Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Bill Of Rights - Edenton Exhibit
Focuses On Freedom Of Speech

Originally posted April 21st, 2007

Edenton was a great choice for one of the stops on the "Bill of Rights Tour" for the state of North Carolina. The 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the finest Georgian courthouse in the South, is one of the most important public buildings in colonial America. As the oldest government building in North Carolina, it is a National Historic Landmark.





This historic building provides a great backdrop for the importance of the issues affecting freedom that arose during the colonial period and created our "Bill of Rights". This period influences the freedoms we enjoy today as a result of the discussions of the leaders of that time. The process by which those freedoms are being attacked and eroded today echoes the way personal freedom was attacked during the colonial period in America. Studying this period is a great way to learn about freedom and how hard it is to keep.





This Courthouse, with its magnificent "green" and view of the upper reaches of the Albemarle Sound, has long been a place where history is made. The recent U.S. Supreme Court Rulings in Kelo and McCain-Feingold, are proof that freedom remains under attack today even as our freedoms were under attack when this courthouse was built. Only diligence by citizens who value freedom will make the rights enumerated in the "Bill of Rights" document displayed on this tour mean anything for future generations. We are in a critical period of history right now. This exhibit is an important part of that history . . . a history still being made.





The color guard from the local "John A. Holmes High School" in Chowan County, with their colonial era uniforms, added a very dramatic touch to the entrance of the courthouse on this day.




Many parents who value the freedoms we enjoy made sure their children got an opportunity to see this exhibit on our "Bill of Rights" so they could discuss its importance and its relevance to their lives. One of these parents was Rene' Winslow from Gates County who brought her children Elise, Trey and Elena.





Another of the early groups on Friday morning was Kay Barker's high school class, also from Gates County.

It is sometimes disappointing how few people are aware of the American Patriot for whom Gates County is named. Their is a famous picture of General Horatio Gates accepting the surrender of British forces at Saratoga during our Revolutionary war (You can see the painting representing that occasion in the courthouse in Gatesville). This was an important early victory in the American Revolutionary war that kept the war going long enough to assure our ultimate victory. General Gates was a former British Army Officer who chose the freedom of the new world over the ease of the old world. His struggles and choices remind us how tough choosing freedom over tradition can be.




Deputy Sheriff White, ROTC members Riddick and Nixon, and Deputy Sheriff Fuller, provided security just inside the entrance to the courthouse for this day. There was a great deal of security around. This is a very valuable document and state and local officials were serious about security.





There were several people on hand at the initial registration point to describe the different choices visitors had. People could view many things of interest in the exhibits and around the courthouse. Guides did their best to assure everyone knew the choices.





The most important exhibit was the U.S. Bill of Rights document itself. Above, visitors were able to read several well done panels that described what the document was, how it came to be lost and then recovered, and information about the tour in which Edenton was a part. The exhibit took up most of the second floor of the courthouse building.





The actual Bill of Rights parchment, from March 4, 1789 with its faded ink (most likely a type of ink called "iron gall") was kept as far as possible away from the windows on the front of the courthouse to protect it from further fading. Due to the potential damage of light to the fragile document, flash pictures were forbidden. There were guides beside the display who answered questions about the document. The historical uniforms created a great mood. It was a special exhibit and very well done.




Downstairs in the courtroom of the building, Barbara King gave a history of the 1767 Courthouse, and described many interesting parts of our heritage and its history. Behind the courthouse is the old Edenton jail and some exhibits about the forms of punishment that were common in that day.





"Punishment in the colonial era focused on public humiliation . . . " That quote is the way the plaque beside the "stocks" and "whipping post" behind the 1767 Courthouse starts. However the "stocks" and "whipping post" are part and parcel of the brutal way people dealt with crime (and even trivial offenses that simply annoyed others) in those bygone days. The inability to differentiate between different types of acts is the background to our problems with crime. It can be funny to see a friend or loved one temporarily locked up in these replicas. However the issue is not inherently funny. The issue of how to deal with those who break our laws is crucial to a just society.



The list of crimes on the plaque give us some clue to the complexity of the problem. Mixed in with crimes where one individual harms another, such as theft, forgery, arson and wife-beating are petty offenses such as "breaking the Sabbath", "women having a sharp tongue", "being drunk", vagrancy, gambling, blasphemy and witchcraft. The plaque also lists crimes against the state such as treason, sedition and perjury. All three types of problems are a concern. Mixing them together led to punishment for some trivial offenses being excessive on the part of some public officials. That is one of the reasons early Americans did not trust government.




They thus banned "cruel and unusual" punishments as one part of the eighth amendment in the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately that ban has led to a judicial system whose excessive protections for the guilty have rendered its ability to care about victims almost non-existent, the opposite extreme of the colonial days. Tens of thousands die in our society as a result of system where people who are obviously guilty of horrible crimes being allowed to go free because some official not connected with the crime makes an unintentional trivial mistake that offends some judge.

This problem alone justifies the public attention to this "Tour of the Bill of Rights". Our courts are in trouble. When the intent of the "Bill of Rights" can be twisted by judges so it provides them with power to interfere with the intelligent functioning of a just society, it proves that freedom is not something that just happens due to a piece of paper. The people must understand what is in that piece of paper and demand that our government abide by its meaning. There can be no greater explanation for the importance of this tour than our retaining freedom.





Another event happening in Edenton this day was the Edenton Biennial Pilgrimage of Homes and Countryside. One stop on the "pilgrimage" was the "Barker House". Above a group of ladies playing instruments typical of the colonial period provided chamber music to entertain the "pilgrims" on the tour. There are numerous other Edenton area homes on the tour. The tour proves what an historic region we have.





Towards the end of the day, we returned to the Courthouse for an important part of the Bill of Rights Tour, the special presentations about the freedoms it contains.





JoAnne Williford from the State of North Carolina introduced the speaker for the evening's presentation on the Freedom of Speech. She explained briefly the intent of the tour and the process by which different amendments were to be addressed as a part of the tour. This night's event in Edenton was to focus on this right from among the five rights in the first amendment. The five rights guaranteed in the first amendment are freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances. The one most often under attack is the freedom of speech.





The speaker was Dr. Freddie Parker from North Carolina Central University. Dr. Parker opened up with some history, including the fact that North Carolina was one of the states that was very slow in approving the U.S. Constitution. The first meeting of North Carolina delegates to consider it met in Hillsborough, NC. This meeting resulted in a vote of 184 delegates voting against the Constitution and only 84 votes for it. Part of the reason for opposition was the absence of a "Bill of Rights" for individuals to limit the power of the new government being formed. Until the Bill of Rights was promised, NC did not approve the Constitution.





Early in his speech, Dr. Parker noted that the Supreme Court still struggles with the concept of free speech. Recent rulings have provided almost absolute protection for pornography, including child pornography, while not providing protection for much political speech that is unpopular with government bureaucrats. It is an amazing time when the courts care more about those who prey on our children than it does for the very speech of citizens that the right was intended to protect. The over broad application of sedition laws to punish those who said things the government found threatening was a driving force behind the inclusion of this right in the first amendment, however today sedition is never prosecuted. Our current judges seem to be trying to assure that pornography joins sedition as a crime that is not enforced.




After the speech concluded we walked back to Broad Street to catch some of the "Boogie on Broad" street music festival that ended the day's Edenton festivities. Above some young kids are skating to the music being played.




Jubeus, a Virginia Band, was playing during the time we were there. Several other bands were scheduled to participate in this annual event.



It was a really great day about a great concept, personal freedom. The evening light created a great mood to end the day.