North Carolina - The Constitutional Convention of 1835

While the North Carolina state government was a representative democracy in form, it was not so in practice. Representation in the General Assembly was not based on population since each county - regardless of size, wealth, or population - had two members in the House of Commons, and one senator. Moreover, the colonial borough towns, most of which were in eastern counties, still had their representatives. To serve in the House of Commons, one had to own one hundred acres of land, while a senator had to own three hundred acres. Governors had to hold property valued at £1,000. All state officials before 1835, including the governor, were appointed, and the government was tightly controlled by the land-owning interests. The strength of this class was in eastern counties, and for more than fifty years this section dominated state politics.

Frequently, in attempting to get new counties established west of the Capital, westerners would propose these new counties to be named after popular - living - eastern leaders in the hope of receiving support from their comrades and admirers in the eatern counties. When the east was forced to yield, it tried to offset the effect of new western counties by dividing an old eastern county - this is why there are so many small eastern counties. A fine example of this is the creation of Haywood County in 1808 - the east countered with carving out Columbus County from significant portions of both Bladen and Brunswick counties. With this precedent set so early in the new century, it was a pattern followed until the American Civil War.

The state government was not only undemocratic in form, it was also undemocratic in spirit. Since all state officials were either elected or appointed by the legislature, and since that branch was controlled by the landed aristocracy, property - not people - controlled the state government. The most important properties were land and slaves, and the class that owned these properties was "ultra-conservative" in most people's view.

In the western counties, conditions were quite the opposite. Most residents were farmers of small tracts, which were often not very fertile, and who were far removed from a market for their produce. Social life in western counties was considered to be more democratic than that in the eastern counties. Out of this democratic social system came the first demands for public schools and internal improvements within the state. For decades, the westerners simply didn't have enough votes or pursuasive powers to get the conservative easterners to take any action.

According to most historians, the conservative eastern county members of the state legislature were the predominant cause of the state's failure to move forward during the first three and a half decades of the nineteenth century. They also determined the state's role in the federal government, since U.S. Senators for the state of North Carolina were elected by the state legislature. North Carolina's leaders showed much more concern and participated more eagerly in matters pertaining to the nation as a whole than they did in the important matters of the state. Easterners dominated the Republican party in North Carolina, however, their support of a "do-nothing program," together with a declining interest in national politics, led to a split in the state party. A question related to the extension of slavery produced the first evidence of this split.

In an effort to resolve the debate over the admission of new states to the Union and whether slavery should be permitted in the recently-acquired Louisiana Territory, the Missouri Compromise evolved over the first two decades of the nineteenth century. With an equal number of slave and free states in the Union in 1819, the question of admitting Missouri as a slave state was critical. The U.S. Congress considered several versions of a bill involving compromise, but finally Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave state on the condition that slavery be prohibited in the future north of 36°-30' North latitude. During the debate of 1819-1820, North Carolina's congressional delegation was evenly divided. Those from the western counties favored excluding slavery, while those from eastern counties supported its extension.

The national presidential election of 1824 further split the Republican party. Nathaniel Macon and a majority of the state's congressmen and other political leaders supported a Georgian - William H. Crawford - who believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, states' rights, and government economy. He was opposed to internal improvements utilizing federal funds and to a protective tariff; he also rejected the nationalistic program of the national Republican party. Crawford's positions would certainly not benefit western North Carolinians.

Opposing Crawford was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. He supported internal improvements, including a new inlet to the Albemarle Sound, an inland waterway from Boston to Savannah, and a road from Maine to Louisiana, and his positions appealed to both westerners and to the people in the sound region. Nevertheless, by the customary legislative caucus North Carolina's support was thrown to Crawford and he became the party's nominee.

Led by Charles Fisher of Salisbury, Calhoun's friends secretly formed the "People's Ticket" as an opposition party. The members of this group were soon aware of a growing public interest in Andrew Jackson, popularly known as "Old Hickory" and the hero of the battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. By a compromise, Jackson became their candidate for president and Calhoun for vice-president. The state of North Carolina was now openly split, never to be rejoined. As it turned out in 1824, it was the U.S. House of Representatives that selected the next president of the United States - John Quincy Adams. Jackson had barely lost, but he later succeeded in the 1828 general election.

