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University of North Carolina at Asheville
The Rip Van Winkle State and the Whig Party
A Senior Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the
Department of History in Candidacy for the
Degree of Bachelor of Arts in History
Asheville, North Carolina
The fundamental revisions made to the North Carolina Constitution in 1835, which based
representation in the General Assembly on population and also took the power of selecting the
state’s Governor away from the General Assembly and gave it to the electorate, afforded the western region of the state the power to influence public office for the first time. One year after this Constitutional revision, the first Whig Governor was elected in North Carolina, and the stranglehold that eastern plantation owners had on public policy was broken. With Whigs from Western North Carolina in power, the needs of their constituents were addressed, and internal improvements gained a prominent place on the state’s agenda. After a succession of Whig Governors from 1836-1849, North Carolina’s infrastructure was improved, and economic conditions for many Western North Carolinians were better.
Historiography A significant amount of research has been done on the American Whig Party’s contributions to politics and public policy throughout the 1800s, but very little of it focuses specifically on Western North Carolina. Many of the scholars who have become experts on the Whig Party view it in light of its demise and see it as a precursor to the Republican Party. Other scholars view the Whig Party as having been successful at pursuing internal improvements that benefited the United States as a whole. While some scholars have applauded the Whig Party’s focus on internal improvements, others have criticized the Party for not taking a stand against slavery earlier than it did. Secondary sources chronicling the development, success, and collapse of the American Whig Party are numerous, and regardless of the biases of these sources, nearly all acknowledge that the Party was powerful and influential in the United States in the years leading up the Civil War.
Historian Michael Holt has a positive opinion of the Whig Party, and he supports his opinion with substantial evidence from Whig newspapers of the 1800s. In his book The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War, Holt argues that the demise of the Whig Party deepened the divide between the North and the South by eliminating the moderate Whig Party that had served as a buffer between the two for years. In Holt’s view, the collapse of the Whig Party played a significant role in American history mostly because it served to nudge the United States towards civil war.1 Other historians, like Thomas Brown, assert that the Whig Party was only successful because it capitalized on opposition to Andrew Jackson’s new brand of Jacksonian Democracy, which consolidated power into the hands of President Jackson. In his book Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party, Brown describes the Whig party as one that united against something (“King Andrew,” as Whigs referred to Andrew Jackson) rather than for something. In Brown’s view, the Whig Party was successful because it capitalized on distrust of President Jackson, and the Party subsequently crumbled because Jackson left office.2 Historians John Sacher and Daniel Howe both argue strongly that the Whig Party was successful because of its association with internal improvements, and both men use voting results from rural areas to back up their theses. Sacher’s work has particular relevance to the topic of the Whig Party in Western North Carolina because his focus is on rural areas of the Louisiana bayou, which were in similar shape to Western North Carolina in terms of infrastructural development in the 1800s. Both regions were populated by isolated farmers who desperately needed bridges and passable roads if they were to ever make profit from their crops. Sacher Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
attributes the collapse of the Whig Party to its nomination of Winfield Scott for president during the election of 1852. Scott’s anti-slavery views lost the Whig Party countless votes in southern states, and Sacher believes this was the final blow to the Whig Party that killed it.3 Daniel Howe’s views on the Whig Party are similar to Sacher’s in that both historians name support of internal improvements as the Party’s most attractive feature to rural voters.
Sacher uses election results to prove that in underdeveloped areas heavily populated by subsistence farmers, the Whig Party was highly successful for several years. Howe’s interpretation of the downfall of the Whig Party is very different from Sacher’s; Howe blames the Party’s demise on its refusal to take a strong anti-slavery stance sooner than it did. Howe believes that if the Party had taken a strong moral stand on slavery when the Republican Party did, it might have attracted voters from the Republican Party and maintained a longer political life.4 R. D. W. Connor’s book Ante-Bellum Builders of North Carolina provides one of the most detailed accounts of the Whig Party’s existence in North Carolina that is available to readers today. Connor’s thesis focuses on the role the Whig Party played in the infrastructural development of North Carolina, with specific attention devoted to the ways the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 prevented state spending on internal improvements. Connor’s thesis is strongest at pointing out the undemocratic nature of the Constitution of 1776 by using figures to illustrate the lack of proportional representation in the General Assembly. Connor’s thesis is weakest in its lack of detailed illustrations of how the disproportional representation negatively affected the lives of Western North Carolinians.5 John Sacher, “The Sudden Collapse of the Louisiana Whig Party,” The Journal of Southern History 65, no. 2 (1999).
Daniel Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979).
R. D. W. Connor, Ante-Bellum Builders of North Carolina (Greensboro: The North Carolina College for Women, My thesis will explore how the disproportional representation in the General Assembly before 1835 directly impacted the lives of North Carolinians by denying public funding for infrastructure in poor, isolated areas of the state that didn’t benefit from the plantation system like the eastern part of the state did. My use of Census data will add new statistical figures to the topic of the Whig Party’s impact in North Carolina, as will my focus on Western North Carolina, which has not specifically been analyzed. My thesis will illustrate clearly how different life was in terms of access to schools and roads for North Carolinians living in the eastern region of the state and North Carolinians living in the western region of the state.
