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Session 3: Political Developments

Constitutional Convention of 1835

By Tricia Blakistone, Former Distance Learning Educator, North Carolina Museum of History

North Carolina wrote its first constitution in 1776. As the state’s population grew and time passed, some people came to feel that the constitution needed to be amended in order to address changes in that population. They pointed to several problems with the design of the constitution. One objection concerned how representation in the General Assembly was determined.

North Carolina’s General Assembly consisted of a lower house, known as the House of Commons, and an upper house, known as the Senate. Under the constitution of 1776, each county sent two representatives to the House of Commons and one representative to the Senate. At the time of the constitution’s creation, most of the counties were in the east, where the population was concentrated. Therefore, the east was heavily represented in the legislature. Over the next fifty years, the state’s population grew. In fact, during the 1800s, much of the population growth occurred in the west. By the early nineteenth century, the western part of the state covered more land and had a faster-growing population than the eastern part. Yet the east still had greater representation in the General Assembly. Thus, many westerners felt that the structure of the General Assembly did not represent their views or needs.

Sectionalism in North Carolina, 1830. Generally the fall line separated the eastern and western parts of the state.​

Another component of the constitution of 1776 that upset some North Carolinians allowed for the major boroughs (towns)—Edenton, Halifax, Hillsborough, New Bern, Wilmington, Salisbury, and, later, Fayetteville—to elect members to the House of Commons. The feeling at the time of the constitution’s creation was that these boroughs, due to the types of commerce they were involved in, had special needs apart from those of the counties they lay within. Rural residents objected to this provision because they thought urban areas were being awarded special privileges based solely on their population.

Three other areas of the state’s constitution caused concern. The first prohibited non-Protestants from holding office in North Carolina. But by the 1800s, many in the state felt that any Christian should be allowed to hold political office. The second directed that the governor, state judges, district judges, and most other state officials be appointed by the legislature rather than elected by popular vote. With Andrew Jackson’s election as president in 1828, the tenants of Jacksonian democracy were taking root. This political philosophy, which urged the common man’s participation in electing his representatives, spurred voters to demand greater power in electing state officials. Finally, the constitution did not mention race as a qualification for voting. Therefore, free African American men could, and some did, participate in elections. Many white North Carolinians objected to this.

Despite the problems with the constitution of 1776, many North Carolinians continued to support it, mainly because they feared that a new constitution would shift the balance of power from the east to the west. However, opposition to the constitution continued to mount during the early part of the nineteenth century, especially from western politicians. Many western politicians were especially concerned with instituting a series of internal improvements throughout the state in order to open up trade to other states, and they believed they could accomplish this goal through greater representation in the legislature.

By the 1830s, some eastern politicians started to see the commercial advantages that internal improvements could have on their cities and towns, and they started to support their western counterparts, especially in their fight for greater representation in the General Assembly. These factors, plus Governor David Swain’s (a native westerner but popular with voters throughout the state) support for amending the constitution of 1776, coalesced into the passage of a bill (authored by reluctant reformer William Haywood) that called for a special election for voters to decide the matter. The vote was 27,550 North Carolinians for a constitutional convention and 21,694 against. Not surprisingly, western voters overwhelmingly supported the measure.

On June 4, 1835, the delegates came to order at the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835. The convention actually took place at the First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, as the state capitol had burned in 1831 and the new capitol was still under construction. A total of 130 delegates attended the convention: 76 delegates from the eastern counties and 54 delegates from the western counties. Nathaniel Macon, a popular statesman from Warrenton, was elected the convention’s president. 










On the left: Governor David L. Swain, a key Constitutional Convention supporter. On the right: William Gaston, who played a key role in persuading delegates to change the requirement of officials from "Protestant" to "Christian." Images courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, N.C.

The first order of business proposed abolishing representation to the House of Commons for the seven boroughs of North Carolina. This was approved. The convention also adopted amendments allowing for the governor and state judges to be elected by general election, as opposed to being appointed by the legislature. It was also proposed that the governor serve a two-year term.

The convention delegates did not abolish the religious requirements on office holding; however, they did replace the term Protestant with Christian. Many credit the only Roman Catholic representative to the constitutional convention, William Gaston, with this change. Gaston was quite popular and considered to be of good character. His example of a pious public servant convinced many of his fellow delegates that non-Protestants could hold public office responsibly.

