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Monday, October 24, 2011

On North Carolina Politics: Then and Now!

Alfred Moore Waddell
Re:  “Cracking the Solid South:
Populism and the Fusionist Interlude”
by Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow

For historian Dr. Jeffrey Crow, there exists a myth that a “solid South” developed from the dark years of Reconstruction.  This myth of a unified South does not seem so reliable in view of North Carolina politics leading up to the twentieth century.  Crow sees a different reality.  He introduces this reality with this definition:  the “solid South came to stand for the Democratic party, white supremacy, and a benign upper-class hegemony over millhands, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, black and white alike.”   Republican rule ended after only a decade to be replaced with a planter-dominated upper class, even once at gunpoint.  In Crow’s belief, if historian Donald Higginbotham’s “reconstruction that took” really took hold in North Carolina, then the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 would not have happened.   Reconstruction in North Carolina, as in the rest of the South, fell beside the peace table during negotiations following the Southern Rebellion and the Herrenvolk, or “master race” remained in power.  If anything, Democratic one-party rule grew more entrenched “promoted by industrialization, and the social order firmly fixed by rigid class and caste definitions.”   Thus goes the myth.

Crow agrees partly that a hierarchy existed.  He places the few elite planters at the head of the hierarchy in North Carolina in this period.  Secondly, he introduces merchants, lawyers, and factory managers as necessary elements for an industrialized economy.  Thirdly, the farmers represent the most numerous group that lay steadfastly upon the freedmen at the bottom of the social scale.  The story that unfolded involved the independent farmer class that, after the decades-long agricultural depression of the late 1800s, began to erode.  They fought to maintain their position in the social scale, for security’s sake (both social and economic) and literally for sustenance.  Also important to them, ex-confederates and their sons, they did not stand for being classed with the Negro.  Still, no matter how low the farmers had become, they felt assured that their skin color would always keep them above the lowly freedmen.  Moreover, the closer the comparison, the more uncomfortable they became.

The Democrats’ armor, however, had a dent in it.  In North Carolina, Republicans, including the newly liberated freedmen, sided with western subsistence farmers or Whigs from before the war.  Therefore, the Republican Party still remained as a political force, if culled by Redeemer or Bourbon Democrats.  Crow disagrees with a “solid South” and argues that North Carolina had “the most competitive two-party system in the South before 1900.”   A new political force evolved in response to the great class distinction, the poor farmers’ plight against the rich Bourbon Democrats.  In the early stages, it functioned within the existing power structure.  The Southern Farmer’s Alliance, a democratic reform movement that included the South and West developed in the 1880s and 1890s from independent farmers seeking relief from high tariffs and low prices on their goods.  The Alliance also opposed corrupt tactics of the business-oriented, ex-slaveholding eastern Bourbons of the reigning Democratic Party. 

The political spectrum encountered another variable, a liberal and reforming one led by an aristocratic leader in touch with the people’s plight, Leonidas L. Polk from Anson County and later a president of the national Alliance.  Polk held all the qualities of the intelligentsia: charisma, wealthy, and educated.  Historian William Link regards Polk as widely popular for his leadership, but “was clearly not from the bottom rung of the social order.”   The Alliance created a statewide cooperative, including tobacco warehouses in an attempt to alleviate elite planters’ control of prices.  The Alliance also helped to reduce tariffs that made foreign necessaries so expensive for the independent farmer.  Crow states that “the furnishing merchant and landlord could be bypassed,” but not without repercussions.   The Alliance had outgrown the Democratic Party which had grown corrupt in their eyes, especially after Redeemer Zebulon Vance’s political betrayal.  In all political arenas, there exist such historical and inevitable patterns.

Thus, a third party formed as a response to Democratic corruption in North Carolina politics.  The Populists or People’s Party mobilized Alliancemen and made an clean break with the planter-industrialist faction of the Democratic Party.  They wanted Polk as their leader, but upon his sudden death, found another in Sampson County-born Marion Butler.  Butler shared intelligentsia qualities with Polk, but elevated Populist pragmatic politics to the state level.  He attempted to side with reform-minded Democrats against the entrenched Bourbons, but found Republicans a more willing partner. 

Daniel Lindsay Russell, Jr., a Whig from the Lower Cape Fear, leaned far to the left on the political spectrum, despite his elitist eastern planter beginnings.  As a Radical Republican, Russell had grown weary of the Democrats’ use of race to hold the entire state hostage.  He also did not like black efforts to gain full control of the Republican Party.  In 1892, Russell predicted that, by combining forces, the Republicans and the Populists could defeat Democratic hegemony.  The next year, Democrats attempted to curtail the Populists’ power even further.  This caused them to seek out Republicans to increase their effectiveness against the Democrats.  Russell attempted to dispense with the race issue and the combined Fusion Party easily threatened the old Democratic Party in the vote.

