Even without television, telephones or telegraphs word spread quickly throughout the colonies about the fighting that took place between the British and Colonials at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. We love reminders of these “shots heard round the world,” but too frequently fail to recognize the equally significant event that occurred here in North Carolina.
The first formal declaration of American Independence took place on May 20, 1775, when the Mecklenburg Committee of Safety drafted the Mecklenburg Resolves. That document declared “all laws…derived from the Authority of the King or Parliament, as annulled and vacated,” going on to say that henceforth government “under the Great Continental Congress is invested with all legislative and executive Powers…and that no other Legislative or Executive does or can exist, at this Time, in any of these Colonies.”
Last week the N. C. House of Representatives met in the old House Chambers of our Capitol to remember that event 242 years ago. The Capitol was the seat of state government, housing both chambers of our legislature, the governor and other state officials from 1840 (following the fire of the previous Capitol) to 1963, when the Assembly moved to new quarters on Jones Street.
Current House members were once again reminded what it must have been like to conduct “the people’s business” in these poorly lit, ill-equipped quarters that had fireplaces for heat and windows for air conditioning. There were no microphones or electronic display boards revealing votes, few offices for leaders or rooms for committee meetings. Cramped seating forced more collegiality and communication. Of necessity, fewer closed-door meetings, greater public access and shorter sessions resulted from this uncomfortable environment.
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My father was first elected to the N.C. House in 1967, and I remember that lawmakers were still getting adjusted to the more spacious facility in which all the House and Senate were quartered. Each representative had a tiny office; newer members were often housed in the basement. Unless you were an important committee chair, two or more legislators shared secretarial services and the legislative staff was a mere shadow of that found today. For many years lawmakers took rooms at the old Sir Walter Hotel and when it closed many moved out Hillsborough Street to the new Hilton. Frequent legislative receptions found members from both chambers and political parties socializing with each other, developing friendships and working together on legislation. Legislative sessions were held in odd-numbered years, there were fewer bills introduced or passed and only when state budgets grew larger and issues more complex did lawmakers institute the so-called “short session” to revise the budget, but this even-year review generally required only three or four weeks.
North Carolina still followed the colonial era tradition of electing citizen-legislators who served a term or two, then returned home to assume the role former President Harry Truman described as more important, that of being a U.S. citizen.
Our state flag memorializes the date of the Mecklenburg Resolves, and return visits to the old Capitol help remember the way our government operated for more than 100 years. Things have changed dramatically over the years but we all benefit from reminders of our past. Often, knowing where you came from helps to bring perspective to where you are and where you might be headed.
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.