Any of the changes to the constitution that could be considered progressive was tempered by the adoption of an amendment that disenfranchised free black men. The amendment stated that “no free negro, free mulatto, or free person of mixed blood, descended from negro ancestors to the fourth generation inclusive, (though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person,) shall vote for members of the Senate or House of Commons.” The delegates debated whether the constitution of 1776 had ever intended for free men of color to vote, some arguing that the constitution’s wording implied that the requirements for voting were applicable only to whites. A few delegates suggested that black enfranchisement was a good thing because it fostered care and devotion to one’s community and feelings of pride that dissuaded unsuitable behavior. Nonetheless, the amendment was adopted by the convention.

The delegates then addressed what was for many of them the most pressing issue of the convention—the method in which seats in the legislature should be apportioned. After much discussion, the convention adopted an amendment that set the maximum number of representatives to the House of Commons at 120 and the number to the Senate at 50. The number of representatives in the House that each county was allowed would be determined by the federal census, but every county would have at least one. For the Senate, representation would depend on the amount of taxes paid to the state treasury. Under this plan, the west gained more seats in the House of Commons, due to its larger population, while the east retained control of the Senate because of the greater wealth concentrated in that area of the state.

The proposed amendments to the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 went to the voters in November of 1835 and were approved, with most of the votes favoring the changes coming from the western part of the state. These amendments had several effects. First, western representation in the legislature increased, which allowed North Carolina to begin implementing a series of internal improvements. Second, the sectionalism between the east and the west subsided, since the west was more fairly represented in the legislature. Third, governors and other state officials had to start campaigning to the public for their offices. These campaigns provided a statewide springboard for the discussion of political policy and events. The partisanship created by the campaigns contributed to the formation of the two-party system in North Carolina. Finally, rescinding the right to vote of free people of color led to further restriction of their liberties.


1835 North Carolina Constitutional Convention
A lesson plan designed to explore the 1835 state constitutional convention. 
Electronic edition of the journal of the 1835 North Carolina Constitutional Convention.
From the North Carolina History Project, an article on the 1835 constitutional convention
In 1908 North Carolina judge Henry Groves Connor published a history of the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835.

Evolution of the Two-Party System in North Carolina 

A New Government Allows Reforms -- by Gary Freeze, Professor of History, Catawba College. Reprinted from Tar Heel Junior Historian 36: 1 (fall 1996).

Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election to the presidency produced many political changes in the country and in North Carolina. Jackson, who was born and raised in the Waxhaw region along the North Carolina–South Carolina border and read law in Salisbury, expanded the president’s role in making decisions and leading policy on a national level.

Portrait of Andrew Jackson. Painted in 1824 by Thomas Sully.

Some Americans liked his strong, energetic style of leadership. But others opposed it. Out of this debate developed a two-party political system that allowed American voters to choose whether to be Democrats (formerly Democratic-Republicans), like Jackson, or Whigs, who opposed Jackson’s plans and ideas. After the constitutional convention of 1835, North Carolinians fell into this two-party system with the rest of the nation.

Generally speaking, Democrats pointed out that the American Revolution had freed people from an overly active and powerful British government. Democrats of the time believed that government could too easily involve itself in too many matters of people’s lives. The little government that should be allowed to exist, they believed, should be largely limited, so that voters could closely watch and control it. Democrats also tended to be against increased levels of taxation and spending.

Whig voters, on the other hand, believed that government should take an active, well-directed role in developing the human and physical resources of the land. People would prosper, Whigs argued, if government took the lead in building schools and improving roads. Whigs also wanted to diversify the economy by increasing industrialization, and they promoted the idea of government support for banks. In short, Whigs championed the good that government could do to benefit people. They also had no reservations about raising taxes to pay for their programs.

The Whig Years and Progress

North Carolina entered the antebellum period trying to erase its Rip Van Winkle image. Support for progressive ideas and reforms allowed the Whig Party to take control of the state after the convention in 1835. Whig voters elected all the governors and most of the legislators from 1836 to 1850. During those years, the Whigs, led mostly by John Motley Morehead, David L. Swain, William A. Graham, Willie P. Mangum, and Edward B. Dudley, made state government into an engine for change. They took advantage of federal money to invest in many improvements.

Images from left to right: John Motley Morehead, William A. Graham, Willie P. Mangum, and Edward B. Dudley. Images courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

These improvements were largely the changes that Archibald DeBow Murphey had pushed in the early 1800s. Federal money was used to buy stock in several railroads, including the state-controlled North Carolina Railroad, which ran across the Piedmont from Goldsboro to Charlotte. The state also purchased stock in banks and chartered more than a dozen cotton mills and other businesses. The money even funded the draining of some coastal swamps to produce lands that could be sold. A Literary Fund was started to support a public, or common, school system, which had been established in 1839. By 1846, every county had at least one common school that received state funding, and interestingly, counties that supported Whigs sent a majority of their children to school.