Constitutional Changes The North Carolina Constitution of 1776, which stayed in effect without revisions until 1835, put the bulk of political power into the hands of the General Assembly. The General Assembly had the power to appoint officials to the following state positions: judges on the Supreme Court, the attorney-general, the Governor, and seven advisors to serve the Governor.6 With so much power being granted to the General Assembly, it was important that those serving in the General Assembly were elected to represent the interests of the state as a whole. This was not the case, as representation in the Assembly was not based on population and each county, regardless of population, was given one seat in the Senate and two in the House of Commons.7 As R. D. W. Connor explains, this way of designating representation resulted in clear violations of Democratic principles: “In 1790, for instance, Brunswick county, with only 3,000 people, sent the same number of representatives to the Legislature, had the same voice in making the laws of the State and cast the same vote for governor and other State officials as Rowan county which 1930).
North Carolina Constitution of 1776, clauses 13, 15, and 16. Accessed through http://docsouth.unc.edu.
North Carolina Constitution of 1776, clauses 2 and 3.
had five times as many people.”8 In addition to the lack of fair representation in the General Assembly, only free men who owned at least fifty acres of land could vote for state Senators, and only free men who owned at least 100 acres of land were eligible to serve in the General Assembly.9 These Constitutional laws effectively created an oligarchy in North Carolina, where wealthy plantation owners dominated all three branches of government.
For the western region of the state, the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 virtually guaranteed that its concerns related to infrastructure and public schools would not be addressed by the General Assembly. In 1790, the first year the Federal Census was conducted, the majority of North Carolinians lived east of Wake County, making the eastern part of the state’s dominance over politics somewhat understandable.10 By 1830, however, a majority of North Carolinians lived west of Wake County, making eastern domination more unpalatable for westerners than ever before.11 Western North Carolina’s population was growing steadily, but eastern plantation owners still maintained power over the state’s government and saw to it that their interests were addressed. For these eastern plantation owners who had access to navigable rivers and the port of Wilmington, and who could afford private schooling for their children, paying taxes to support infrastructure and the building of public schools was not on their agenda.
For small farmers in Western North Carolina, however, the isolation they endured because of non-existent infrastructure, and the lack of options they had in terms of educating their children, were key issues they wanted the state government to address. Dissatisfaction with the 1776 Constitution was growing along with the population of western North Carolina, and in 1835 Amendments were ratified that shifted the balance of power away from elite eastern plantation Connor, 20.
North Carolina Constitution of 1776, clauses 5, 6, and 7.
1790 Census Figures. Accessed through http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1790.htm.
1830 Census Figures. Accessed through http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1830.htm.
owners and towards the majority of citizens.
The Amendments that were ratified in 1835 based representation in the House of Commons on a county’s population and based representation in the Senate on the amount of taxes each county paid to the state. Governors were no longer appointed by the General Assembly but were elected by popular vote.12 These constitutional changes are credited primarily to the work of David Lowry Swain, the representative for Buncombe County in the North Carolina House of Commons, who was later appointed Governor of North Carolina from 1832 to
1835. Before, during, and after he served as governor, Swain sought constitutional revisions that would benefit western counties. Before the Whig Party had been formally named and organized, Swain identified with principles that would later become the Party’s platform, and as a western North Carolinian he advocated the expansion of the railroad and the improvement of public schools.13 Swain made a speech at the Constitutional Convention of 1835, as Henry Connor, one of the associate judges of the North Carolina Supreme Court, recounted: “Governor Swain outlined the policy of the western people. Internal improvements, education, general progress in the development of the resources of the State, and encouragement to immigration were the purposes of this strong, patriotic leader from the mountains.”14 After the Whig Party was formed, Swain became an outspoken member.
As historian Joseph Gregoire de Rouhlac Hamilton explained in 1915, the western region
of North Carolina approached the Convention of 1835 with the following concerns:
The West, because its vital economic interests demanded it, desired a large extension of the activities of the State. It wanted highways and railroads North Carolina Constitution, Amendment 1, Section 1.
William Powell, ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 483-486.
Henry Groves Connor, The Convention of 1835 (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1908).
Accessed through: http://docsouth.unc.edu.
connecting it with the East to furnish an outlet for its produce, an inlet for the outside products that it wanted, and as a means of communication with the outside
Western representatives to the Convention of 1835 shared concerns particular to their region.
The constitutional changes that Swain advocated and finally got proposed to the people on a referendum won the popular vote and they almost immediately had tangible results; in 1836 Edward B. Dudley, a member of the newly formed Whig Party, was the first governor in North Carolina’s history to be elected by voters.16 Internal Improvements: Solution to the State’s Problems Discussion of internal improvements increased in local newspapers and suggestions for improvement projects were plentiful as emigration from North Carolina became noticeable in the early 1800s. Proposals included improvement of river navigation by smoothing sandbars and constructing dams, the building of canals, and the expansion of plank roads across the state. In addition to these suggestions, historian Allen Trelease writes, “….railroads were called for as the most practical invention of the age to lessen distances, end isolation, stimulate the economy, and in general usher in a new era of progress and prosperity.”17 In 1828, members of the House of Commons held a meeting to discuss the building a railroad in North Carolina, and addressed the
following statement to North Carolinians:
The same causes which have brought upon us our present difficulties, have not yet produced all their natural and deplorable effects. Cotton is now almost the only Joseph Gregoire de Rouhlac Hamilton, Party Politics in North Carolina (Durham: The Seeman Printery, 1916), 12.