Thursday, June 12, 2014 —
RALEIGH — The N.C. House of Representatives recently left its more spacious and modern digs at the Legislative Building to meet in the old House chambers of the State Capitol.
The occasion marked the 220th anniversary of the General Assembly’s first session in Raleigh. Prior to 1794, the state’s early government met in different cities around North Carolina until selecting a site in Wake County as the permanent seat of state government.
Raleigh was chosen not just because of its relatively central location in the state, but for another, more telling, reason. The state convention of 1788 voted that the new state capital be located within 10 miles of Isaac Hunter’s tavern and plantation in Wake County. Even in the 18th century, lawmakers knew the value of a good drink.
Interestingly, Raleigh itself did not exist when the site was chosen to serve as the new home of North Carolina’s government. Once an appropriate location was picked close enough to Isaac Hunter’s tavern, the city of Raleigh was born to meet that need.
Over the next several years, the city began to spring up. In 1792, the General Assembly decided to name its new capital city after Sir Walter Raleigh, the 16th-century English adventurer who helped organize the ill-fated Roanoke colony located along what is today North Carolina’s coast.
In 1794, the General Assembly would meet for the first time in its new State House. And in early 1795, the General Assembly officially granted Raleigh a charter.
The original State House building was consumed by fire in 1831 and the current Capitol Building took its place, finishing construction in 1840. The General Assembly had its legislative sessions on that site until 1963, when it moved a block north to the new Legislative Building.
Meeting in their old chambers to honor the anniversary of state government coming to Wake County, many lawmakers commented on the significance — and cramped quarters — of the historic building.
While some brief legislative business was conducted, it was primarily a ceremonial day for the House. However, this wasn’t the first time the General Assembly has reconvened in its old chambers. In 2011, the N.C. Senate met in the State Capitol to posthumously pardon Reconstruction-era governor William Holden, the state’s only governor ever to be impeached.
When it’s not reliving its glory days of hosting the General Assembly, today the State Capitol houses the governor’s office and is open to the public for tours. There’s a great deal of important history in the capitol building and the capital city, history that is much better experienced in person rather than simply on the page.
Both the State Capitol and the Legislative Building are free and open to the public, along with nearby museums as well. You might not be there to witness history, but if you go when the General Assembly is in session you can see your elected officials in action.
North Carolina and Raleigh have come a long way from 1794 when the General Assembly first convened in the capital city. The small, sleepy town built from scratch is now one of the nation’s fastest growing areas.
And what was once primarily an agricultural state is now home to the most advanced industries and the 10th highest population in the country.
Lawmakers probably couldn’t envision that success in 1788 when they chose the location for a new capital city. After all, they just wanted to make sure they could get a good drink.
Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education and a contributor to TheVoterUpdate.com. He can be contacted at laurenz@ ncvotered.com.