Lately I’ve been reflecting on North Carolina’s celebrated history as, well, the political equivalent of a cantankerous old coot.
You know the fellow I mean. He won’t keep his mouth shut. He won’t go to a reception and just relax and enjoy the festivities. No, he has to complain about something or debate the latest controversy.
He’s the uncle at your birthday party who won’t just fork over a card stuffed with cash, but instead demands to know what your grades looked like last semester. He’s the guy who shows up at your corporation’s shareholder meeting and starts asking uncomfortable questions.
What brings this to mind is my recent re-reading of the history of the American founding and North Carolina’s unique role in it. In 1775 and 1776, North Carolinians were the first Americans in the nation to declare their intentions to set up their own governments apart from Britain’s royal governors. In another apparent national first, a North Carolina state court in 1786 struck down a law legally enacted by the state legislature because it violated a provision of the state’s constitution, thus creating a precedent for the later assertion of the principle of judicial review.
During the 1787-88 debates over ratifying the United States Constitution, North Carolina was the only state that convened a convention and then refused to ratify the new compact. Delegates disliked that the document lacked a bill of rights while bestowing excessive and ambiguous power on the new national government. These actions were manifestations of a sort of Carolinian political psychology that, I contend, has held sway for much of our history. Now, with our country facing a host of new challenges and political controversies, I for one would like to see North Carolina play a cantankerous role in the national debate again, by insisting on a rejuvenation of the republican ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. There has never been a time when this need was greater. As our state constitution puts it, “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.”
A truly federal form of government gives states, communities and individuals lots of room to breathe. It promotes diversity and competition. Do we have a truly federal form of government? I submit the answer is clearly no.
My point here is not to make a specific argument about abortion, gun control, free speech, campaign reform, property rights or any other hot-button issue. There are various opinions on these subjects, some less informed than others in my view but mostly heartfelt and seriously argued, among the diverse citizenry of our state. I mean instead to emphasize that, in general, the federal government has lost its proper moorings to its founding document, and that the Framers of the Constitution would be horrified at much of what is even being debated in Washington, D.C. these days (quite apart from which side in the debate they might, upon reflection, endorse).
In a truly federal system of enumerated and circumscribed powers, Americans would figure out complex problems over time by adopting their own solutions and then comparing the results with that of their peers in other states.
If we really took the U.S. Constitution seriously, rather than simply searching its text for useful pegs upon which to hang our respective political baggage, Americans would insist that their representatives in Washington spend a lot more of their time tending to their proper constitutional duties. Happily, this message would most often approximate something like, “just sit down and shut up!” — the utterance of which would serve as a great catharsis and tension-reducer for many of us.
North Carolinians — Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives, regardless of race and creed and Sunday-morning itinerary — should take the lead in this important cause. We are (or used to be) “First in Freedom” for a very good reason. We used to be the cantankerous old coot at the constitutional garden party. It’s time we became him once more.