.S. Constitution, after failing to do so a year earlier.
By the time North Carolina officially ratified the Constitution, George Washington was already serving as our nation’s first president and the first Congress of the United States had been seated.
Before formally ratifying, it took North Carolina two separate conventions and a spirited debate about our young republic before we officially joined the Union.
The first convention was held in Hillsborough in the summer of 1788, where delegates met and debated the newly created U.S. Constitution. The two sides of the debate were represented by the Federalists, arguing in favor of the Constitution, and Anti-Federalists, who had concerns about a strong central government usurping states’ rights.
At the end of almost two weeks of debate, both sides were deadlocked and voted to neither ratify nor reject the Constitution. Instead, the North Carolina delegates put forward a list of proposed amendments that they believed would strengthen the document.
A little more than a year after North Carolina failed to ratify the Constitution, the Bill of Rights was adopted by Congress, assuaging the fears of many Anti-Federalists. With the Bill of Rights now added, North Carolina convened a second convention on Nov. 16, 1789, this time in Fayetteville, to again debate ratification.
With the Bill of Rights now part of the Constitution, the debate was less fierce in the second convention and the delegates voted in favor of ratification on Nov. 21, 1789, formally adding North Carolina to the Union.
The debate over the Constitution and statehood occurred almost 225 years ago, but the issues discussed still resonate today. We are still debating
the role and scope of the federal government in the 21st century, and we still have vastly differing opinions on those issues. The beauty of the Constitution, and our system of government, is that it is built specifically to handle rigorous debate and clashes of ideas peacefully.
Even when a clash of ideas turned violent, as was the case with the American Civil War, the nation survived and emerged on the other side of the conflict perhaps even stronger than it was before.
As we continue to debate the important issues of how America should be governed, and continue to tinker with the Constitution, it’s always important to reflect on just how revolutionary an idea our Constitution was in the 18th century. This one document and the belief in representative democracy have helped shape more than 200 years of progress and prosperity for the nation and North Carolina.
When North Carolina officially ratified the Constitution on Nov. 21, 1789, it was one more step toward achieving the vision the original Americans aspired toward. And it’s a vision we still strive for today.