Crow argues that the Populist and Republican Parties made a matching pair in that they both wanted electoral reforms.  This, they did to defeat Democratic partisan election laws designed to disfranchise blacks and illiterate whites, arguably tactics in today’s Southern politics.  Democrats understood the nature of power and ruled from the veritable throne of the state’s legislature to negate local influence across the state.  Still, the combined power of the Fusionists gained control of that legislature in 1894 and began enacting reforms, including sending Marion Butler to the United States Senate and filling the late Zebulon Vance’s empty seat with Jeter C. Pritchard.  Furthermore, Daniel Russell won the governorship thanks to last-minute Fusion cooperation that combined against Democrats. 

Democrats, facing a perceived “black rule,” with an alienated business community, used blistering propaganda to sway popular opinion and win back control.  The uneasy alliance of Populists and Republicans became an easy target for these powerful Democrats.  When Gov. Russell attacked the J. P. Morgan Southern Railway lease of the state-owned North Carolina Railroad, with their higher rates, he lost Republican support.  Fusion quickly died and Russell alienated his own party just in time for the 1898 election. 

The Democrats saw their chance and went for the Populist jugular.  Although economics sat at the core, Democrats waged this election on race.  Furnifold Simmons, Charles B. Aycock, Josephus Daniels of the Raleigh News and Observer, terrorist groups Red Shirts and Rough Riders, waged virtual war against all of their foes, particularly blacks.  “Armed men broke up fusionist political rallies, disrupted black church meetings, whipped outspoken blacks, and drove black voters from the polls,” as Crow outlines.   Former Confederate officer, Alfred Moore Waddell initiated a coup d’etat two days after the 1898 election in Russell’s hometown of Wilmington.  The Herrenvolk mentality in North Carolina violently forced the political spectrum back to the conservative side.  In Wilmington specifically, it resulted in burned buildings and death.  As Crow details “eleven to thirty blacks were killed” in the takeover of Wilmington’s government.   The numbers probably go higher and he gives no figures for how many suffered exile from the city and county.  Democrats dismantled the Fusionist reforms and ensured that “a coalition of blacks and… low born quondam slaves [poor whites]… would never triumph again.”   The violence of this anti-governmental coup never again saw its equal in the United States.  No author can effectively express it in mere words.

Crow implies that Democrats removed poor whites and blacks from the political equation and assumed the role of reformers to alleviate further disruption of their power.  With virtually all of the dissenting voices silenced, they still understood that the largest majority in the state, the farmers, could effectively offer resistance and did, before 1898.  Thus, they pandered to them as little as possible to sway their numbers to their side of the ballot.  For the most part, however, North Carolina returned to the Democratic status quo for the so-called “Progressive” movement which gave Aycock the semi-sweet moniker of the “education governor.” 

Crow’s article reveals many complicated truths about North Carolina and simplifies a complex issue.  His original point of “cracking” a “solid South” myth appears to have focused upon a short-lived episode in North Carolina’s political history.  Still, the “solid South” did, in fact, remain solid, especially after 1898 in the Tar Heel state.  The same Democrats ruled after Reconstruction as after the government takeover that year and, as Crow admits, into the twentieth century.  No problem existed with the historiography, only with its representation. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rebellious North Carolina

Historian Noeleen McIlvenna regarded the development of North Carolina as an emerging utopian community, yet “very mutinous,” in the “shadows of the British empire” (McIlvenna, 1).   McIlvenna’s reasons center primarily upon geography and its affects upon the human psyche.  Early North Carolinians lived a subsistence-level existence amidst the swamps and shoals, remarkably less aristocratic than their plantationist neighbors of Virginia and the later South Carolina.  McIlvenna posited “a remote, swampy, hurricane-prone region where communication with the outside world meant a struggle through boggy terrain, where every household had to fend for itself… where life did not lend itself to dreams of great prosperity” (McIlvenna, 1).  Other factors associated with North Carolina’s rebellious nature include absentee proprietary rule and the strain posed by conflict with a strange, aboriginal, and alien culture while obtaining little support from their own. 

Another North Carolina historian, Lindsey S. Butler could not agree with McIlvenna more, although he regards his home state’s geography with less ambivalence.  In his essay on the Culpepper Rebellion, Butler sees the outright neglect of Carolina’s owners, the Lords Proprietors as a greater influence on its inhabitants’ rebellious nature.  Early Carolinians “tested” the proprietors’ absentee rule.  The proprietors in England rarely visited America and left the government of their faraway lands to local officials with appointed governors.  These English governors presided over the local Assembly, who often disagreed with, and objected to his authority.  They annoyed their governors, however, no less than they did each other.

Only two proprietors ever lived in America, one as the governor of Virginia who never ventured south of the Dismal Swamp on the Carolina border.  The other, Seth Sothel, became known as the worst governor that Carolina ever had.  The rest remained in England or Europe, relying heavily upon the Assembly and the Fundamental Constitutions to function in their absence.  Arguably not one of John Locke’s best ideas, the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 opaquely provided for liberal characteristics of representative government (the Assembly) and religious freedom.  Its older feudalistic aspects, however, attempted to recreate English ideals of a titled, landed gentry, a class order that could not have worked well in a wilderness environment verging on social liberalities.  Thus, the Constitutions failed before it began and added to the political uncertainties that fueled the rowdy discontent of McIlvenna’s “mutinous people.” 