The Democrats fight for control

All this progress worried Democrats. The state was spending more money than ever before, some of it even on social reforms. But Democrats argued that the Whig-controlled government had become unresponsive to the needs of most voters. Leading Democrats decided to try a new platform to gain political control of the state.

David Settle Reid, a Democrat from Rockingham County, pointed out that in North Carolina, white men who had paid taxes, even if they did not own land, could vote for state representatives, but they could not vote for state senators. That meant that many North Carolina voters had no control over the actions of one-half of the state legislature. Reid felt the government should be more responsive to more people. He campaigned to change the state constitution to allow all white men to vote, a concept known as free manhood suffrage.

David Settle Reid. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

By 1850, Democrats had come to accept the idea of a more active state government that would benefit more people. They especially began to see the importance of promoting public education. As Democrat Reid became governor, Democrats also took control of the legislature. During the 1850s, they continued to expand upon Murphey’s old proposals. They supported, for example, building the Western North Carolina Railroad. By 1859, North Carolinians across the state were united in their belief that internal improvements benefited most state residents. But they continued to be divided by political party.

Sectional Differences Rise Again

Party rivalries and loyalties followed North Carolina’s traditional sectional divisions. In the late 1830s, most Whig voters came from the western half of the state, the same areas that had earlier called for constitutional reform.

By the 1840s, though, counties in three areas could be expected to vote for Whigs in election after election. The central Piedmont, particularly around Guilford and Randolph Counties, was strongly Whig—partly because this area was against slavery. The deep Mountain region, counties like Haywood and Buncombe, was Whig because mountain farmers had long been remote from markets for their products—they wanted improvements in transportation. The third area of Whig support was the swampy coastal area, particularly those counties around the Albemarle Sound—they wanted internal improvements such as dredging and draining that would ease transportation and create new useful land.

North Carolina counties in 1840

Democrats held majorities in distinct areas of the state, too. Democratic areas were less likely to support spending money on internal improvements because their residents were satisfied with transportation systems as they were. Democrats were also likely to be found in slaveholding counties, since they nationally were the stronger defenders of slavery. They were strongest in the middle Coastal Plain between Fayetteville and Rocky Mount, where planters and farmers already had easy river transportation to ports and markets. Counties along the Virginia and South Carolina borders also voted consistently Democrat, largely because in these areas, too, farmers could get their goods to markets—even though those markets were in Virginia towns like Petersburg and Richmond or South Carolina towns like Georgetown and Charleston. The final Democratic stronghold was the Catawba River valley, around Charlotte, which also traded directly with South Carolina ports down the Catawba.


Political Parties in the United States, 1788 -1840
Time line and explanation of the development of political parties in the early national period. Includes a sidebar about parties in North Carolina. 
This article traces the rise of the two-party system nationally and examines how these political developments affected North Carolina.

Union or Disunion? The Crisis Over Secession

By Tom Belton, Former Curator of Military History, North Carolina Museum of History

Economic differences over tariffs, the question of slavery, and other issues had slowly eroded relations between the North and the South. The slavery issue had even split religious sects such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians into Northern and Southern factions. Tensions increased dramatically between the North and the South with the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 and the 1860 presidential election. However, most North Carolinians viewed the November 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as insufficient cause to leave the Union. Certain events would eventually propel Southern states out of the Union to form the Confederacy, and North Carolina would join them on May 20, 1861.

The Election of 1860

Two persons have been elected, respectively, to the offices of President and Vice-President, exclusively by the people of one section of the country, upon a principle hostile to the institutions and domestic policy of the other.
—North Carolina governor John W. Ellis, November 20, 1861

In the 1860 election for President, Abraham Lincoln swept the populous free states, while the South was divided among three candidates. Image courtesy of Learn NC.

The presidential election of 1860 clearly revealed the splinter caused by sectional issues. Four candidates vied for the nation’s highest office. The Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern wings over the issue of slavery. The Northern Democrats picked Stephen Douglas of Illinois as their candidate, and the Southern Democrats rallied around John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. The newly formed Constitutional Union Party, composed largely of former Whigs, nominated John Bell as its candidate. Abraham Lincoln, also from Illinois, ran on the Republican ticket, which opposed the expansion of slavery into territories. In North Carolina the election was essentially between Breckinridge and Bell, since Douglas had few supporters and the Republican Party was nonexistent in the state. Lincoln’s name did not even appear on the North Carolina ballot. When the results of the November 1860 election were tallied, Breckinridge carried the state by a small majority.

