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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of North Carolina

The Lewis Publishing Company
Chicago and New York, 1919
Volume II by
William K. Boyd

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 17
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter 16
Party Politics, 1852‑1860

Partisan Dissensions — Advalorem Slave Taxation — The Campaign of 1860

In the course of party politics after the exciting congressional campaign of 1851, there were three well-defined tendencies; a rapid consolidation of democratic strength, the whig organization collapsing after 1854, an inclination to emphasize other questions than those arising from slavery expansion, and a test of strength between the forces of sectionalism and nationalism. No one of these three tendencies was continually prominent and political interest shifted from one to another of them from year to year.

The point of departure is the state and national campaign of 1852. The whigs were at a disadvantage, for they suffered by the cleavage made in their ranks by the Compromise of 1850. Over a caucus of whig leaders held at Washington early in the year, Senator Mangum presided. A resolution endorsing the Compromise was rejected; thereupon a number of Southern whigs bolted, among them Outlaw and Clingman. In the state the preference of the party for the presidential nomination was Fillmore, with Graham as a running mate, a choice officially sanctioned by the state convention. But Mangum favored General Scott, who was nominated by the national convention, while Graham was named for vice president after Crittenden, Dawson, and Mangum refused the honor. On the other hand, there was unanimity among the democrats; in the national convention Dobbin led the stampede for Pierce's nomination. A distinct source of strength for the democrats was the undivided position of the party on manhood suffrage. Reid, an experienced and successful leader, was again  p309 the candidate for governor, while Kerr, the whig nominee, had never held an elective office and quibbled over the proposed suffrage reform. The principal feature of the national campaign was defection among the whigs. Unconvinced of Scott's soundness on the Compromise of 1850, a movement for Webster and Graham in place of the regular ticket was launched. It had the support of two newspapers, the Wilmington Commercial and the Asheville News, and a new party name was proposed, national republican. Apparently the movement collapsed when Graham asked that his name be withdrawn from the new ticket. Of greater importance was the policy of Clingman, who a few days before the election expressed a preference for Pierce, on the ground that the election of Scott would destroy the influence of Webster and Fillmore, the real friends of the Compromise among the whigs, and that the defeat of Pierce would be a blow to friends of the South among Northern democrats. The results of the campaign were a democratic triumph in the state elections, Reid being elected in August, and a similar victory in the presidential election, Pierce receiving the electoral vote in November.

However the democratic success was not followed by unanimity in the councils of the party. Factionalism at once appeared in the election of a senator to succeed Badger. James C. Dobbin was the choice for the democratic caucus, but Romulus M. Saunders desired the honor, as did also James B. Shepard. The whigs formally nominated Kenneth Rayner, but did not uniformly support him, throwing votes instead to Saunders in the hope of preventing the election of a democrat. After some forty ballotings Dobbin asked for another caucus and generously proposed that his name be withdrawn. His sacrifice was refused, and the deadlock continued to the end of the session. Not till 1854 was the vacancy filled, when Mangum having also retired, Asa Biggs and Governor Reid, both democrats, were elected. In the meantime Badger had been nominated by President Fillmore to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, but the Senate refused to confirm the nomination. Dobbin became Secretary of the Navy in 1853, a position he filled with distinction. Among his services were the establishment of the apprentice­ship system,  p310 promotion for merit, the retired list on pay, and the construction of the first steam frigates of the navy.

Insurgency next threatened the democrats. The opportunity for revolt was the old question of distribution. In 1852 Henry Bennett of New York introduced into Congress a bill which proposed to distribute the remaining public land among the states for internal improvements and other local needs. At that time the North Carolina democrats were rapidly coming round to the whig policy concerning state aid, and distribution, which the party had opposed, now made an appeal to many members as a means of securing revenue for the proposed public works. Hence in the congressional elections of 1853 three politicians bolted the party lines and endorsed distribution. One of these, Duncan McRae, who announced himself as an independent candidate in the Third District, was eliminated by an appointment as consul to Paris. Immediately his place in the field was taken by W. F. Leake, another democrat, in opposition to William S. Ashe, regular nominee of the party. In the Second and Seventh Districts W. C. Loftin and A. W. Venable, secessionists of 1851, raised the issue against Thomas Ruffin and A. M. Lewis, the regular nominees of the party. In all three districts the independents failed of election, but in the Seventh the division among the democrats enabled the whigs to elect Sion H. Rogers. However the delegation stood five democrats and three whigs.

The state campaign of 1854 proved to be the supreme test for the waning whig party. Its convention endorsed distribution, favored constitutional reform through a convention chosen on the existing basis of representation, and nominated for governor Alfred H. Dockery, unionist of 1851 and a skillful campaigner. The democratic convention was notable for a new party policy. Its platform favored common schools and internal improvements; it also demanded suffrage reform by legislative initiative, and endorsed the states rights interpretation of the Constitution. Thomas Bragg, a comparatively new leader, was nominated for governor, mainly through the influence of Holden. During the early weeks of the contest, the odds favored Dockery. This was due to the proposed western extension of the North Carolina Railroad, which Dockery  p311 ardently favored, a measure which appealed strongly to the region west of Salisbury, traditionally a center of whig strength. On the other hand Bragg, an easterner, was apathetic toward the extension until Holden showed him the necessity of taking a favorable attitude. The democratic opposition being righted, the tide then turned against the whigs. The decisive influence was the attitude of the whig convention on the issue of constitutional reform. In the more western counties there was much dissatisfaction because the platform had not demanded a change in the basis of representation; moreover, the platform did not explicitly endorse suffrage reform. A whig meeting at Asheville in April voiced the discontent by declaring that a sovereign convention could not be limited by the legislature and that any constitutional convention should face the matter of the basis of representation. The result of the campaign was the election of Bragg and also a democratic legislature.

