Rioting in Dobbs County, N.C.

Free, frequent, and honest elections are essential in republics. Between 1787 and 1790 almost 1,650 delegates were elected to the state conventions that ratified the Constitution. These elections were more democratic than the regular elections for state assemblymen, senators, and governors in that property qualifications for voting were reduced or eliminated, ownership of property in a county (not only residency) made one eligible to be elected, and a secret ballot was more commonly used rather than the traditional oral voting. Furthermore all state officials—governors, judges, and delegates to Congress—could be elected to the conventions, and religious ministers could be elected even in those five states that prohibited them from serving in the legislature. Most of these elections were held without incident, but a handful were disputed and some were fraught with intimidation or violence.

One of the most violent elections occurred in Dobbs County, North Carolina. After a virulent public debate over the Constitution in which local Baptist ministers preached against the new Constitution, two-days of uneventful voting occurred on Friday and Saturday, March 28–29, 1788, when each voter signed a ticket with the names of five candidates. Slightly more than fifty percent of the eligible voters cast 372 tickets that were placed in a ballot box. When the poll closed at sunset on Saturday, county sheriff Benjamin Caswell started to count the tickets in the courthouse in the town of Kingston. With Antifederalists ahead in the count, Colonel Benjamin Sheppard, one of the Federalist candidates, “yelled out very degrading and abusive language.” No one responded. When the 282nd ballot was counted, the least popular Antifederalist candidate had received 155 votes, while the most popular Federalist candidate had received only 120 votes. At that point “Much confusion arose.” Torches and candles were extinguished, men armed with clubs attacked the shadowy figures in the darkened courthouse, and the ballot box was “violently taken away.” Antifederalist candidates fled for their lives. One was accosted and “much abused” before he reached his horse and galloped away. Even the sheriff was clubbed. As calm was restored, one witness swore that he had heard Benjamin Sheppard say, “Well done Boys Now we’ll have a new Election.”

Contradictory accounts reported that the ballot box was found near the jail with about sixty tickets inside. One account said that the remaining ballots were all cast for the Antifederalist candidates while another account indicated that the uncounted tickets would have given the Federalist candidates the victory. Sheriff Caswell refused to certify the election as no candidate had received a majority of the cast ballots before the riot ended the count.

After receiving petitions calling for another election, Governor Samuel Johnston wrote to Sheriff Caswell on June 28 encouraging him to hold another election, which occurred on July 14–15. Antifederalists boycotted the election saying that it was illegal. Only 85 ballots were cast with the five victorious candidates receiving between 85 and 66 ballots each. On July 16, Sheriff Caswell certified the election of five Federalist delegates. Depositions from witnesses and the sheriff were taken and submitted to the Convention that assembled in Hillsborough on July 21. Two days later, the Convention disallowed the results of both elections and Dobbs County had no representation in the Convention.

On Sunday, April 13, Benjamin Sheppard (thought to have been the ringleader of the election-night riot, was arguing with his neighbor William Barfield over the Constitution. Angered, the short-tempered Sheppard took a whip to Barfield. Defending his master, an apprentice to Barfield grabbed a broad ax and swung it at Sheppard cutting off part of his face and breaking his collar bone. A nephew of Sheppard came to his rescue and took the ax away from the apprentice who thereupon grabbed Barfield’s rifle and shot the nephew in both arms, one of which was amputated. Shepherd’s family retaliated by killing one of the Barfields and “dangerously” wounding another.

The Dobbs County election for the second North Carolina convention on August 21–22, 1789, was peaceful when Federalist candidates, including Benjamin Sheppard, were elected.


Excerpts and essay for further reading:

Source documents & excerpts from RCS:NC

Essay on Violence in the Ratification Debate