President Andrew Jackson's 1828 inauguration was applauded by a united North Carolina; but once he was in office, he disappointed many North Carolinians when he opposed federal banks and internal improvements. The westerners and those in the Albemarle Sound region lost their enthusiasm for Jackson and in time this led to further resentment of the state's eastern leadership, a resentment that had been growing steadily since the new century had dawned.

By 1834, the dissatisfied element in North Carolina was ready to switch its allegiance to a new opposition party, the Whig Party, which grew out of the National Republican faction devoted to Henry Clay and his program of internal improvements, a protective tariff, and nationalism. A portion of the Whig support came from planters in the South who advocated a program of states' rights, but in North Carolina the Whigs were more nationalistic and supported internal improvements. And, the "Rip Van Winkle State" certainly needed internal improvements.

The young Whig Party in North Carolina had little hope of support if it continued merely as an opposition party. Jackson was still popular with many of the "common people," and the Whigs had to do more than attack the growing power of the presidency. The situation in state politics played right into their hands. They soon gained the support of several North Carolinians with old Federalist inclinations - William Gaston of Craven County, Edward B. Dudley of New Hanover County, Edward Stanly of Beaufort County, and David Outlaw and Kenneth Rayner of Bertie County. When the Whig Party adopted the earlier recommendations of Archibald D. Murphey, it became the champion of constitutional reform, public schools, and internal improvements, as well as favoring a sound currency.

Heading the list was state constitutional reform. In the western counties it grew into a truly poplular movement. Newspaper support, mass meetings, and unofficial polls all gave clear evidence of a united public sentiment on the issue. The most notable expression of opinion was revealed at the general election of 1833, when an unofficial poll on the convention question was held in thirty-one western counties. The vote was 30,000 for a convention versus 1,000 against. These results were presented to the next legislature by Governor David L. Swain, and two bills were introduced to submit the question to the people. However, once again the arrogant eastern landowners still refused to support any measure that might shake their hold on the state government.

This bold defiance of an indisputable popular decision for a constitutional convention was criticized even in the east, and some eastern newspapers took their representatives to task for their voting record. A great wave of indignation was said to have swept across the western counties. Revolution was openly discussed, and even conservatives did not shrink from the suggestion that for the west this might be the only solution. Newspapers all across the state replayed these comments over and over, and many felt it was long past time for this kind of action.

While the reformers wer still agitating for action, two events brought them unexpected support. One was the burning of the state capitol building in 1831, and the other was the appointment by the General Assembly of William Gaston as an Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Both are very long stories and worth additional review, but for the sake of brevity, all that will be said herein is that the westerners now had more support from other sections of the state. All that was needed to bring the state into line was a leader with the ability, the tact, and the personal popularity to unite the various forces that were all ready for change.

Out of the region beyond the Blue Ridge Mountain, this leader appeared in the person of David L. Swain. A young man in his early thirties, his outward appearance, it has been said, gave little promise of leadership. Swain was a native of Buncombe County, a recent member of both the House of Commons and the North Carolina Senate, and a judge, whose personal popularity and ability earned him election as governor in 1832 at age thirty-one, even though he was a westerner. Swain's program in office entitles him to high rank among most progressive governors of North Carolina. He regularly expressed concern about coastal defenses, internal improvements, taxation and finances, education, and constitutional reform. He was fully aware that the state's development depended on constitutional reform and that became his primary objective.

A bill was introduced in 1834 to submit to the people the question of calling a convention to amend the state constitution in certain specified ways. This convention would be required to frame amendments establishing membership in the Senate and the House of Commons. The Senate would consist of not less than 34 nor more than 50 members chosen by districts laid off in proportion to the amount of public taxes paid by residents of that district. The House of Commons would have not fewer than 90 nor more than 120 members, excluding borough members, distributed to the counties "according to their federal population." In addition, the convention would be required to provide a method of amending the constitution in the future. The bill also provided that the convention, if it chose, might abolish borough members, disenfranchise free blacks, alter the Thirty-Second Article, provide for biennial sessions of the legislature, provide for the election of the governor by voters who were also qualified to vote for members of the House of Commons, and prescribe the term for which the governor should be elected and his eligibility for re-election.

