By the time North Carolina claimed its independence in 1776, the institutions of state government were already firmly established.  Recognizably English in origin, though radically altered in spirit by its break from the "Mother Country," the government in many ways still resembled the hierarchical network of local and state authorities that had existed since the earliest days of the colony. The offices of Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Treasurer all have roots in pre-colonial North Carolina, as do the General Assembly, the court system, and local offices such as county clerk and sheriff.

While major policies and mandates such as voter registration requirements and water regulations are set by the state government, their implementation is often the responsibility of individual county governments.  Once again a legacy of the state's European heritage, counties have always provided manageable jurisdictional boundaries for such matters as census taking, judicial and voting districts, highway maintenance, sanitation, law enforcement, and tax management.  Counties and municipalities have also been focal points for consolidation and expression of the public will, as for instance the Mecklenburg and Halifax Resolves, and the Edenton Tea Party.  Of course, the symbiotic relationship between county and state has often meant that state leaders could manipulate borders or install sympathetic appointees in state controlled positions who could then enforce--or fail to enforce--laws and regulations that ensured the continuance of the party in power. 

The mandate for governmental authority is found in the state constitution. The Constitution of 1776, placed most of the power in the General Assembly, leaving the Governor's office with scant authority and the court system only minimally defined.  The Assembly retained broad authority in such unexpected matters as fixing town borders; granting municipal charters;  the incorporation of businesses and other institutions; and approval for name changes and the granting of divorces, both of which were transferred to the Superior Court system in the early 19th century.  As the General Assembly often met for only a few weeks each year, the other two branches provided needed stability, and were instrumental in shaping both state and national affairs. An example of their influence is the NC Supreme Court's Bayard v. Singleton ruling in 1787 (1 N.C.(Mart.) 5) that provided an early model for judicial review, later enshrined in the US Supreme Court's ruling in Marbury v. Madison.

After the Civil War,  the state was under military authority until readmittance to the Union in 1868, at which time a new Constitution was enacted. This new Constitution more precisely laid out the mechanisms of governance at both the state and local/county level, added additional responsibilities and offices to the Executive branch, and refined the judicial process.  Much amended over the intervening 100 years, it served as the foundation for the 1971 Constitution, and many of the structures put in place in 1868 remain.

The relatively sedate Constitutional history of the state fails, of course, to hint at the occasional upheavals that beset any government.  In 1870 Governor William Holden was impeached and removed from office by political opponents. Two state Supreme Court Justices (Furches and Douglas) were likewise impeached, though not successfully, at the beginning of the 20th century.  The gradual tightening of racial restrictions in the post-Civil War years led at least indirectly to a violent coup d’état in Wilmington in 1898, in which the elected government was forced out and replaced by white supremacists.

Naturally, as needs have changed and expanded, so too has the government, and with the Executive Organization Act of 1971, the state consolidated nearly 200 separate state agencies into 18 departments in the Executive Branch. Since that time, agencies have continued to change and some new agencies have been created and others consolidated. In 2012, for instance, three departments (Corrections, Crime Control and Public Safety, and Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) were combined to become the Department of Public Safety.

back to top General Resources

  • Colonial and State Records
    The series includes documents and materials from throughout the country and from several European repositories covering the earliest days of North Carolina's settlement by Europeans through the ratification of the United States Constitution.
  • History of State Government of North Carolina
    This article from the GHL's NCpedia, explains the structure of state government, including the Executive Branch, Council of State, Judicial Branch and Legislative Branch.
  • North Carolina State Government Web Site Archives
    This joint project of the State Library and State Archives of North Carolina allows users to view North Carolina state agency web sites from past dates. The web site archive contains various state government web sites from 1996 forward allowing free and open access to this information long after the sites have changed on the live web. Viewing these historical state agency web sites and the associated content in context provides a glimpse into the organization and focus of state government over the past few administrations.
  • NC MOSAIC Government History
    Provides access to collections of government-related information held by local, county, and state agencies, and public and private academic institutions throughout North Carolina. The records found in NC MOSAIC describe and link to online resources including county histories and histories of various state and county entities, such as state agencies, sheriff’s departments, prison systems, and fire departments.
  • North Carolina State Government Publications Collection
    A digital collection of current and historical North Carolina state publications. Includes informational brochures and pamphlets, reports (annual, biennial, technical, statistical, etc.), serial publications (newsletters, checklists, magazines, etc.), handbooks, studies and a variety of other information resources produced by the government. The focus of the collection is on current state government publications, but will also feature North Carolina publications of enduring value that have been scanned from their original print format.
  • North Carolina's State Symbols
    Information about and images of the official symbols of North Carolina.

