The Constitution was officially adopted on June 21 when New Hampshire became the ninth State to vote for ratification, followed by Virginia and New York by the end of July. North Carolina and Rhode Island were the outliers, still refusing to join their sister States and choosing, at least temporarily, to remain outside the union. Complicating matters were the circular letter sent by New York to the States and the practical details of transitioning from the Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution.
On July 26, the New York Convention had sent a circular letter to governors of the other States recommending that a general convention be called to consider amendments to the Constitution “at a period not remote.” Antis from thirteen counties in Pennsylvania were preparing to organize an unofficial convention in Harrisburg in September to urge the legislature to ask the first Congress under the Constitution to hold a “general convention of representatives from the several States in the Union.” Its purpose would be to consider amendments. In Virginia, Patrick Henry was using his incredible influence for a similar effort, supported by Gov. Edmund Randolph, one of three delegates to the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the document when it was sent to the States.
These were not mere threats. Article V of the new Constitution provided that Congress, “on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a convention for proposing amendments.” Calling New York’s circular letter “a matter of much regret,” James Madison wrote to George Washington expressing his apprehension that such an early convention could result in “alterations of the federal system which would throw back essential powers into the State Legislatures.” Delaying a convention for several years would assuage the emotional arguments against the Constitution and “at the same time point out faults which really call for amendment.”
Madison went so far as to suggest that it might have been better if New York had postponed its ratification until after the new government was installed. Perhaps, he continued, it would be best that Rhode Island “not accede until this new crisis of danger be over.” As for North Carolina, Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson on August 10, its convention had met on the 21st but “not a word has yet been heard from its deliberations.”
What Madison had not heard was that on August 2 North Carolina voted 184 to 83 “neither to ratify nor reject” the Constitution. However, it had proposed a Declaration of Rights and twenty-six amendments to be transmitted to other States. Willie Jones, a fierce critic of the Constitution and leader of the North Carolina Antis, asserted that the convention’s action was actually a strategy to force consideration of amendments. It was not designed to keep North Carolina from eventually joining the union. “This was the most decent and best way of obtaining amendments,” he said. He had “no apprehension that the other states would refuse to admit them into the Union, when they thought proper to come in.”
Convening in the town of Hillsborough on July 21, more than two hundred delegates represented one of the largest and most populous States. A substantial majority harbored a deep distrust of government, based on years of government corruption and abuses of power which profoundly influenced their skepticism and opposition to the Constitution.
On July 23, the proposed Constitution, the Articles of Confederation and other documents were read to the entire assembly of delegates. James Galloway, an opponent of the Constitution from Rockingham County, then moved that the Constitution be considered paragraph by paragraph. Jones then rose and abruptly proposed a substitute motion – that a vote on the Constitution be taken immediately. “The Constitution had so long been the subject of the deliberation of every man in this country,” he said, “the members of the Convention had had such ample opportunity to consider it and every one of them was prepared to give his vote upon the question.”
Stunned, James Iredell protested, “astonished at a proposal to decide immediately, without the least deliberation, a question which is perhaps the greatest that ever was submitted to any body of men.” An early supporter of independence from Great Britain, Iredell had authored persuasive political essays and helped to organize North Carolina’s new judicial system, eventually becoming the State’s attorney general. If no deliberation were to take place, “I would wish to know why we are met together,” he demanded. Jones did not object.
For the next two weeks, Iredell and William Davie resolutely defended the Constitution, frequently supported by Richard Spaight and William Blount who, along with Davie, had represented North Carolina at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the previous year. Squaring off against them were Jones, Galloway, judge Samuel Spencer and a bevy of skeptics determined to protect their liberties and forestall encroachment on States’ rights by an energetic national government.
More than any other provision of the Constitution, the power of Congress to “lay and collect taxes” absorbed the attention of the Antis. Joseph McDowell was adamant that “this is a power I will never agree to give up from the hands of the people of this country…The tax gatherers will be sent, and our property will be wrested out of our hands…If the tax gatherers come upon us, they will, like the locusts of old, destroy us.” The mistrust of government was palpable. Guilford County’s William Goudy reminded the convention that “power belongs originally to the people, but if rulers be not well guarded, that power may be usurped from them.“ These were not unfounded fears of backwoods farmers, but sincere suspicions of any government with such a broad power to tax – and to destroy.
On August 3, as the convention prepared to adjourn, Iredell wrote to his wife, Hannah, “We are for the present out of the Union, and God knows when we shall get in to it again.” On November 21, 1789, North Carolina would “get in to it again” when it would finally ratify the Constitution, more than eight months after the First Congress convened. Three months later, President George Washington nominated Iredell to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court where he served until his death in 1799 at the age of forty-eight.