Lately, state constitutions have been in the news.
The redistricting arguments in Pennsylvania, for one, have drawn attention to the Pennsylvania Constitution. As a result, people have been reminded that states are quasi-independent entities. In N.C., some General Assembly members have questioned whether Gov. Roy Cooper’s actions and the pipeline deal violated the state constitution. Meanwhile, boisterous protesters have claimed a state constitutional right to protest the very same legislature’s actions.
Interest in the U.S. Constitution typically overshadows the state constitutions. This is understandable. For almost a century, Americans have increasingly sought many top-down solutions to problems. As a result, national elections receive more media attention. Donors believe national offices give them more bang for their buck. And, attorneys, for various reasons, seem to prefer to file in federal court.
It is understandable, then, how concerned citizens — even ironically those who champion limited government or local solutions — can be absorbed with the federal Constitution and national institutions. They forget about the state constitutions.
It is unwise to be so absorbed with one and bypass the other. Why? Before there was a U.S. Constitution, there was a North Carolina Constitution.
A Scottish jurist and later ambassador to the United States (1907-1913), James Bryce observed in The American Commonwealth (1888): “The State Constitutions are the oldest things in the political history of America.” His motivation was similar to Alexis de Tocqueville’s writing of “Democracy in America” (1835). Both men tried to understand American democracy and why the nation was the way it was.
The North Carolina Constitution, Bryce concludes, was one of the “continuations and representatives of the royal Colonial Charters, whereby the earliest English settlements in America were created and under which their several local governments were established, subject to the authority of the British crown and ultimately the British Parliament.”
Those who wish to understand American democracy, Bryce penned, would benefit by studying the state governments maybe more so than the national one. State constitutions, or rather the history of them, are a “mine of instruction for the natural history of democratic communities.” State constitutions are also more in-depth than the federal constitution and thereby list more individual rights. In sum, as Bryce puts it, “Their fullness and minuteness make them . . . more pictorial than the Federal Constitution.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1868 North Carolina Constitution. (The Old North State has had three state constitutions: 1776, 1868 and the one we currently live under, 1971.)
The public debate leading up to the conventional proceedings of North Carolina Constitution of 1868 was important and contentious: the document could make it possible for North Carolina to re-enter the Union. To make a long story short, some “loyal men” wanted to punish indefinitely former Confederates. Meanwhile, some former secessionists, if they could vote, wanted to restore life entirely as it was, before the guns started firing and boys in blue and gray fell to a premature death.
During this tumultuous time, one of North Carolina’s U.S. senators, John Pool, criticized Gov. Jonathan Worth for writing or inspiring unkind editorials. A more moderate Worth replied: “It would be an awful alternative to me to be compelled to choose between Jeff Davis and Thad Stevens.” The Randolph Countian abhorred “Disunionists.” So, his pre-war dissent of secession matched his post-war opposition against Radical Republicanism.
The 150th anniversary of the 1868 North Carolina Constitution is a reminder that the state has a constitution. A familiarity with its content and its development will help North Carolinians better understand the state in which they now live.