This Month in North Carolina History
News that the American colonies had declared independence from Great Britain finally reached North Carolina on July 22, 1776. One of the first orders of business in the newly independent state was the writing of a constitution. Elections for the Provincial Congress were held in October and, once elected, the representatives met in Halifax. Several states had already adopted constitutions, and North Carolina looked to these as examples. The legislators also examined the English Declaration of Rights and wrote to John Adams for advice. Rather than go through the lengthy and uncertain process of submitting the document to the voters, the representatives agreed that once they approved the final draft, it would be enacted. On December 18, 1776, North Carolina had its first constitution.
The 1776 North Carolina Constitution has many elements that will seem familiar to North Carolinians today. The Constitution opens with a Declaration of Rights, containing twenty-five guarantees of personal freedom that anticipate the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution and many of which are present in similar form in the current state constitution. The first North Carolina constitution also presents a familiar form of government, with a governor and a bicameral legislature.
However, there are several sections that differ significantly from current practice. The most notable of these were the property requirements for officeholders and voters. In order to be eligible for the Senate, members had to own at least three hundred acres of land in the county they sought to represent; candidates for the House of Commons were required to own one hundred acres; and voters were required to own at least fifty acres to be eligible to cast a ballot for a senator.
Under the 1776 constitution, most of the power was vested in the General Assembly. Governors were chosen by the legislature, served only a one-year term, and were not eligible to serve more than three terms in a six year period. Legislators were appointed by county (with a few assigned to specific towns), without regard to population. This vested a disproportionate amount of influence in the eastern part of the state, which had many small counties, even though the western counties began to increase steadily in population.
The 1776 constitution was effective in establishing an independent government in North Carolina and guaranteeing individual liberties for its citizens. Yet under this document, the state remained in the control of a small group of primarily eastern elites. North Carolina grew slowly, on its way to earning the nickname “The Rip Van Winkle State” in the early nineteenth century. By overlooking many of the demands of its less prosperous citizens, North Carolina saw a widespread emigration and was finally forced to draft a more egalitarian constitution. The state passed a series of amendments in 1835 that changed to a system of representation that was determined by population and allowed for the popular election of the governor. It was not until after the Civil War, in 1868, when North Carolina finally adopted a constitution that did not include property requirements for officeholders.
William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
John L. Sanders, “A Brief History of the Constitutions of North Carolina.” In North Carolina Government 1585-1979: A Narrative and Statistical History. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State, 1981.
“Constitution of North Carolina: 18 December 1776.” Avalon Project, Yale Law School, http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/states/nc07.htm
The Constitution, or Form of Government, Agreed to, and Resolved Upon, by the Representatives of the Freemen of the State of North Carolina. Philadelphia: Printed by F. Bailey, 1779.