The Jefferson of North Carolina

FILE PHOTO | Ted Mielczarek | CC

After the Constitution was drafted and then submitted for approval, nine state ratification conventions quickly adopted a more “energetic” government, with enumerated powers. There were four holdouts, though. Among them was North Carolina.

Thomas Jefferson actually encouraged this result. Nine states’ approval was needed to keep a union, but a few stalling states were needed so that “there might be certainty of obtaining amendments.”

The “Jefferson of North Carolina,” Willie Jones (pronounced Wiley), helped ensure that a Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution. Some snidely remarked that the former member of His Majesty’s Council for North Carolina had a curious “St. Paul’s conversion” regarding politics. Was it, they asked, a matter of convenience or genuine belief? The Halifax Countian may have been on the road to a political Damascus. Nevertheless, he ended up being instrumental to North Carolina’s and the United States’ founding.

Jones was absent from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, however. He had declined his appointment to be a member of North Carolina’s delegation. Hugh Williamson took his place, and the Edentonian became one of the most vocal delegates at the Constitutional Convention.

Did Jones, like Patrick Henry of Virginia, “smell a rat?” With a reactionary impulse, had he refused to attend the convention? Or was he more calculating than supposed?

Jones believed he could be of greater benefit in North Carolina. While constitutional delegates opined in Philadelphia, Jones disseminated anti-Federal principles. Much like he did in 1776 when helping craft the North Carolina Constitution and incorporating a declaration of rights into the document, Jones worked to reveal the need of a declaration of rights for the proposed U.S. Constitution.

Rarely one to seek attention in print or in the halls of the assembly, Jones nevertheless was a leader among leaders. As historian John Moore points out, Jones was “a leader in the [provincial] assembly and yet rarely joined the debates and then only to utter a few pungent and pointed sentences. After the House had adjourned after exciting debate, his real strength manifested itself. No man could be so insinuating and convincing at the fireside.” One historian remarked that this was a lifelong practice. Jones was “never conspicuous on the hustings or in the debates of deliberative bodies.”

During the 1788 North Carolina ratification convention, as usual, Jones rarely spoke. He did so at the beginning to call for a vote; he wished to avoid a lengthy debate that would unnecessarily cost the taxpayer. A debate did ensue. A reticent Jones, however, waited for Federalists, such as James Iredell, to mention any published objections to their proposed Constitution and await for their lengthy commentary.

Convention delegates, however, were well aware of Jones’ presence. Despite Federalists’ erudite oratory, Jones had rallied his troops and knew their personalities and proclivities: “his nod was the approval of the highest authority, his sneer the refutation of the most perfect logic; his uplifted finger the token of caution or silence.”

As the convention neared an end, Jones once again called for a declaration of rights. “I would rather be 18 years out of the Union than adopt it in its present defective form,” he said.

With a vote of 184-83, North Carolina voted in Hillsborough to “neither reject nor ratify” the Constitution in 1788. By 1789, North Carolinians were confident enough that a declaration of rights, similar to the one in their state constitution, was to be added to the Constitution (and it was). Out of the new union for a little over a year, North Carolina finally approved the U.S. Constitution.

Jones was instrumental in ensuring that the U.S. Constitution included an important addendum: the Bill of Rights, those first 10 amendments that Americans of all political stripes hold (or should hold) dear.