Apparently the whigs now lost faith in the future of their party, for in the congressional campaign of 1855 they dropped their party name and merged with the new American or Know Nothing party. Prominent in the ranks of the new movement was Kenneth Rayner, who framed the third or union degree of the order. A few democrats joined, notably James B. Shepard. On the other hand some whigs, notably John Kerr, refused to follow the trend of the party and became democrats. The secrecy of the new party and its Northern origin did not lend to its popularity, and in the congressional elections the Know Nothings carried but two districts, the Eighth and the Fifth, Puryear and Edward G. Reid being the successful candidates. In the state campaign in the following year the inequality of the parties was further revealed, Bragg defeating Gilmer, the American nominee for governor, by a majority of over 12,000. The democrats also carried the legislature by a large majority.

In the meantime interest in slavery extension was revived. In 1854 Stephen A. Douglas introduced into Congress his famous Kansas-Nebraska bill, giving the people of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska the right to accept or reject slavery and repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The  p312 North Carolina democrats unanimously and strongly favored the measure; the whig-Americans were lukewarm and critical. Congressman Rogers and Puryear were in the opposition on the ground that an amendment submitted by Clayton, prohibiting foreigners in the country from voting, was defeated. In the Senate Badger, although he voted for the measure, first proposed an amendment that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise should not revive the old Louisiana law that protected slavery, and he also held that squatter sovereignty, the right of the people of a territory to determine for themselves the issue of freedom, was derived exclusively from Congress. Within the state, the Standard, the democratic organ, unqualifiedly endorsed the bill. The whig press was apathetic; the Register doubted its expediency, especially the wisdom of repealing the Missouri Compromise, while the Fayetteville Observer feared a free soil reaction. The whig state platform of 1854, however, approved the measure in its entirety. In the succeeding legislature Mr. Settle, a democrat of Rockingham County, introduced radical resolutions approving the Kansas-Nebraska act and threatening resistance in case the Northern states should interfere with slavery in territories. They aroused scarcely any debate, and were rejected.

However in the presidential campaign of 1858 popular excitement over slavery reached a high record. There was genuine alarm in democratic circles over the situation in Kansas and the prospect that the new republican party of the Northwest, committed against the further expansion of slavery, would win. The Standard declared that the Union could not survive the election of Fremont, the republican presidential candidate, and Clingman likewise advised resistance if the election should so result. That public opinion was deeply aroused is well attested by the case of Professor Benjamin S. Hedrick, a North Carolinian, a graduate of the State University, who pursued advanced studies at Harvard and then returned to his alma mater as professor of applied chemistry. Early impressions of the evils of slavery were strengthened when he saw the prosperity of the North and compared it with his native state. During the presidential campaign he stated in reply to a direct question that he would vote for  p313 Fremont, provided there was a republican electoral ticket in the state. News of this opinion reached Holden, and on September 17 the Standard hinted at the presence of a Fremont supporter on the faculty of a certain college. On the twenty-ninth a letter signed "Alumnus" formally charged that such was the case at the university, and demanded the resignation of the offending professor, though his name was not mentioned. Then, against advice, Hedrick replied to the charges against him. In an open letter published in the Standard, he expressed his admiration for Fremont's character. He also made plain his opposition to the extension of slavery into territories and cited similar views of early southern statesmen.

Opposition to slavery extension is neither a Northern nor a sectional ism. It originated with the great Southern statesmen of the Revolution. Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, and Randolph were all opposed to slavery in the abstract, and were all opposed to admitting it into new territory. One of the early acts of the patriots of the Revolution was to pass the Ordinance of '87, by which slavery was excluded from all the territories we then possessed. This was going farther than the Republicans of the present day claim. Many of these great men were slaveholders, but they did not let selfinterest blind them to the evils of the system. Jefferson says that slavery exerts an influence both over the whites and the blacks but he was opposed to the abolition policy, by which the slaves would be turned loose among the whites. In his autobiography he says: "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, can not live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion, have drawn indelible lines between them." Among the evils which he says slavery brings upon the whites, is to make them tyrannical and idle. "With the morals of a people their industry is also destroyed. For in a warm climate no man will labor for himself who can make another labor for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor." What was true in Jefferson's time is true now. * * * No longer ago than 1850, Henry Clay declared in the Senate, "I never can, and never will vote, and no earthly power ever will make me vote to spread slavery over territory where it does not exist." At the same time that Clay was opposed to slavery, he was, like Fremont, opposed to the least interference by the general government with slavery in the states where it exists. Should there be any interference with subjects belonging to state policy, either by other states or by the federal government, no one will be more ready than myself to defend the "good old North," my native state. But, with Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Henry, Randolph, Clay and Webster for political teachers, I cannot believe that slavery is preferable  p314 to freedom, or that slavery extension is one of the Constitutional rights of the South.

