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John Spencer Bassett, 1867-1928
The Constitutional Beginnings of North Carolina (1663-1729)
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1894.


John Spencer Bassett, a prominent North Carolina historian, teacher, writer, and activist, attended North Carolina public schools as well as the Jefferson Davis Military academy and graduated from Trinity College in Randolph County, were he eventually became an English professor after graduate work at Johns Hopkins University. A staunch advocate of civil rights, Bassett wrote in favor of wider enfranchisement for African Americans and praised publicly Booker T. Washington's recommendations for racial uplift. Bassett's divisive views spurred a heated debate about academic freedom at North Carolina public schools, and Basset eventually left the state, in part to avoid further controversy. His other works include Slavery and Servitude in the Colony of North Carolina (1896), Anti-Slavery Leaders in North Carolina (1898), Slavery in the State of North Carolina (1899), and The Federalist System (1906).

Bassett's The Constitutional Beginnings of North Carolina (1663-1729) , which saw its beginnings as Bassett's dissertation at Johns Hopkins, investigates the development of North Carolina's government while it was a colony of Great Britain and ruled by royal proprietors. Chapter One, the introduction, explains how this government divided its territory first into three counties, Craven, Clarendon, and Albemarle, the latter of which eventually expanded to become North Carolina in the late 1700s. Bassett's work maintains that the state's earliest form of government was based upon the English manorial system, where a local landowner (the lord of the manor) ruled over the civil affairs of those people who lived on his land. In Chapter II, he argues that the "County Palatine" system, a form of government with roots as far back as the eleventh century and which provides a high level of independence from the Crown, was in effect in the new proprietary colony. This independence would greatly affect the early constitutional development of the state.

Chapter III, section II explores "The Fundamental Constitutions" as a theoretical instrument of rule. These documents, supposedly written by the young philosopher John Locke, provided for a feudal system in the new colony, with colonial nobility carrying hereditary titles such as "cacique" and "landgrave," and the eight proprietors forming the highest level of rule. It is Bassett's belief that the Fundamental Constitutions, although replicating much of the rule by landed aristocracy, still "guaranteed what were then considered the most personal rights. Their reactionary features were hardly worse than their generation, and their liberal features were much better than the time."

Chapter IV, the largest section of the work, outlines how constitutional government functioned in the colony. Here Bassett abandons the "theoretical" discussion in favor of a "practical" analysis of the Constitution's heritage. He traces the division of power down the hierarchal structure, beginning with the proprietors, who organized themselves into offices. These proprietors then delegated power to a deputy—the governor—whose early position were not constitutionally mandated, but who maintained influence in affairs such as inter-county commerce and the militia and who presided over the Council. This Council—first appointed by the Governor but later selected by the nobility and/or the Generally Assembly—was, according to Bassett, limited in its powers unless it worked in co-operation with the Governor, and Bassett claims that its greatest power was its ability to name any officers not previously named by the proprietors. The Council also acted at the Upper House of the Generally Assembly, originally named the "Grand Assembly." Basset notes that the 1665 constitutional revisions first clearly define the General Assembly's powers, and he then traces the assembly's ensuing shifts in power and duties. He also includes the Council as part of the early judicial system and traces this system's evolution and components, including the general court, precinct courts, and court of chancery. Bassett closes the work with a discussion of officers, such as financial officers and constables, whose duties the previous hierarchies did not encompass.

Kevin Cherry

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