By April 1776, advocates of American independence from Great Britain had assumed a dominant role in North Carolina politics. As a result, planning for a new state government there moved rapidly in the spring, summer, and fall of that year. On May 11, the provincial legislature passed an interim constitution, establishing a council of safety, composed of only thirteen members, in which complete authority was vested pending the convention of a popularly elected legislature on November 12. Before the elections, voters were informed that the representatives they chose were to meet with the express purpose of drafting and adopting a permanent constitution. In little more than a month, the new legislature accomplished its task. Under pressure from constituent instructions, the body had been compelled to include a ‘‘declaration of rights’’ explicitly enumerating and safeguarding a number of ‘‘first principles.’’ At the outset of the American Revolution, many colonists harbored deep suspicions of political authority, and they sought to ensure the observance of natural rights in the face of what they saw as the encroaching essence of power.
Until the late seventeenth century, the Crown had been sovereign in the British Empire. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689, however, ultimate governing authority resided in Parliament. Things were to be different in the aspiring new nation across the Atlantic, and the first article of the North Carolina declaration of rights vested sovereignty not in the executive or legislature, but in the people. The American conception of mixed government was also clearly articulated in the Constitution of 1776, which provided for the balancing of separate and distinct branches of government. This represented an important departure from the unwritten English constitution, in which a balance of social orders as embodied in the king, House of Lords, and House of Commons was the ideal. In addition to these theoretical and structural features, North Carolina’s declaration of rights contained securities for several specific civil liberties. Protection against arbitrary imprisonment, the right to trial by jury, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms (and the absence of a standing army), freedom of assembly, the right to instruct representatives and petition them for the redress of grievances, and freedom of religious worship were all expressly acknowledged in the document.
The articles of North Carolina’s declaration of rights were hardly conceived de novo. Rather, they reflected the ideological landscape of colonial British North America generally and the influence of the Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland constitutions in particular. Nonetheless, the influence of the Whig view of power and Lockean natural rights philosophy are manifest in the document. Along with similar sections in several other early state constitutions, the declaration of rights in the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 provided a model for the federal Bill of Rights.
JAMES CORBETT DAVID
References and Further Reading