* * * * * *

It is not, however, my object to attack the institution of slavery. But even the most zealous defender of the patriarchal institutions cannot shut his eyes against a few prominent facts. One is, that in nearly all the slave states there is a deficiency of labor. Since the abolition of the African slave trade there is no source for obtaining a supply, except from the natural increase. For this reason, among others, a gentleman of South Carolina, in an article published in DeBows Review for August, 1856, advocates a dissolution of the Union in order that the African slave trade may be revived. From North Carolina and Virginia nearly the entire increase of the slave population, during the last twenty years, has been sent off to the new states of the Southwest. In my boyhood I lived on one of the great thoroughfares of travel (near Locke's Bridge on the Yadkin River) and have seen as many as two thousand in a single day, going south, mostly in the hands of speculators. Now, the loss of these two thousand did the state a greater injury than would the shipping off of a million dollars. I think I may ask any sensible man how we are to grow rich and prosper, while "driving out" a million of dollars per day. I am glad, however, to say that the ruinous policy is not now carried on to such an extent as it has been. But there is still too much of it. I have very little doubt that if the slaves which are now scattered thinly over Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, were back in Virginia and North Carolina, it would be better for all concerned. These old states could then go on and develop the immense wealth which must remain locked up for many years to come. Whilst the new states, free from a system which degrades white labor, would become a land of common schools, thrift and industry, equal if not superior to any in the union. But letting that be as it may, still no one can deny that here in North Carolina we need more men, rather than more land. Then why go to war to make more slave states, when we have too much territory already, for the force we have to work it? Our fathers fought for freedom, and one of the tyrannical acts which they threw in the teeth of Great Britain was that she forced slavery upon the colonies against their will. Now, the secessionists are trying to dissolve the union because they are not permitted to establish slavery in the Territory of Kansas. If the institution of slavery is a thing good and desirable in itself, it is the easiest thing in the world for the people to vote for its introduction at any time after they have formed a constitution and been admitted as a state. If it is not a good thing, it would be an act of great oppression to force it upon them.

* * * * * *

Born in the "good old North states," I cherish a love for her and her people that I bear to no other state or people. It will ever be my sincere wish to advance her interests. I love also the union of states, secured as it was by the blood of my ancestors and whatever influence I possess, though small it may be, shall be exerted  p315 for its preservation. I do not claim infallibility for my opinion. Wiser and better men have been mistaken. But holding as I do the doctrines once advocated by Washington and Jefferson, I think I should be met by argument and not by denunciation. At any rate, those who prefer to denounce me should at least support their charges by their own name.

Frank and manly as was this statement, it received no sympathy or toleration. The students of the university burned its author in effigy, the faculty adopted resolutions repudiating the heretic among them, the newspapers reviled him, and the executive committee of the university declared his power of service at an end. As Professor Hedrick remained at his post, a second meeting of the committee was held at which his chair was declared vacant. A short time afterward the deposed teacher was in Salisbury to attend an educational convention. When his presence became known, a mob gathered, burned his effigy before his eyes, and forced him to leave town. Evidently freedom of spoken opinion on the slavery question was not possible in North Carolina — a violent reaction from conditions as they existed in earlier years.

While excitement over the case of Professor Hedrick was at its height, another matter attracted comment. This was a visit of Governor Wise, of Virginia, and Governor Adams, of South Carolina, to Raleigh on October 13. Governor Jenkins, of Georgia, was expected, but did not come. The aim of this gathering of functionaries was formally stated to be a desire to inspect the State Fair; but they left before that festival opened. According to tradition, their purpose was to consult with Governor Bragg about concert of action in case Fremont was elected, but no plan was adopted on account of Bragg's conservatism. In contrast to this concern over the right of slavery in territories was the opposition of Rayner, the Know Nothing. In an address at Philadelphia during the campaign he urged the members of his party to vote for Fremont in the hope that the election might be thrown into the House of Representatives. This action was denounced by the state democratic executive committee, and made the subject of violent  p316 editorials by Holden, which led to an exchange of blows between him and Rayner. The result of the election, so far as North Carolina was concerned, was never in doubt. There was no republican electoral ticket in the state, and Buchanan received an overwhelming vote. The irony of history is that Fremont had been suggested in 1855 as a possible candidate for the democrats, and F. P. Blair wrote to Bedford Brown suggesting that a movement in his interest be launched in North Carolina.

