This year marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the 1868 North Carolina Constitution. Although there were conventions that drastically changed the state’s constitution in 1835 and 1875, the Old North State has had three constitutions: 1776, 1868 and 1971.
All three state constitutions have a “Declaration of Rights.” Over the years, each state constitution included the following declaration: “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.”
The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 includes a more explanatory statement in its Declaration of Rights: “That a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles, and a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry and frugality are absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty and keep a government free.”
In an age of more and more Americans espousing constitutional interpretations disconnected from the past, these declarations are a good reminder. History, and in particular constitutional history, is not some esoteric intellectual exercise, nor the mere memorization of facts to maintain your team’s string of victories on trivia night. “A frequent recurrence” is essential for the understanding of the nation’s being and the preservation of your individual liberties. Such knowledge, or lack of it, affects your daily life in some fashion.
To be sure, none of us were present at the deliberations in Halifax, N.C., in 1776 or in Philadelphia in 1787. So, this “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” seems like a daunting task. But becoming familiar with those principles may be easier than we realize.
Co-author of The Federalist Papers and fourth President of the United States, James Madison is regarded as “The father of the Constitution.” In 1821, he wrote an inquisitive Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who anticipated publication of Madison’s notes regarding the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Madison relayed that the state ratifying conventions offered the key to understanding the “legitimate meaning” of the Constitution.
Madison made similar statements as early as 1791, when he opposed Alexander Hamilton’s idea for a national bank, and again in 1796 when discussing the merits of Jay’s Treaty. On the floor of Congress, he actually read passages from the respective Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina conventions. There is a consistency of Madison’s thoughts over a lengthy period. He was not backpedaling in 1821 for political purposes, as one political scientist once told me.
The minutes of the North Carolina ratification convention may be the best among various state minutes. For one thing, the note takers and editors, employed by Federalists, wielded a light editorial hand. They did not misrepresent Anti-Federalist arguments or purposefully portray them as unsophisticated rubes unable to understand Federalist erudition. The minutes reveal a robust debate.
Before pointing out the ratification minutes to Ritchie as a means to understand the Constitution, Madison said that the “legitimate meaning . . . must be derived from the text itself.” Imagine that! To understand the meaning of the Constitution, one should read the document.
It’s not as simple as reading it once and absorbing all the content, of course. One has to remember that some words were defined differently a couple centuries ago, and one must be familiar with the times in which the document was written. But what a simple yet profound (and overlooked and ignored) place to start: read the Constitution for a better understanding of the document.
In a similar Madisonian spirit, if one wants to learn more about the North Carolina Constitution, he or she should read the document. That would be an example of “a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” and an excellent way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the North Carolina Constitution of 1868.