The development of proprietary and anti-proprietary parties became a pattern for North Carolina particularly that revolved around the nature of power, or the ability to influence others.  John Culpeper came from Charles Town to influence the distressed people of the Albemarle to revolt and dispense with proprietary rule, much like Thomas Cary and John Gibbs not long after.  Drunk sheriffs, prohibitive Virginia tobacco statutes, and the occasional refusal of a governor to return to the colony contributed to rebellion.    This unrest hinted at the cultural divergence building between England, the proprietors, and their colony. 

This divergence later grew to separate eastern and western North Carolina in the War of Regulation, just prior to the American Revolution.  “Arising from the demographic changes, social and economic tensions, and political turmoil” found in the colony, the Regulation arose as an internal civil dispute affecting thousands of North Carolinians (Butler and Watson, 102).  That dispute centered primarily upon excessive government corruption, made painfully obvious to Mecklenburg residents by Governor Tryon’s extravagant palace in New Bern. 

North Carolinians rebelled against authority for many reasons, not least of which included religion.  Religious freedom, a seed planted by Locke’s Fundamental Constitutions, matured behind the virtual wall of isolation provided by the Dismal Swamp and the Outer Banks and their dangerous, shifting shoals.   Since the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony, America had become a refuge for many types of religious dissidents.  Quakerism brought to these shores by George Fox and others established itself early in the Albemarle.  A Quaker became the first known minister to preach in the area in 1672.  Other sects felt welcome as well, such as Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. 
England’s official, or Anglican Church, never found a place in North Carolina.  Nevertheless, the Vestry Acts of 1701 and 1703 attempted to enforce Anglican worship over dissenting religions in the colony.  Anglican ministers sent to North Carolina, often destitute and inebriated once they realized their situation, reflected England’s opinion of the colony.  Furthermore, their many letters to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) told of their opinion as well.  Rev. C. E. Taylor found North Carolinians “very ignorant” and complained that they “busy themselves with the most Mysterious Parts of Scripture” (Butler and Watson, 98).  The earlier Rev. John Urmstone often felt worse of his flock, especially in Pasquotank.  He found “a very factious[,] mutinous[,] and rebellious people… ready to oppose either Church or state” (McIlvenna, 139).  The fundamental and personal efforts to gain immortality through God could not be legislated, as England discovered.  These arbitrary acts fueled even more unrest.  

Perhaps the greatest distress upon a driver of the human condition, having a strong influence upon the security of early North Carolinians, became the presence of the Native American.  Since the arrival of the earliest English, Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonists in 1584, conflicts have occurred with Native Americans.  The English anticipated conflict even before landing on Roanoke, evidenced by Thomas Hariot’s ethnographic/logistic report to Raleigh.  Hariot referred to the Indians’ tendency to “turn up their heeles” and run away (Butler and Watson, 14).  These conflicts built steadily, through cultural misunderstandings and ideological differences until English domination triumphed in the colony with the end of the Tuscarora War.  Today, only two million Native Americans exist out of over three hundred million Americans, or less than one percent.  While historian Herbert Paschal attributes this result to assimilation, his essay on the “Tragedy of the North Carolina Indians” indicates virtual elimination of the comparatively inferior native culture (Butler and Watson, 3). 

Still, fear of the unfamiliar and the physical nearness of the Native American to early North Carolinians resulted in conflicts that created a uniquely American experience.  This further differentiated Americans from the English, as well as North Carolinians from Native Americans.  For North Carolina, the Tuscarora War best represented a turning point in local Indian relations.  Christopher Gale called the Indian attack of Chief Hancock’s Tuscarora faction a “nefarious villainy,” in which he found English settlers “butchered after the most barbarous manner” (Butler and Watson, 17).  These words once described an old enemy of the English most feared in the Elizabethan era – the Spanish.  Conflict with both the Spanish and Algonquians from 1584-1590 had been a learning experience for the English, yet not quite like the Tuscarora War.  The enemy in this case lived next door, not six hundred miles away in La Florida. 

Dissention in British North Carolina had a long history that began with the first Englishman to step onto its soil.  Land disputes with natives, quitrent disputes with governors, religious disputes with the Anglicans, and land tenure problems with the Granville agents created an internal problem unique to the future state.  The War of the Regulation that appeared in 1766 and lasted until 1771 represented a vague reflection of the larger rebellion to come.  It prepared all North Carolinians to meet this challenge. 

Still, the battle between eastern and western North Carolina stemmed from many factors not found in other British colonies, factors that affected the colony since Nathaniel Batts first arrived in 1655.  Geography played a large role.  The lack of economic potential that drew so little attention from the Lords Proprietors further separated the colony from its plantationist neighbors.  Furthermore, events in North Carolina helped to set the tone in America’s relations with the Native American, a relationship which ultimately spelled their doom.  All of these divergent factors created a unique North Carolina identity that joined with twelve others in the War for Independence. 


McIlvenna, Noeleen.  A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Butler Lindley S. and Watson, Alan D., ed.  The North Carolina Experience:  An Interpretive and Documentary History.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.