After the election of Buchanan interest in slavery extension again waned, and two other issues were again brought to the front. One of these was the old question of public lands. Duncan McRae, having retired from the consul­ship at Paris, returned to the state and announced himself as an independent candidate for governor in 1858 on the issue of distribution. A similar announcement was also made by W. F. Leake, but he soon withdrew in favor of McRae. As the whig party machinery had collapsed and the Americans had lost heart after the congressional elections of 1857, in which they elected only one member, John A. Gilmer, of the Fifth District, there was no party opposition to Ellis, the nominee of the democrats; but the whig-American press advised their clientele to support McRae. By far the greater danger to the democratic cause was factionalism. The leader who had undoubtedly done much toward winning the party's victories was Holden, editor of the North Carolina Standard. In season and out of season his editorials had relentlessly and ably criticized the whigs. His advice had more than once determined party policy, and his paper in news service and ideas was superior to any other in the state. Early in 1857 a movement was launched to give him the democratic nomination for governor in the following year; but his success and that of the party raised rival claimants for the honor, notably John W. Ellis, W. W. Avery, Judge S. J. Person, and A. W. Venable. Moreover Holden was a genuine man of the people, born in poverty, without family connections or ancestral traditions to aid in advancing his political fortunes. The jealousy of his power was therefore all the greater, and the opposition to his nomination was strengthened by the prejudice of the large number of whigs  p317 who had joined the democracy since 1850. The party convention was ordered to meet at Charlotte, a strategic victory for Ellis, a western leader. A veritable preconvention campaign then followed. Most of the democratic newspapers threw their influence to Holden and the whig press openly approved his claims. Said the Fayetteville Observer: "Mr. Holden is a 'tried and valiant soldier' who has 'groaned and sweat' until he has made the democratic party all powerful in North Carolina. Without him these democratic lawyers would never have been judges, governors, congressmen, legislators — would have been scarcely heard of. But the work is done. And when he or his friends for him ask for participation in the honors of victory, it is only natural, now as then, that his creatures should 'take down his load and turn him like the empty ass to shake his ears and graze in commons.' How dare an editor of a newspaper, a man who has worked with his own hands, aspire to reward from his own party?"

Undoubtedly, Mr. Holden was the favorite of the rank and file of his party, but the state convention was dominated by politicians, and Ellis was nominated. The Standard abided by the decision of the convention, and McRae, in spite of an aggressive canvass, was defeated by a majority of over 16,000. But a rift had been made which soon widened. During the campaign, Senator Biggs resigned to accept the United States Judgeship for the District of North Carolina. Governor Bragg appointed Congressman Clingman to fill the unexpired term. When the legislature met Bragg was elected over the opposition of Holden and Reid. Evidently Holden had fallen out with the party machine. Thereafter he became more conservative in the matter of states rights and by 1860 he was identified with the union faction of the party.

Democratic supremacy, however, was threatened by a large and more vital question than distribution and the rivalry of leaders. That was the unequal burdens imposed by the revenue system. As the scope of taxation was widened by the addition of new schedules, there was no equitable application of rates. Investment in land yielded more revenue than smaller amounts loaned at interest or invested in bank stock, while investment in trade was taxed less than land or stocks.  p318 Governor Reid in 1852 and 1854 called attention to this condition in the following words: "At present $1,000 loaned at interest pays $1.80, while $1,000 hoarded against the public convenience and public policy pays nothing at all; $1,000 invested in land pays $3, while $1,000 invested in trade pays $1." The remedy he proposed was the adoption of the advalorem principle. "It is believed," he said, "that after excepting slaves, each person's estate, real and personal, including money, whether at interest or not, ought to be taxed alike, according to value. This would require every person to contribute in proportion to the value of his or her estate, and would equalize the public burden between the various classes upon principles of justice." Although the revenue law was revised in 1854, 1856, and 1858, the advalorem principle was not adopted. The existing inequality was most marked in that class of property which Governor Reid excepted from his proposed reform, viz., slavery. Slaves were taxed only as polls, all between the ages of twelve and fifty being subject to a capitation equal to that paid by white polls between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five. In 1850 the total number of polls paying the capitation tax was 175,053. Making allowances for the taxation of both sexes of slaves to one of whites, and also a longer period during which the slaves were subject to taxation, the slave polls were approximately three-quarters of the total, or 131,000. Their real value, on an estimate of $800 each, was $104,800,000; the revenue yielded was $26,200. In marked contrast was the revenue from land, $36,398 on a valuation of $60,664,900. Thus slave property, having a greater value than land, yielded less revenue. Another inequality was revealed in the contrast between the income taxes and the slave polls. According to the revenue law of 1856, the white mechanic whose income was $500 or more paid $5 in addition to his poll tax, while on the able-bodied slave, perhaps also a mechanic and a competitor of the white, only a poll tax of 50 cents was imposed. Similar inequalities in the taxation of slaves and other forms of property were also apparent.

Evidently here was a dormant issue, inflammable in character, which might rouse the non-slaveholding whites against  p319 the slavocracy. It was championed in 1858 by a group of legislators, led by Moses A. Bledsoe, democratic senator from Wake County. When the committee on revenue was appointed, Mr. Bledsoe submitted resolutions denouncing as unjust and undemocratic any discrimination for or against any form of property, and directing the committee to be guided by the principle of the resolution in its deliberations. The resolutions were promptly rejected. A few days later Mr. Turner proposed a bill for a constitutional amendment embodying the advalorem principle to be submitted to the people. Mr. Gorrell, a whig, offered an amendment for an open unrestricted constitutional convention, and Mr. Ramsay also proposed an amendment specifically demanding the advalorem taxation of slave property. The bill for the convention, and also the proposed amendment, were rejected. Mr. Bledsoe, however, was uncompromising; he sought but was denied the privilege of protesting against the revenue law, which was drafted along traditional lines. In the meantime the agitation was started in the House of Commons. Messrs. Faribault and Speer introduced resolutions similar to those of Bledsoe, and Mr. Dockery presented a bill for a constitutional convention; both were tabled.

