John Branch was an accomplished politician, planter, cabinet member, Governor of North Carolina and the Florida Territory, and a United States Senator. Born in Halifax on November 4, 1782, Branch was the son of the wealthy and respected, John Branch Sr., and Rebecca Bradford. Due to his father’s prosperity, Branch received a first-rate education and matured into a benevolent politician and gentleman. Married twice, Branch had nine children with his first wife, Elizabeth Foort, and his second wife was Mary Bond.
While at the University of North Carolina, Branch studied under Judge John Haywood and became an educated lawyer. As soon as Branch finished his schooling, he entered the North Carolina politics and became a representative for Halifax County in 1811. Branch quickly rose in the esteem and ranks of his state’s legislature, and he served as Speaker of the House from 1815 to 1817. On December 3, 1817, Branch was elected as governor and subsequently served the maximum limit of three years. The election rules, however, would soon change and Branch ran again in 1838.
Once Branch became governor, he sought to develop Archibald D. Murphey’s ideas of reform and internal improvements into concrete policies. Branch, in his yearly address to the Legislature, told representatives that they had an “imperious duty” to understand and enact Murphey’s “luminous and impressive appeals.” Internal improvements were at the forefront of Branch’s administration, and the North Carolina Supreme Court was established as a sovereign judiciary during his governorship. Another accomplishment of Governor Branch was the organization of the Agricultural Society of North Carolina in December 1818. Even though the society lasted only a few years, a subsequent group, the North Carolina Agricultural Society (which was based on Branch’s original organization) sponsored the first N.C. State Fair in 1853.
After his governorship, Branch became active in federal politics and in 1822 became a United States Senator. Shortly after his arrival in Washington, President Jackson appointed Branch to serve as Secretary of the Navy. Even though Branch was a staunch Jacksonian and states-righter, Branch turned away from Jackson and eventually resigned from his position in 1831 due to a disagreement regarding the scandalous Eaton or Petticoat Affair.
This personal battle turned quickly into a political one. Branch soon switched political parties. After a brief stint in the U.S. House of Representatives, Branch returned to North Carolina and, fueled by Jackson’s blunder, helped create the North Carolina Whig Party. As a Whig, Branch took advantage of the reformed election laws and ran for governor for a fourth time. This time he met defeat and lost to Edward B. Dudley.
In 1843 President John Tyler appointed Branch as governor of the Florida territory. After Florida became a state recognized by the federal union, Branch moved back to North Carolina in 1851. He remained there until his death in January 1863.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006).