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A history full of politics

In one of my earlier presentations on the history of our state constitution I used a subtitle that said something like “how politics, race, and money have shaped our constitution.” As one participant walked into the room, he looked up at the screen, sort of smirked and said , “well, what else would it be?” I removed the subtitle after that as apparently it was too obvious for words. I am reminded of this in considering my commentary on a bill introduced to amend the constitution to reshape education governance by eliminating the State Board of Education and the elected State Superintendent and replacing this structure with a Governor-appointed head of a department of public education (Senate Bill 94). I’ll skip my proclamation and just get on with the history that is at least one step in understanding what this is all about.

There is much history. Much to say. This article focuses on the elected superintendent and how the position was created. It is long as I’m including debate excerpts so that you can judge the reasons for creating this office for yourself.

… since 1868, the position of state superintendent of public instruction has been an elected position – one of the state officers in our constitution and part of our “long ballot.”

As background, since 1868, the position of state superintendent of public instruction has been an elected position – one of the state officers in our constitution and part of our “long ballot.” Prior to this, we had a state superintendent of common schools from 1853 to 1865. As a member of the General Assembly, Calvin Wiley eloquently argued for the need for the position and proposed that the General Assembly appoint the superintendent. The General Assembly passed the proposed legislation and voted Wiley into office. Wiley was the only person appointed in this manner and held the position until the end of the civil war when appointed Governor W.W. Holden proclaimed that Wiley had lost his position due to his loyalties to the confederate cause.

On January 14, 1868, delegates convened at the state capitol for the purpose of creating a new constitution that would include provisions required in order to be reinstated to the Union. In addition, the coalition of local and out-of state whites and blacks saw this as an opportunity to create a better system of governance and to put in place as much as possible to move the state out of the dark days and to a brighter future. Reverend Samuel Stanford Ashley, a minister and educator from Rhode Island and Massachusetts was named chair of the education committee and would guide the creation of the article in the constitution on education. The position of state superintendent was much debated. Here is how the debate unfolded.

January 27, 1868

On January 27, a report of the committee on the executive department recommended to all the delegates that the Executive department include the offices of Governor, a Lieutenant-Governor, a Secretary of State, an Auditor, a Treasurer, a Superintendent of Public Works, a Superintendent of Public Instruction, and an Attorney-General, all for two-year terms.

This led to a lengthy debate. In the excerpts below, Mr. Durham reflects the sentiment of the minority delegates who were generally referred to as “Conservatives.” Mr. Rodman and Mr. French were part of the majority coalition who were referred to as “Radicals” or “Republicans.”

Mr. Durham: These are new offices— unknown to the people of North Carolina. These innovations follow others already made. Offices have been established by this Convention, contrary to the customs of the State. Pay is increased without precedent, and I regarded all of these things as successive strides of the great despotism, which I believed that the Republican party, as it is called, intended to establish over this country. The new officers, who will be partizans, are to be paid out of the pockets of the people. Why is it they are now created? Why were they not created by the Convention of 1865 and 1866, when the talent of this State was assembled here? But this Convention comes here, and not even knowing where the money to pay their own per diem is to come from, creates these new offices.

Mr. Rodman: I favor the creation of the offices as reported by the committee, because I deem them necessary. In case the Governor died or was unable to discharge his duties, then the Lieutenant Governor would take his place. There would be no additional cost to the State. The Secretary of State was no new office. The Treasurer was the same, while Auditor was another name for Comptroller. When it was remembered how largely North Carolina was interested in public works, how much money had been wasted and squandered, and in how many hands the direction of them was confided, every man must feel the necessity of an honest, faithful Superintendent. So also the State had for a long time had a Superintendent of Common Schools. This was another name merely for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Now, of all times, is no time to hesitate, but to favor everything looking towards a wise system of education. Any State that neglected education, swerved from the path of greatness and prosperity. And in North Carolina, both classes must be educated, for only education, combined with labor, would elevate her to the proper rank among the other States. 

Mr. French, of Chowan: The gentleman objects to the office of superintendent of education. Well, sir, the education of the children of North Carolina is an “innovation.” The men who formerly occupied these seats didn’t care much for the education of the children of the poor. By the takers of the last census which give us educational facts, I learn that North Carolina of her white populations over twenty-one years of age had 73,566 citizens who could not read and write— and of her entire population, over that age, 368,971, or more than a third of her population. Well, innovation as it is, we are going to wipe out this disgrace, and give every child, black or white, the privilege of a free school. He tells us the “Statesmen” of the State are not here. Alas! the Statesmen of North Carolina are dead— and have left no sons. The patriots of North Carolina in 1775 announced in the famous Mecklenburg resolutions the great doctrines of liberty and equality which are the fundamental doctrines of this Convention, and are to be brought back into the organic law of the State.

January 28, 1868 

The debate continued the following day. Mr. Durham’s amendment to strike out the offices of Lt. Governor, Superintendents of Public Works and of Public Instruction was still pending. The following are excerpts from the debate focused on the state superintendent of public instruction:

Mr. Durham: I would not have arisen to speak to-day, had not the reported remarks of debate yesterday, left the impression that Conservative members were opposed to free schools. Now it is scarcely necessary to say that we favor free schools, as soon as the people are able to bear taxes to support them. But this Convention is called on to create an office, to be filled by a partizan, with a salary of perhaps $2,500 or $3,000. It may be ten years before free schools are established, and if this salary run there would be a useless expense of $2,500 or $3,000. The people are now scarcely able to pay their taxes; and it is now according to the old Constitution in the power of the Legislature at any time to frame a system of common schools. Still this Convention is now required to create a new salaried officer to be paid out of the pockets of the people. It is an innovation.