Defeated in the legislature, Mr. Bledsoe carried the issue to the people. An organization for propaganda was established, the Raleigh Working Men's Association. It emphasized the inequalities arising from the slave capitation and the privileged position of slave property. Slaveholders, it was claimed, benefited most by railroads and internal improvements, yet they contributed less than their share to the burden of the public debt. A distinct appeal to class feeling was therefore made. Illustrative is the following extract from an address by Frank I. Wilson, agitator of the cause, and also an employee of the North Carolina Standard:

Our preachers all tell us that our lot has been cast in a Christian land. I will not deny this, but I sometimes have my doubts about it. Of one thing I am sure; as working men, we have fallen on evil times. Dark and troublous clouds are hovering around us. Compelled to the disgrace of labor, either mental or physical, to maintain ourselves, our wives and children, the keen scented nostrils of patriots smell treason in every movement of our muscles, and in every idea  p320 of our brains. In every pulse throb of the blood that courses through our veins, they feel a jar to the Temple of Liberty, and in every word we utter they hear the thunder tones of intolerable impudence and insolence. Ever and anon thus wrath, like arrowy lightnings, cleaves the gloom above and around us with a light whose lurid gleam is quite as substantial, if not as fearful, as chaos itself. Should not this appall us? Should not we pause, dismayed, horror-stricken, and trembling in every joint? Should we not crouch at the feet of these superiors, and humbly beg as inferiors, permission to breathe the free air of God? What! a man with the smell of the workshop upon him, or with the pale face of mental exhaustion, to dare utter his sentiments! to dare expose his views! to dare have a soul, a mind, a thought of his own! Surely the acme of impudence is reached and the walls of insolence scaled.

The leaders of the advalorem cause endured much vituperative abuse at the hands of the conservatives, especially those of the democratic party. Their reasoning, however, had to be met, and the argument against reform took three lines. First was the claim that equality in the matter of poll taxes was a part of a compromise in the Convention of 1835 by which slave property was to be protected in return for concession to the West in the matter of representation, where slaves were less numerous; hence the proposed reform would also lead to a change in the basis of representation and the apportionment of the school fund. In reply Mr. Bledsoe denied the existence of any evidence that taxation had been the subject of compromise, or that a new system of taxation would change the basis. The second argument of the conservatives was that advalorem taxation of slaves would aid the abolitionist policy. "Give the abolitionists power to tax slaves at pleasure, and we establish a lever for the uprooting of slavery in this state, of which free soilers will soon take advantage." The apt reply was that the recognition of slaves as persons in the existing revenue system was in full accord with the abolitionists' views, while taxing them advalorem fitted in with the southern view of slaves as property; such indeed was the policy of the other Southern states and its adoption had greatly diminished state debts. The final argument against the advalorem argument was theoretical, that if value be the standard of revenue, the poorer classes suffer, that taxes on labor can never be satisfactory, and that levying on capital will inevitably result in proscription.

 p321  So far as slavery was concerned, the friends of advalorem had the better of the discussion. Two conditions favored a wide acceptance of the proposed reform. One was that the slaveholders were in a large minority, and that industrialism, the antithesis of slavery, made marked progress between 1850 and 1860. The other was the revival of the whig party. Early in 1859 the American members of the legislature held a caucus, agreed to abandon Know Nothingism, and to renew their political life as whigs. The movement was well received by the people, for in the congressional elections of 1859 four whig candidates were successful, W. N. H. Smith, from the First District, J. A. Gilmer in the Fifth, J. M. Leach in the Sixth, and Zebulon B. Vance in the Eighth. For further success there was apparently only lacking a popular issue, and  p322 that was found in the matter of taxation. Hence the whig state convention of 1860 wrote into its platform a demand for the advalorem principle, to be established by a constitutional convention, and John Pool, of Pasquotank County, was nominated for governor. The democrats, threatened with a defection from the party by Bledsoe and men of his type, and also under the necessity of conserving the loyalty of the slaveholders, renominated Governor Ellis, deprecated as "premature, impolitic, dangerous, and unjust" the advalorem issue, but favored equality of taxation upon various classes of property as far as practicable within the limits of the constitution.


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Gov. John W. Ellis

The ensuing campaign was hotly contested. In its early stage the advantage was with Pool and the whigs, for they clearly demonstrated the inequality in the existing revenue system. Several factors, however, turned the tide against them. One was the strategy of Ellis; pointing out the absence of exemptions in the proposed reform, he assumed the purpose was to tax the ovens, pots, chickens, eggs, and furniture of the small householder at equal ratio with the landlord's slaves. Thus the whig program was made the subject of considerable horse play over pots, pans, and tin cups. Another influence favoring the democrats was the strength derived from the national campaign, the argument that the rights of the South would be safer with a democratic than a whig administration. Finally the people of North Carolina were by nature conservative, slow to accept reforms of whatever kind. Consequently Ellis was reelected, but his majority was 10,000 less than that of 1858, incontrovertible evidence that the whig party was once again a factor to be reckoned with.

