The Pope and the Treaty Power: A Strange Incident in the North Carolina Ratification Debate

Robert W. Smith

The North Carolina ratification debate was known for its unusual moments. This extended to the discussion of foreign affairs. My article, “The New Jersey of the South or Virginia’s Partner: Foreign Affairs and the Ratification of the Constitution in North Carolina,” explores how the treaty power and the commercial power impacted North Carolina’s foreign policy interests. On July 30, 1788, foreign policy turned up in an odd place. The Hillsborough Convention—the first of two ratification conventions in North Carolina—reached the last clause of Article VI, which prohibited religious tests for federal office. Henry Abbott, a representative from Camden County, began the day. Abbott connected the test clause to the treaty power and the supreme law of the land clause. He observed that James Iredell had covered the last two, but some feared “they might make a treaty engaging with foreign powers to adopt the Roman catholic religion in the United States, which would prevent the people from worshipping God according to their own consciences.” William R. Davie had addressed Abbott’s concerns, but “others may be dissatisfied.” Abbott then turned to religious tests. He offered that although he opposed any religious establishment, others would find the ban on religious tests “dangerous and impolitic.” Without them, “Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the Senate and Representatives might all be Pagans.” Abbott wondered to whom they would swear the oath of office. Abbott would oppose the Constitution if those fears were justified, and asked someone to step forward to allay them. Louise Irby Trenholme described Abbott as the only member “not whole-heartedly of one party or the other,” although he did vote for the Constitution at both conventions.[1]

James Iredell, head-and-shoulders portrait, right profile

It fell to James Iredell (pictured here) to explain to the Hillsborough convention why it was highly unlikely that the Pope would be elected president. Engraving of James Iredell by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, c. 1798. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress,

Religion occupies a small space within North Carolina’s ratification debate and its historiography. The Hillsborough Convention discussed it only on July 30. In the most thorough study of ratification in North Carolina, Trenholme noted that the Anglican establishment, already weak, collapsed after the American Revolution. Presbyterianism was strong at Cape Fear, New Bern, Hillsborough, the Piedmont, and Tennessee. Baptists were active in Edgecombe, Halifax, Bertie, and Camden Counties, all near the Virginia border. German settlers brought Lutheran, German Reformed, and Moravian churches. North Carolina was, as Michael Lienesch put it, “a haven for dissenters,” which put the state in the company of Rhode Island. The Hillsborough Convention also had several prominent clergymen in attendance. This was common in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but unusual for the South. Trenholme ranked religion as a clearer dividing line than ethnicity. The Episcopalians were mostly (but not universally) Federalist, while the Presbyterians and Baptists were largely Antifederalist. Abbott himself was Baptist.[2]

James Iredell answered Abbott’s call. The exchange was part of the pattern of debate, where a Federalist would raise an Antifederalist objection so another Federalist could refute it. Like Abbott, Iredell opposed religious tests. Experience in England showed that such tests did not make good statesmen, only liars and hypocrites. Congress had no power over religion and could not establish a church. “The power to make treaties can never be supposed to include a right to establish a foreign religion among ourselves, though it might authorize a toleration of others,” Iredell told the convention. Turning to the election of non-Christians to office, Iredell believed that was preferable to the alternative, a religious establishment and a regime of persecution.[3]

Iredell then began the strangest part of the debate. He read a pamphlet that morning, which argued that under the Constitution the Pope might be elected president. Iredell considered it an absurd objection, but nonetheless answered it. If the unnamed author considered the qualifications for both offices, he would have had no such fear. The president must be a native-born American citizen who had lived in the United States for fourteen years. Iredell professed not to know how the Pope was elected, but presumed that he must first be a cardinal. “A native of America must have very singular good fortune, who after residing fourteen years in his own country, should go to Europe, enter into Romish orders, obtain the promotion of cardinal, afterwards that of Pope, and at length be so much in the confidence of his own country as to be elected President,” Iredell argued. It would even more unlikely that the Pope would give up his office to become president.[4]

Abbott thanked Iredell for settling the question of the treaty power, but then pointed out that Iredell had not addressed the oath of office. Iredell apologized, and then argued that all that was necessary was that whoever took the oath of office believed in some supreme being. “We may, I think, very safely leave religion to itself; and as to the form of oath, I think this may well be trusted to the general government, to be applied on the principles I have mentioned,” he concluded.[5]

The Federalists were united on the religious question, but the Antifederalists were not. Two Antifederalists exemplified this split. David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and delegate from Guilford County, preferred a religious test for office. The lack of one “was an invitation for Jews and Pagans of every kind, to come among us.” Samuel Spencer of Anson County “was an advocate for securing every inalienable right, and that of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience in particular.” He was an enemy of establishments and tests as “the foundation of persecutions in all countries.” It was the one part of the Constitution Spencer liked. He wished “every other part was as good and proper.”[6]

The brief discussion of religion illuminates two aspects of the ratification debate. Within North Carolina, it further demonstrates the difficulty of measuring its reticent Antifederalism. Abbott was likely reacting to a real if anonymous concern. Iredell’s speech seems like an attempt to discredit the Antifederalists by bringing up an outlandish argument. If nothing else, the debate revealed a divide in the Antifederalist ranks. More generally, the incident shows that concerns over the treaty power were not confined diplomatic goals. In Pennsylvania, Antifederalists showed a similar concern that the treaty power could override the state Constitution. The fear of what might be done under the treaty power became a permanent feature of American politics, to the Jay Treaty and beyond.[7]


[1] Louise Irby Trenholme, The Ratification of the Federal Constitution in North Carolina (New York, 1932), 178; Hillsborough Convention, July 30, 1788, in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, ed. Merrill Jensen, John P. Kaminski, et al. (37 vols.; Madison, WI, 1976–), 30: 403–404.

[2] Trenholme, Ratification, 20–23, 155–56, 178; Michael Lienesch, “North Carolina: Preserving Rights,” in Ratifying the Constitution, ed. Michael Allen Gillespie and Michael Lienesch (Lawrence, KS, 1989), 348.

[3] Hillsborough Convention, July 30, 1788, DHRC, 30: 405; Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788, (New York, 2010), 412-16; Trenholme, Ratification, 166; Thomas L. Howard III, “The State that Said No: The Fight for Ratification of the Federal Constitution in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review 94 (Jan. 2017), 32–35.

[4] Hillsborough Convention, July 30, 1788, DHRC, 30: 406–407; Trenholme, Ratification, 178–80.

[5] Hillsborough Convention, July 30, 1788, DHRC, 30: 407–409.

[6] Hillsborough Convention, July 30, 1788, DHRC, 30: 410.

[7] Pennsylvania Convention, Dec. 8, 1787, DHRC, 2: 526–27.

7 May 2024

About the Author

Robert W. Smith is a professor of history at Worcester State University. He is the author of Keeping the Republic: Ideology and Early American Diplomacy and Amid a Warring World: American Foreign Relations, 1775-1815, as well as numerous articles dealing with the ratification of the Constitution.

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