Mr. Tourgee: I am glad the creation of these offices are opposed on the ground of innovation. There could be no higher ground for Republicans, or truer ground for Conservatives. They said they were not opposed to public instruction, but counted the long time before North Carolina could be able to establish a system of free schools. Now North Carolina needs that at once, and also an able Superintendent of Public Instruction. If not able to have free schools, she is not worthy of a place in the Union. 

Mr. Ashley: the State would be obliged to have a system of Public Schools in it at some time. I thank the gentlemen for the avowal that they are in favor of it. But a Superintendent of Public Instruction should be appointed prior to the formation of the system in any contingency. The State must be canvassed, and statistical information gathered. This duty should be placed in responsible hands. Resources must be created. The people are now heavily taxed, and need relief. No man would do more for them than I would.

Mr. Welker: I can not see how any intelligent North Carolinian could object to the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. A Superintendent must be had to carry out any well devised system of public instruction, and the objection made that it would be ten or fifteen years before a system of public schools would be established, was clearly insufficient. Besides it is charged that the office would be filled by a partizan. Now it was the duty of every one to stand in this matter not as a partizan, but as a citizen in favor of education. Upon education depends future success, and if in the next ten or twelve years the children of the people were permitted to grow in ignorance, they would be better qualified from crime than the duties of an American citizen. It would cost the State far more in jails and Courts, than it would to educate them. All that I desire for the present is to have a school in every nook and valley of the State, where the children could at least go to school four or five months of the year. Then the ancient glory of North Carolina, of which so much is heard, would not pass away.

Mr. Harris, of Wake: [Opposition] comes either from too much love of the olden time or too much hatred of the new condition of affairs. The party which now opposes has formerly expended money with a liberal hand for educational purposes.—Large sums of money has been bestowed by former Legislatures, and when the late war began, North Carolina had two millions of dollars in specie for a Literary fund. It was needless to say what went with it, for all know that too well. Besides the State then paid out $500,000 annually for the same purposes.…The very party they represent appropriated $14,000 to keep up Chapel Hill, through the last Legislature, in order to educate the sons of the aristocracy. But when this Convention magnanimously proposes to educate the poor children, the cry of party is raised. Thousands have been spent on the sons of aristocracy,— specie in millions have been squandered, how then can gentlemen oppose this request of the people? Besides, there is a history of the Swamp land, which I might relate, but enough had been said. Only this in conclusion, more has been spent in one year to educate the sons of the gentry, than this Convention proposes to spend on the children of the people for the next ten years.

February 6, 1868

On February 6, the debate focused on the length of the terms, with the proposal to increase the term from two to four years. Without needing a subtitle heading of politics, it is pretty clear what the coalition has in mind. In arguing for four years, Delegate Jones remarks:

I respect long continued customs as much as any one, but a change that is an advantage should be made. I do not believe that frequent elections always promote the stability of republican government, because of the fierceness of party wrath. At least the Superintendent of Public Instruction should hold over four years, that he might be able to accomplish something substantial. Experience has taught us that officers for a short term begin to electioneer for re-election, and thus neglect their duties. The public interest is neglected. Besides, the Republican party needs such a term of years to establish itself firmly. It is not too long for the great work of organizing new ideas and to give the people time to consider and to approve. A party is being organized inimical to this great party, and it behooves the members of it to decide wisely, for the future perhaps depends upon their action today.

After this speech, delegates choose to extend the term of all state elected officers to four years on a vote of 62 to 37.

February 7

On February 7, Mr. Durham moved to strike the terms from four years to two. The amendment lost.

March 6

On March 6, Reverend Ashley shared the committee report on education.

Sections 8 and 9 were read

SEC. 8. The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Auditor, Superintendent of Public Works, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Attorney General shall constitute a State Board of Education.

SEC. 9. The Governor shall be President, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction shall be Secretary of the Board of Education.

Delegates adopted these sections. After all sections were read and debated, a vote was then taken on the whole education article: yeas – 88, nays – 12.

March 16

On March 16, delegates agreed that the vote on the constitution and the election of officers called for in the constitution would be held over three days, April 21, 22, and 23, 1868. Delegates also considered a resolution to adopt the entire Constitution framed by the Convention. And it was.

On this first ballot was Reverend Ashley for the state office of superintendent of public instruction.   Ashley had remarked during the convention that “No man would do more for them than I would.” Ashley got his chance to prove this. In the same election that voted in the new constitution, Reverend Ashley became the first elected state superintendent of public instruction. 

This is the beginning of the elected position of state superintendent. There is more to say about how the position evolved. There is more to say about the State Board of Education. There is more to reveal on politics, race, and money. That will be for another Thursday Transcript.

Ann McColl

Ann McColl is an attorney practicing in the field of education law since 1991. She currently serves as co-founder and president of the Innovation Project.