In the meantime excitement over the slavery question, which subsided after the campaign of 1856, revived. The principal cause was the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry in October, 1859. Even conservatives, to say nothing of the fire-eaters, foresaw possibility of war, and urged military preparations. Volunteer military companies were organized in many counties, among them Buncombe, Edgecombe, and Warren. Governor Ellis procured from the Secretary of War a new supply of arms for the federal arsenal at Fayetteville. Even the Raleigh Register declared that the South would  p323 never submit to the election of Seward or a sectional republican to the presidency. There was some demand that a special session of the legislature be convened. Governor Ellis, in December, consulted the council of state, which approved the course of Governor Wise, of Virginia, and summarized public opinion in the following resolution: "If we cannot hold our slave property and at the same time enjoy repose and tranquillity in the Union, we will be constrained in justice to ourselves and our posterity to establish new forms."

Almost contemporaneous with the John Brown affair came the revelation of antislavery and abolition activity within the state. In 1857 Hinton Rowan Helper, a native of Davie County, had published his celebrated "Impending Crisis," a comparison of the slave and the free states to the disparagement of the former, and an appeal to the non-slaveholding whites to unite against the slave power. The book attracted little attention until 1859, when a large edition was subscribed to by prominent republicans and abolitionists for use in the congressional campaign. The work and its author then became the subject of violent denunciation. Helper was charged with having fraudulently used his employer's money when a young man, and "The Impending Crisis" was regarded as incendiary literature. During the summer of 1859 John A. Gilmer, whig candidate for Congress, was openly accused of possessing a copy. The whigs replied by making a similar charge against Governor Ellis. The North Carolina Standard thought the matter sufficiently serious to explain that the governor had received two copies; one presented in New York by Mr. Helper, was cast out of the window; the other, sent through the mails, was used to light the gubernatorial pipe. Early in 1860 it was discovered that 150 copies were being shipped to one Jesse Pope, of High Point. Judge Saunders thereupon issued a writ for Pope's arrest when he should apply for the books. Pope was an invalid, unable to walk, and a mob at High Point seized the books and burned them. Pope, it was now revealed, was only a blind for the operations of Daniel Worth, a native of Guilford County, who after spending some years in Indiana returned to the state in 1858 as a Wesleyan Methodist minister and established a church  p324 at Sandy Ridge, near Jamestown. In December, 1859, he was arrested for circulating Helper's book and was ordered to give two bonds of $5,000 each, one for his appearance at the Superior Court, the other to keep the peace. The first bond he gave, the latter he refused and went to jail. At the trial four copies of Helper's book, which he had sold, were exhibited. One purchaser had burned his copy, while another hid his in a hollow log. The penalty inflicted was one year's imprisonment and a public whipping, the latter being remitted by the judge on account of the advanced age and calling of the prisoner. Appeal was taken to the Supreme Court and bond was fixed at $3,000, but Mr. Worth left the state. The Supreme Court confirmed the verdict and the bondsmen had to pay. Five men, apparently converts of Worth, were also imprisoned in Guilford County and at least one in Mecklenburg. It is probable that Worth wrote the following letter to the Boston Tract Journal in June, 1859:

The portion of the South in which I labor is wonderfully opened for the reception of antislavery truth. I am a native of the state, and have faithfully preached an uncompromising gospel at every point of my work. Not satisfied, however, with mere verbal effort, I determined to introduce antislavery books. Many thought this hazardous in the extreme, in view of the abominable laws on that subject, and greatly feared my enthrallment. I maintained that he that will not risk something for Christ is not worthy of him; he that will save his life shall lose it, etc.; and the success is beyond my expectations. These books were circulated at first rather covertly; but greatly disliking this covert operation, I came out boldly, disdaining all concealment, and my book agencies are probably doing more than I am able to do by preaching. Among these books, I have circulated fifty copies of "The Impending Crisis," by Helper, which takes fire in dry stubble. * * * * Is not this wonderful? Is it not the hand of Him who has said, 'The wrath of man shall praise him and the remainder of wrath he will restrain' * * * And now let me say to the American Tract Society that I have no doubt of our ability to distribute successfully at least six thousand tracts such as those to which you allude. * * * I have just sent to New York for another box of Helper's work to supply the increasing demand. A slaveholder who has read the book is now asking his neighbors what he must do with his slaves. Are not these blessed portents, my brother?