How North Carolinians Voted in the Election of 1860

Lincoln Douglas Breckinridge Bell
0 2,701 48,539 44,990

The Breakup of the Union

I try to keep myself employed, but I find my mind nearly all the time occupied with the State of the Country and it makes me very unhappy. I love the Union.
—Paul Cameron, of Orange County, North Carolina’s wealthiest planter

South Carolina reacted quickly after the election of Lincoln and left the Union on December 20, 1860. A convention composed of the lower Southern states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, met in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4, 1861, and formed a provisional government of the Confederacy. After the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the Federal call for troops from the remaining Southern states, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina cast their fate with the Confederacy. These states refused to send troops to force Southern states back into the Union. North Carolina was the final state to sign an ordinance of secession.

South Carolina December 20, 1860
Mississippi  January 9, 1861
Florida  January 10, 1861
Alabama  January 11, 1861
Georgia January 19, 1861
Louisiana January 26, 1861
Texas February 1, 1861
Virginia April 17, 1861
Arkansas May 6, 1861
Tennessee May 7, 1861
North Carolina May 20, 1861

North Carolina Leaves the Union

The great body of our people would far prefer a Union with the North upon honorable terms.
—United States senator Thomas L. Clingman, February, 4, 1861

Most white North Carolinians remained pro-Union even with the election of antislavery candidate Abraham Lincoln. The mood reflected a “wait-and-see” attitude on what Lincoln would do when he took office on March 4 1861. On February 28, North Carolina voters rejected a call for a state convention to discuss the state’s relationship with the Federal government. However, support for the Union rapidly eroded in April with the firing on Fort Sumter and with Lincoln’s demand that North Carolina and the other states furnish troops to force the seceded states back into the Union. This request was shortly followed by the announcement of a Federal blockade of the Southern coastline. Under these circumstances, the majority of white North Carolinians felt little recourse but to align themselves with the newly formed Confederacy. Governor John W. Ellis, who favored secession, summoned a special session of the legislature, which authorized a state convention to meet in Raleigh (click here for the governor's proclamation). On May 20, 1861, the convention dissolved North Carolina’s association with the United States.

The state flag of North Carolina adopted following secession from the United States in 1861 consists of a red field at left and, at right, a white bar above a blue bar. The red field contains a single white star with the dates, in white, May 20th 1775 (the date of the Mecklenburg Resolves) and May 20th 1861 (the date of secession). It was replaced by the current state flag in 1885. Image courtesy of The North Carolina Museum of History.


North Carolina and Secession
William Boyd’s (1879–1938) North Carolina on the Eve of Secession (1912) discusses the factors and events that led the state to secede from the Union.

Oath of Allegiance
This form pledging allegiance to the state had to be filled out by new soldiers, politicians, and civil servants after North Carolina’s secession from the Union.

Secession in North Carolina—A Lesson Plan
Lesson plan from the State Capitol website.

Secession in North Carolina 
An article from the North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee examines North Carolina’s secession from the Union.

Assignment 3

Complete one of the following assignments:

Option 1:
Individuals, groups, states, and nations join war efforts for many reasons. Some have concrete reasons, such as defense, politics, or economics. Others are motivated by more intangible concepts, like principle, pride, or ideology. Outline the reasons that North Carolina joined the Confederacy. Do you think it was a foregone conclusion that North Carolina would secede, or could it have been prevented? Write an essay stating your view and supporting your opinion.

Option 2: (Choose this option if you are seeking reading credits.)*
Helping improve reading skills can go hand in hand with teaching about North Carolina antebellum life. Create a reading list with at least ten resources about North Carolina during the antebellum period appropriate for the grade level/curriculum you teach and briefly discuss how you could use it to improve reading skills and boost students’ interest in reading. Resources can include essays, fiction, interviews, legends or stories, websites, government documents, diaries, letters, music lyrics, etc. (These resources can concern the antebellum period in the entire United States if that better fits your curriculum.)

Option 3:
Did the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835 improve the constitution, or was it a hindrance to the state’s development? Write an essay stating your view and supporting your opinion.

Submit your answers via e-mail to

* If you are interested in this option, we encourage you to contact your principal or LEA to receive prior approval. If questions arise, please contact Sally Bloom at 919-807-7965 or

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