Governors’ Records: A historical overview

My name is Mark Valsame, and I am the Governors’ Records Archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina.  I have worked for the State Archives for 22 years, and have managed the Governors’ records for 10 of those years.  In my current position, I preserve, arrange, and describe the records of the Office of the Governor.  The State Archives has a very long history as the repository of the Governor’s papers, and its holdings span from the colonial era to the present Governor’s administration.  The record group exists in a wide variety of formats, such as original correspondence, letterbooks, photographs, sound recordings, video, and electronic media.

A brief historical overview may be helpful to our readers.  The Office of the Governor is as old as Carolina itself. In fact, it is the oldest governmental office in North Carolina. From the very beginning of the colony, there have been proprietary, royal, and state governors, although the method of their selection, duties, responsibilities, and powers of office have varied over time.  During the period of proprietary government (1663-1729), the colonies of North Carolina and South Carolina were for a time (1691-1712) united into one government. Until 1729, governors were appointed by the Lords Proprietors.  The commission and instructions were issued to each governor upon his appointment by the Lords Proprietors. From 1730 to 1776, the British Crown appointed the governor. The governor was commander-in-chief of the colony’s land and sea forces, and could declare war and proclaim peace within the colony.  He also regulated relations with Indians, erected courts, granted reprieves to convicted criminals, appointed public offices, granted land, issued writs for assembly elections, summoned and dissolved the assembly, disbursed money raised by acts of  the assembly, directed the collection of quit-rents and other revenues, proposed legislation, and sent reports to London of  colony activity.

The first State Constitution of 1776 provided that the governor be elected by the two houses of the General Assembly to serve a one  year term.  He could serve no more than a maximum of three terms in six successive years. Although the governor was captain-general of the militia, he could only mobilize it with the advice of the Council of State.  The same restrictions applied to powers of appointment, the right to reject legislation, and matters of trade and commodities. The governor was also subject to dismissal through impeachment proceedings by the Assembly, as well as by county grand juries. The governor did have some powers, however.  He had power to grant pardons, be the keeper of the Great Seal affixed to grants and commissions, and was assured of an “adequate” salary.

The Governors’ records have been recognized as public papers for more than 200 years.  Legislation was enacted in 1782 identifying the letters and papers written and received by the governor in the course of public business as public records rather than private papers.  This first act to regulate the official papers of the governor decreed that a private secretary be appointed:

“whose duty it shall be to enter into books for that purpose, fair copies of all official letters written by the governor which are of considerable importance, also to enter up all official letters which may be received from the delegates for this state in congress, the president of congress, with such acts and resolutions as may be transmitted, letters from General Washington, the commanding officer of any separate department, and such other public papers as his excellency the governor may judge necessary, which book or books shall be laid before the General Assembly  at their next session, and by the clerk be carefully preserved in their office.” [Public Laws of North Carolina (1782), Chapter XIII, Section III]

The Constitutional Convention of 1835 provided for the direct election of governors by the voters, the extension of his term of office from one to two years with a maximum of four years in any six year period, and removed the provision allowing grand juries to initiate proceedings to remove the governor from office.  In 1868, a new Constitution was adopted by the state of North Carolina which further strengthened the powers of the governor.  The term of his office was increased to four years, although an incumbent was ineligible to hold office for more than four years within a span of eight years. The residency requirement was lowered to two years, although a new provision mandated US citizenship for the office.  The governor was also required to henceforth take an oath to both the State and the United States.  Property requirements for the office were abolished.  The Constitution of 1868 also established the new office of lieutenant governor.  The duties of the Executive Office established by the 1868 Constitution remained largely intact until a new state constitution was ratified in 1971.  In 1977, a constitutional amendment allowed the governor to be elected for two consecutive terms.  Chapter 147, Article 3 of the North Carolina General Statutes defines the requirements, powers, and duties of the Governor as set forth by constitutional and statutory provisions.  Since January 1, 1997, the governor has had the authority to veto ordinary statewide legislation enacted by the General Assembly.

My next posting will be an overview of the various series of Governors’ records available at the State Archives of North Carolina.


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