How my ancestor helped create the Constitution

Today is Constitution Day!  

My ancestor did not help draft the Constitution, nor did he vote on it -- but his misfortune in 1786 helped create a consensus that America needed a stronger national government.

On September 17, 1787, the fledgling United States adopted a constitution protecting the individual liberties of its citizens, and defining the roles, rights, and responsibilities of the states and the federal government.  After the Revolution, the country had been governed by the Articles of Confederation, which left the central government relatively powerless compared to the states.  Within a few years it became clear that the Articles did not provide enough protection for American citizens -- economically and militarily.  

This is where I come in.  

One day several years ago, when my youngest was still in Middle School, I sat down to help her with her history homework.  I opened the textbook to the chapter she was working on, and was floored by what I saw:


Call to Freedom by Sterling Stuckey & Linda Salvucci, published by Holt, Rinehart & Wilson, 2003

You see, Thomas Amis is my 5th great-grandfather.  I have studied his life in the course of my family history research, but never imagined that his experience would be used as an example of the "straw that broke the camel's back," leading to the creation of the U.S. Constitution.  

 A member of the North Carolina legislature in 1776 that unanimously ratified the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Amis was also an entrepreneur -- perfectly suited to frontier living.  During the Revolution, he was Commissary to the 3rd Regiment of the North Carolina Continental Line.  He sourced the food and supplies for a large segment of the army during the Revolution, and presumably made a nice margin on every sale.  

In 1786, the mood among western settlers was unsettled.  Spain's threat to cut off Americans' access to trade directly impacted their livelihood.  The confiscation of Amis' goods was just the latest in a long series of actions by the Spanish hindering trade.  Those who lived on the western frontier were a tough, self-sufficient breed.  When they faced a problem, they didn't wait for government to solve it, but picked up their rifles and took action.  Even if Congress had resolved to address this situation, however, it was powerless to act under the Articles of Confederation. 

Tempers were on a hair trigger as Amis returned home and news spread of his treatment by the Spanish commandant at Natchez.  Matters could have gone either way, as was evident from a letter written by William Blount and Benjamin Hawkins, Congressmen from North Carolina, to an unnamed member of the North Carolina legislature:



In a postscript, Blount and Hawkins warn of the dangers should the public anger get out of hand:


In the end, Thomas Amis never recovered his lost cargo, and he bequeathed his claim on the goods to his son, John, who accompanied him on the ill-fated trading expedition.


Hawkins Co TN Wills, Liber 1, p. 1.  Will of Thomas Amis, 16 Nov 1797, www.familysearch.org

Sometime around 1787, Thomas Amis moved west with his family to Hawkins County, in what eventually became Tennessee.  There he set up a trading post, grist mill, and supply center on the main road heading west.  His home is still meticulously preserved by another descendant -- one of these days I hope to visit!

One last insight to Amis' character -- I think he had a quick wit and a certain sense of irony.  In 1788, he returned to the North Carolina legislature representing Hawkins County, where he supported the efforts of settlers to create the new state of Franklin on the western frontier.  Samuel Cole Williams' History of the Lost State of Franklingives an entertaining account of one debate between Amis and John Tipton, who was a vehement opponent of the proposed new state.  Heated words were exchanged on the floor of the senate, which nearly led to a fist fight.  

Amis was reproached by his colleague, James Roddy, for provoking an angry response from Tipton and was urged to "soothe his feelings" in the future.  They agreed that Roddy, a more temperate character, would resume the debate with Tipton the following day.  The next day, Roddy took the floor, but hardly began speaking when Tipton, enraged, sprang from his seat and seized Roddy by the throat.  Amis then called out from the sidelines: "Soothe him, Colonel, Soothe him!"

*Heritage Books, facsimile of the 1933 edition, pp 246-247