First Wednesdays – Political Strife

Seven months after secession brought disunion with the United States, political divisions began to resurface again in North Carolina. The pre-war tensions of the old Whig Party and the Democratic Party arose again as political parties became relabeled as the Conservatives (Whigs) and the Confederate Party (Democrats). Conservatives, who were not active supporters of secession, began to question the political leadership of the state. The failure of the Confederate forces to repel the Union military forces from the Outer Banks gave them reason to believe that Confederate President Jefferson Davis did not take seriously the defense of North Carolina. In addition, the gubernatorial administrations of both John W. Ellis and Henry Toole Clark did not extend state patronage to both political parties, but reserved the greater majority of the state appointments and contracts to fellow Democrats.

In December 1861, Asa Biggs, a former federal judge and state legislator, proposed within a judicial committee to pass an ordinance “To define and punish Sedition, and prevent the dangers which may arise from persons disaffected to the State.” Biggs, a Democrat and secessionist, sought to put in place an oath that every male resident over the age of sixteen would have to affirm before a judge or justice of the peace to pledge allegiance to the Confederate States of America. If a citizen failed to take the oath, he would have to stand before a County Court, and if he still refuses to take the oath, he could be ordered to leave the state and forfeit his property to County Sheriff to defray the cost. If he returned to the state, he would be guilty of treason and would be treated as such.

For the Conservatives, this proposed ordinance was an attack on citizens’ rights to express their political views, and another example of suppression of the dissent by the political party in power. William Alexander Graham, state legislator, former Governor of North Carolina and United State Senator, denounced Biggs’ ordinance as an attempt by the state to protect the Confederate States of America by suppressing opposition within the state. In a long address, Graham protested the authority of the committee to propose such an oath, which would only bring strife and civil disorder to the state and “…carries us back to the “bigot monarchs and the butcher priests” of the days of the Tudors and Stuarts, and beyond these, to the Inquisition itself.” (The Papers of William Alexander Graham, Volume V, pg. 317)

To W.W. Holden and other Conservatives, the “Test Oath” Ordinance was an issue that they could rally support around prior to the upcoming 1862 gubernatorial elections. As our document shows, Holden sought permission to print Graham’s address in his newspaper, Raleigh (N.C.) North Carolina Standard, to mount an editorial attack on the political opposition. Holden and other Conservatives wanted Graham to be their party’s candidate in the 1862 election. Graham denied their offer, and returned to the North Carolina General Assembly as a state senator from Orange County, and the Conservatives would later chose a Colonel of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina Troops as their candidate, Zebulon Baird Vance.

Letter: W. W. Holden to William Alexander Graham, Jan. 1, 1861 [1862]

This entry was posted in First Wednesdays, News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.