In the House of Commons, thirteen easterners, including the members from Cumberland County (supporters due to the capitol building issue in 1831) and Craven County (supporters who appreciated the western support of William Gaston), joined the western members in passing the bill by a vote of 66 to 62. In the Senate, the bill passed by 31 to 30, with the help of the senators from the before-mentioned two counties (Cumberland and Craven).

The Constitution Convention assembled in Raleigh on June 4, 1835, with 128 elected delegates present. Present were Governor Swain, three former governors, and two future governors, six judges, eleven who had previously presided over one house or the other, thirteen former or future U.S. congressmen, and eighty-eight (88) former members of the NC General Assembly. Nathaniel Macon was chosen president of the convention, but Emanuel Shober, a Moravian from Salem, usually presided.

Amendments were approved providing for a Senate of 50 members and a House of 120 members, the maximum number permitted in both cases. The Senate would be chosen by districts created according to taxes paid to the state, while representation in the House of Commons would be determined by population, including slaves, thereby permitting easterners more members than a white-only basis would have allowed. Re-apportionment for representation in the House would follow the censuses of 1840 and 1850, but, as a result of compromise, thereafter it would occur only every twenty years. By a vote of 74 to 44, the delegates approved an amendment to provide for the election of the governor by all who were qualified to vote for members of the House of Commons.

This convention amended the Thirty-Second Article with a vote of 72 to 52. It also approved to disenfranchise free blacks, to fix the term of the governor to two years and to limit the length of service to two successive terms, to change the term of office of the Attorney General from good behavior to a term of four years, to fix the terms of the Secretary of State and Treasurer at two years each, to equalize the poll tax on all persons, bond and free, who were subject to such a tax, to prohibit private legislation on, and provide by general laws for, divorce and alimony, the changing of name, the legitimization of children born out of wedlock, and the restoration of citizenship to persons convicted of infamous crimes, and to provide for impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate of public officials.

Finally, as required by the original Act permitting the convention to function, it studied ways to amend the constitution in the future. Although the legislature only required one method, the convention established two. By a two-thirds vote of each house, the General Assembly could call a constitutional convention. Or, the consititution could be amended by a legislative process. A proposed amendment, if passed by three-fifths of the members of both houses at session when it was introduced and by a two-thirds vote at the next session, would be submitted to the people for ratification at an election called for that purpose.

After one month and one week, the convention adjourned on July 11, 1835, and its work was submitted to a referendum. By a vote of 26,771 to 21,606, the proposed amendments were ratified by the voting population on November 9, 1835. Of course, the vote was overwhelmingly sectional. Sectionalism was still quite alive in the sate, but with the western counties more equitably represented in the legislature and with a better opportunity to elect a western governor, the chances for significant change was greatly improved. Click Here for a Word document containing the 1835 Amendments to the NC Constitution.

Along with broader representation of the electorate, a two-party system began to take hold in North Carolina. Both the Whig and the Democratic parites were about evenly matched, and party platforms became important as leaders tried to appeal to a new majority of the people. Newspapers took sides, frequently making personal attacks on candidates, as well as saying nothing but good about the party they supported and only bad things about the other.

Sound familiar?

Between 1835 and 1860, the good things that Archibald D. Murphey had envisioned in earlier times came to be, including public schools, internal improvements, sound bonds and currencies, and the promotion of new industries. Sectionalism was quieted for a time as eastern and western members of the Whig Party cooperated. The Democratic Party until about 1850 merely opposed Whig programs, but after suffering a number of humiliating defeats, its leaders became more progressive. The Whig Party, in power for so long, became complacent, opening the door for the Democrats to step in with some new popular issues and take over.


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