The North Carolina Manual, produced by the NC Dept. of the Secretary of State - is a "one-stop" resource work, in print and online, that provides everything you need to know about state government in North Carolina explaining its evolution, development, operations and organization.

back to top North Carolina's Constitutions

  • 1776 State Constitution
    Drafted by the Fifth Provincial Congress in December 1776, the Constitution of 1776 and its separate but accompanying Declaration of Rights sketched the main outlines of the new state government and secured the rights of the citizen from governmental interference.
  • 1868 State Constitution
    North Carolina's 1868 State Constitution still serves as the basis of North Carolina's state government. The constitution has been amended many times over the last 136 years, most notably in 1970-71 when a revision of the constitution reduced the number of state agencies from roughly 200 to 25.The link will take you to a copy of the original, hand-written 1868 North Carolina Constitution, complete with the signatures of the men who drafted the document.
  • 1971 State Constitution
    Click here to see if this version on the constitution is available at a library near you.
  • Current State Constitution
    The most recent version of our state constitution with all of the amendments added since 1971.
  • History of the Constitution
    Article on the history of North Carolina's constitution.

back to topExecutive Branch History

  • North Carolina Governors
    From North Carolina's start as part of the Virginia Colony to the present, a list of all of our leaders and the dates of their terms.

back to topJudicial Branch History

back to topLegislative Branch History

back to topCounty Government History

back to top Municipal Government History

  • Cities and Towns
    This site from the NC League of Municipalities describes North Carolina city and town governments in terms of how they work, what they do, and historical facts.
  • Early History Timeline of Raleigh, North Carolina
    1913: Corner Fayetteville and Martin Streets Produced by the Government and Heritage Library via NCpedia.
  • History of Municipal Clerks
    The NC Association of Municipal Clerks presents the history of the oldest of public servants in local government, municipal clerks.

back to topPeople in Government

  • Founding Fathers of North Carolina
    Biographical sketches of the North Carolina delegates to the United States Constitution.
  • Government & Heritage Library Resources The Government & Heritage Library has resources in the library catalog about W. W. Holden.
  • Memoirs of W. W. Holden
    In his memoirs, William Woods Holden described his experiences as governor, focusing particularly on the KKK uprising, his decision to use military force, and his impeachment.
  • Oliver Maxwell Gardner
    O. Max Gardner (1882-1947) took office only months before the stock market crash of 1929. The Depression that followed presented Governor Gardner with many unforeseen challenges.
  • Richmond M. Pearson Papers Inventory
    Papers of this North Carolina lawyer are in the Manuscripts Department at the Library of UNC-CH. He was a lawyer, legislator, Superior and Supreme Court judge, chief justice of North Carolina, 1858-1878, a noted teacher of law, a unionist Whig, and, after the Civil War, a Republican. This collection includes correspondence with and about his wives, siblings, children, and son-in-law Daniel Gould Fowle, later governor. There are also scattered papers relating to personal finances, property, and estate settlements.
  • Zebulon Baird Vance
  • Zebulon Vance
    Zebulon Baird Vance was the most popular political leader the state has produced. He was born in Buncombe County in the North Carolina mountains. He served three terms as governor; two of those terms were during the Civil War from 1862-1865, a third term from 1877-1879. He also served as a U.S. Senator from 1878-1894.

back to topCurrent Resources
Senate Chamber

  • General Assembly of North Carolina
    The official web site of the North Carolina General Assembly. Use this web site as a tool to track bills, find and communicate with your State House and Senate representatives, and follow meetings and issues before the General Assembly.
  • NCGov: the Official Web Site of the State of North Carolina
    Find information on state agencies, programs and services, e-Gov resources and more.
    Provides access to collections of government-related information held by local, county, and state agencies, and public and private academic institutions throughout North Carolina. The records found in NC MOSAIC do not contain government information themselves. Instead, they describe and link to online resources found all over the state, such as maps, publications, land deeds, birth and death records, photographs, and other historical documents.
  • NC State Publications Collection
    Searchable, full text, current and historical North Carolina state publications. Includes informational brochures and pamphlets, reports (annual, biennial, technical, statistical, etc.), serial publications (newsletters, checklists, magazines, etc.), handbooks, studies and a variety of other information resources produced by the government. This collection is updated on a weekly basis.
  • North Carolina Court System
    The official site for the N.C. Judicial Branch of Government has information to help citizens gain a better understanding of the different courts and programs that help people get on the right track.

back to topResources for Kids

  • Did you know? North Carolina
    Facts from the NC Museum of History. Discover the history, geography, and government of North Carolina.
  • NCpedia
    Created by the Government and Heritage Library, the NCpedia gives an overview of the people, the government, the history, and the resources of North Carolina.
  • Introduction to the North Carolina General Assembly
    A fun booklet on the legislative process.
  • LEARN NC - provides resources for teachers and students, K-12
    • Comparing governments - Local, State, and National
      This lesson comparing governments will focus on looking at the similarities and differences between local, state, and federal governments in North Carolina and the United States.
      A lesson plan for grade 5 English Language Development and Social Studies.
    • County government in North Carolina
      Students will become familiar with aspects of county government in North Carolina. A lesson plan for grade 4 Social Studies students.
    • Home Court Advantage: A Kid's Window into the North Carolina Court System
      Learn about who's who in the courts and what the courts do by comparing the process and the players to a basketball game. Kids will learn about the "scorekeepers," the "coaches," and the "referees."
    • North Carolina Digital History
      Revolutionary North Carolina, LEARN NC’s “digital textbook” for North Carolina history provides a new model for teaching and learning.
  • North Carolina State Facts: Did You Know?
    Produced by the North Carolina Secretary of State's Office. Find fun facts about North Carolina's history.

back to topImage Credits

Header: "North Carolina State Legislative Buildling." Derived from an image by Jayron32 of English Wikipedia.

Executive Mansion: North Carolina Historic Sites: State Capitol. Department of Cultural Resources.

Corner Fayetteville and Martin Streets, 1913: From Crossroads to Capital: the Early History of Raleigh, North Carolina. State Library of North Carolina.

Senate Chamber: NC General Assembly, State of North Carolina.

Zebulon Baird Vance: Office of the Governor, State of North Carolina.