The first attempt to remedy some of the ills brought on by too much state influence on the national economy came during the Mount Vernon Conference in March of 1785. Meeting at the home of George Washington, delegates from Virginia and Maryland sat together to discuss their mutual problems concerning harbor facilities and interstate waterways. These representatives resolved to work together to overcome conflicts on fishing rights, navigational safety, piracy and interstate currency rates. Most importantly, the delegates identified the need for more states to participate in future discussions.
The Virginia House of Delegates, when it ratified the Mount Vernon Accord in 1786, also called for a second meeting to be held in Annapolis to discuss such commercial regulations [as] may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony. The call went out to all the states to send delegates to attend this second meeting. In the end, only five states sent representatives to Annapolis for the meeting, which convened in September of 1786. North Carolina, like several other states, had appointed delegates. Hugh Williamson, North Carolinas representative, apparently arrived in Annapolis the day the convention adjourned.
The lack of a quorum at the Annapolis convention frustrated attempts to resolve the economic and political problems plaguing the new nation. The Annapolis convention did, however, pass one significant measure delegates agreed to Alexander Hamiltons proposal to call for yet another meeting, this time in Philadelphia. On February 21, 1787, the Confederation Congress called a convention of state delegates to meet in May of 1787, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the existence of the Union The Confederation Congress agreed to issue a call for a convention in Philadelphia and every state except Rhode Island appointed delegations to attend.
On the appointed day, May 14, 1787, only the Virginia and Pennsylvania delegations were present, and so the convention's opening meeting was postponed for lack of a quorum. A quorum of seven states met and deliberations began on May 25. Eventually twelve states were represented; 74 delegates were named, 55 attended and 39 signed.
James Iredell, one of North Carolinas leading attorneys, was concerned for the health of the fledgling nation and keenly aware of how North Carolinas society and economy had changed since the American Revolution. He felt that if the nationalists were to succeed in strengthening the union, they needed to move promptly. Iredell, however, was in New Bern, not Philadelphia, on May 25.
Why such a staunch advocate of changing the current national political arrangement did not attend a convention clearly intended to do just that is unknown. Regardless of his tardiness, however, Iredell took a commanding role in defending the new Constitution before the people of North Carolina four months later. Blessed with a quick pen and an insightful mind, Iredell was a formidable proponent of a strengthened American union.
Four years earlier, Iredell had been the anonymous author
of a set of instructions to the Chowan County representatives
in which he outlined the requirements for a more effective state
government within the context of a national union. He had then
called for payment of North Carolinas requisition to the
Continental Congress; stringent controls over the printing and
redemption of the states paper money; prohibition of legislative
intrusion into civil suits; better organization of the administration
of the state; an independent judiciary; and support of trade,
commerce and manufacturing. Many of these same issues faced the
delegates from the states as they met in Philadelphia to begin
Richard Dobbs Spaight, first of North Carolinas delegation
to reach Philadelphia, arrived at the convention on May 15, 1787.
Spaight was also among the youngest and least experienced of
the delegates. He spoke little in the convention, but returned
home an ardent federalist and supporter of the Constitution.
He was one of three North Carolina delegates who remained at
the convention long enough to sign the Constitution on September
When the Philadelphia convention opened on May 25, 1787, two more North Carolina delegates were in attendance: Hugh Williamson and Alexander Martin. Both settled into the Indian Queen Inn, where James Madison, George Mason, Alexander Hamilton and other leading delegates were lodged. William Pierce of Georgia, who wrote brief character sketches of the delegates, characterized Williamson as a worthy man, of some abilities, and fortune, although public speaking was apparently not among those abilities. Williamson, however, still contributed his share to the debates. He served on the committee that recommended the initial number of representatives in the House for each state and it was Williamson who proposed a decennial census to determine changes in representation, a practice subsequently adopted and followed to this day. Williamson was also greatly concerned with the powers and limitations of the executive branch. He feared a single executive and thought that the executive should serve only one term. Williamson spoke in favor of limited executive veto. Both Williamson and Davie expressed strong approval of an impeachment process, Williamson believing that impeachment was an essential security for the good behavior of the Executive.
Near the close of the convention, Williamson published a series
of essays under the pseudonym Sylvius. Although authored
before the convention, their contents spoke directly to some
of the major concerns about a strong national government. He
outlined the need for a strong national government to take command
of the economy and foreign affairs, as well as expounded upon
the ills created by a paper money economy.
The great exertions of political wisdom in our late Governor, while he sat at the helm of our State, have so exhausted his fund, that time must be required to enable him again to exert his abilities to the advantage of the nation.
Martin ultimately contributed little to the discussions on
the new Constitution. Like Davie, he was unable to stay to the
close of the convention.
Iredell responded to each point of Masons attack, examining
why the Constitution did not need a bill of rights; why it was
representative of the people; why the Senate could amend money
bills; why the country needed a national judiciary; and why the
Constitution proposed a single executive without a constitutional
council. While his refutation of Masons objections proved
thoughtful and measured in tone, other defenders of the Constitution
were less willing to adopt a dispassionate, reasoned argument.
Archibald MacLaine was particularly vitriolic, referring to the
Constitutions opponents as petty tyrants.
Ratification waited another fifteen months, coming only in
November, 1789, at Fayetteville on a vote of 194-77. Historians
know quite a bit about the Hillsborough convention because James
Iredell and Samuel Johnston hired a secretary to record the debates.
Nothing like that was done for the Fayetteville convention, however.
This gap in the historical record renders subsequent explanations
of why sentiment among the delegates shifted so dramatically
in a years time far more conjectural.
One month later, North Carolina became the second state to ratify the Bill of Rights. The legacy of the Constitutional debates in North Carolina fostered a lasting appreciation among the states citizens of the role of popular discussion in settling critical issues and how political power may be rationally and peacefully balanced between the nation, the states and the people.
Immediately above comes mostly from Pages 848-853 of the 2005-2006 North Carolina Manual, with minor edits.