Along with the renewal of slavery propaganda came a crisis in party supremacy, local and national. Within the  p325 state the whig organization was being revived, four whigs being elected to Congress in 1859. At the same time in the South and the West the republicans made great gains, electing 109 members to the Thirty-sixth Congress to 101 by the democrats. This gave the whigs and former Americans, with twenty-seven votes, a balance of power. When Congress met in December the democrats made a bid for the support of the southern whigs by introducing a resolution to the effect that no member who had endorsed Helper's "Impending Crisis" was fit to be Speaker — a blow at Sherman, the republican candidate for the position. But the whigs, realizing fully their strategical position, were not receptive. Gilmer, of North Carolina, moved as a substitute that all good citizens should oppose every attempt to renew the slavery agitation. In the prolonged contest for the Speakership, there was at first a deadlock. On the thirty-sixth ballot there was a decided movement to compromise on Gilmer, who received thirty-six votes. The North Carolina democrats were alarmed, for Gilmer was an uncompromising partisan whose influence the southern democrats greatly feared. Under the leader­ship of Warren Winslow, they threw their influence to another North Carolina whig, W. N. H. Smith, who received 112 votes on the thirty-ninth ballot. The republicans, alarmed at the prospect of the Speakership going to the South, then dropped Sherman for Pennington, a moderate republican, who swung sufficient northern whig votes to secure the election on the forty-fourth ballot. Throughout the contest there were many threats of violence. At one time L. O'B. Branch, of North Carolina, challenged Mr. Grow, a Pennsylvania republican, to a duel, which Grow declined. Both were later arrested and placed under bond to keep the peace.

With such a political background — the rise of the advalorem issue, the revival of the whig organization, the excitement over abolition propaganda, the increase of republican votes in Congress — the presidential campaign of 1860 opened. In the democratic state convention radical sentiments dominated. The platform emphasized the right to take slaves into territories, and declared that the people would resist any encroachment on their constitutional privileges. Governor Ellis  p326 declared that the existence of slavery in the states as well as the territories was at stake. But among the delegates to the national convention, which met at Charleston, there was a distinct cleavage between the radicals and the conservatives, with the latter in the majority. It was the hope of Yancey and the leaders from the far South to win the support of the delegation from North Carolina in order to force the acceptance of a platform endorsing the Dred Scott decision and also to prevent the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency. As a step in this direction, William W. Avery, of Burke County, a radical, was made chairman of the committee on resolutions. There was much caucusing for the pro-slavery cause in which the North Carolina conservatives, led by Bedford Brown and W. W. Holden, refused to participate. Wrote Mr. Holden:

When I reached Charleston, I was taken aside by a friend in whom I had full confidence, who said, "Holden, I know you want to do right; I have been here several days, and I have information of a purpose on the part of some of our Southern friends to dissolve the Union." I was greatly surprised and concerned. He said to me, "I give you tonight to listen and learn, and in the morning tell me what you think and what your purpose is."

The night of the day on which we all reached Charleston, we held a meeting in our delegation room and Mr. Senator Bayard of Delaware presided. A motion was made to appoint a committee from our delegation to visit the Southern delegations, and confer with them, mainly because some of them were natives of North Carolina. This motion was opposed by Bedford Brown, R. P. Dick, and myself, and voted down. We maintained that it would be a sectional act and under the circumstances would be improper. And there I saw the cropping out of the purpose of which my friend had just warned me. Colonel Bedford Brown had just said to me, "Mr. Holden, our delegation has very properly decided not to send officially any one to visit the Southern delegates, but we can go as individuals to a great meeting to be held to‑night, near this place on Charleston Street. I propose to go, will you go?" William A. Moore of Edenton was standing by, and said he would go too. The meeting was held upstairs in a very large room which was filled. I heard several speeches and they were all for disunion, save the short speech made by Colonel Bedford Brown. Mr. William L. Yancey of Alabama spoke first, for a considerable time. He was followed by Mr. Glenn, Attorney General of Mississippi. Colonel Brown then took the floor, being called out by Mr. Glenn, who was his kinsman. He made a conservative Union speech, and was interrupted, and scraped, and laughed down. An Arkansas Militia General whose name I have  p327 forgotten, and who was unknown in the conflict between the North and South, replied to Colonel Brown, and ridiculed his views, amid general and vehement applause. Colonel Brown then turned to me and said, "Mr. Holden, let us shake off the dust from our feet of this disunion conventicle and retire."

We returned to the Charleston Hotel, and very soon a large crowd with a band of music appeared at the front of the hotel. Speaking was going on at various points, and presently, some bold fellow in front of the whole shouted, "Three cheers for the Star Spangled Banner!" and fled for his life. The reply was from the crowd, "Damn the Star Spangled Banner, tear it down."

The next morning I told my friend who had warned me of the danger of disunion, and of bolting the body, that my mind was made up, and that I would stand by the American Union at all hazards and to the last extremity.​1

When the debate on the platform was held, the North Carolina delegation as a whole favored neither the majority nor the minority report, but simply a reaffirmation of the Cincinnati platform of 1856. When it was evident that the minority report, reflecting the opinion of the Northern democracy, would be adopted, the protest of William S. Ashe and Bedford Brown caused the rejection of a clause referring the whole matter of slavery in the territories to the Supreme Court. When the revised report was adopted, the North Carolina delegates refused to follow those of the cotton states who bolted the convention, and thereby restrained the Virginia delegation. Concerning this crisis Mr. Holden said:

A few days afterwards while the vote was going on, and while South Carolina and Georgia and Mississippi and Florida and Arkansas and other states south of us were bolting, another friend of mine, Mr. R. C. Pearson, of Burke, approached me from the rear, and said to me most earnestly, "You must make a speech and hold our delegations against going out." He had come for me through the Virginia delegation who sat in the rear, "for," said he, "from what I have heard, if our delegates go out, Virginia will go out also, and the convention will be broken up." I said, "Mr. Pearson, I am not in the habit of speaking very often — there are 600 delegates here, and a vast audience besides — it would be a piece of assurance on my part, to attempt to address this body at this time, especially amid this excitement, with Mr. Cushing, the president of the body, hostile to Mr. Douglas and his friends I can't get a hearing." "Yes, you can," said he, "I will go around and speak to the Indiana, the Illinois and the Ohio delegations, and ask them when you arise to speak, to insist on  p328 North Carolina being heard." I then told him I would try as soon as Mr. Seward of Georgia took his seat. I arose and said, "Mr. President, Mr. Holden of North Carolina." Mr. Cushing sat for twenty seconds and did not recognize me. Then the states mentioned arose and demanded in a voice of thunder that North Carolina be heard. Mr. Cushing arose and bowed, and gave me the floor. I spoke for ten minutes. I told the convention I had been sent there by the state of North Carolina, one of the four state delegates; that I could not be a party to any steps looking to disunion; that my party had sent me to maintain and preserve, and not to destroy the bonds of the Union; that by an immense majority the people of my state, with George Washington the Father of the Country, would frown indignantly on the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which link together the various points.

After ineffectual balloting for the presidential nomination, the convention adjourned to meet at Baltimore. There now occurred a distinct movement in favor of Stephen A. Douglas. The Standard was outspoken for him, as were also four of the ten electors. Personal ties also favored him, his wife by his first marriage having been a lady of Rockingham County. But the policy of the Baltimore convention in seating Douglas delegations and rejecting all others caused another withdrawal of Southern members, among them all of the North Carolina delegates except three, Holden, R. P. Dick, and J. W. B. Watson. Douglas was nominated, but Holden and Watson did not vote. The sixteen bolting members then joined a new convention in which Avery was again chairman of the committee on resolutions. The majority report of the Charleston convention was then adopted and Breckenridge was nominated for the presidency, but the North Carolina delegates cast their first ballot for Dickinson and Green. On the next ballot one of the North Carolina delegation nominated Lane for the vice-presidency, who was chosen.

But the state democracy was not yet united. There was still considerable sentiment for Douglas. Of the electors, Henry W. Miller resigned and refused to support Breckenridge. There was a demand that a party convention be called to decide the matter, but the state executive committee refused to take action. Thereupon the Standard proposed that the electors vote for either Breckenridge or Douglas, according to the chances for defeating Lincoln. On August 30 the Douglas  p329 men held a convention at Raleigh which was addressed by Douglas half, put out electors, and started a campaign newspaper, the National Democrat. But the tide of democratic opinion drifted toward Breckenridge. The Standard failed to join the Douglas movement, and in the election he received less than 3,000 votes.

In contrast to the dissention among the democrats was the unanimity among the whigs. Their state convention, like the national one, avoided the slavery issue; in the latter, Governor Graham received the vote of the state delegation for the presidential nomination. The campaign was notable for a sense of sobriety and seriousness. The radicals were less extreme in their demands than in 1856. There was no threat of secession in case of Lincoln's election until October. In reply a great mass meeting was held at Salisbury toward the middle of the month under whig auspices. It lasted two days and was attended by prominent whig leaders. A notable incident was a speech by Zebulon B. Vance in behalf of union, of two hours' duration, delivered in a drizzling rain, which held the audience spell-bound. "But one sentiment prevailed," wrote a correspondent, "and that was, we will fight for the Constitution, the Union, and the laws, within the Union and the laws. We will not be influenced by seceders in the South or black Republicans in the North, and we will never give up our institutions until stern necessity compels us to believe that they, being no longer adequate to our protection, we must resort to that right of revolution which in inherent in every people."

With the assurance of a secession movement in case of republican victory, the ultimate influence that determined the election in North Carolina was the choice between nationality and disunion. Undoubtedly the vast majority of the voters held no brief for secession, but between a president representing the sectional ideals of the Northwest and one representing those of the South, there could be no choice. Moreover it was argued that the surest check to secession would be a victory for Breckenridge. Such an interpretation was warranted by the popular vote in November, which was: Breckenridge, 48,539; Bell, 44,990; Douglas, 2,401. Breckenridge's  p330 majority over both opponents was thus 848.​a Suggestive also was the sectional character of the vote. Most of the extreme eastern counties gave Bell a majority, as did also most of the western counties. On the other hand, the middle eastern counties and those of the west where the tobacco and cotton industries were well established, also a group along the Tennessee line, gave a majority for Breckenridge. Thus the old alignment between whigs and democrats which characterized politics before 1850 was revived. In the months to come that party division, as well as the question of secession, was to be tested.

The Author's Note:

1 Memoirs, pp9‑11.

Thayer's Note:

a Sic, all four figures — which, however, do not add. On typographical grounds, the most likely correction to me seems to be that the Breckenridge vote was 48,239. The American Presidency Project (University of California, Santa Barbara) has different figures entirely.

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