2011 General Assembly Is More Momentous Than You May Think

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

In January 2011, the Republican Party of North Carolina took control of both houses in the General Assembly. Many have stated that Republicans haven’t been in this position since the 1890s. Truth be told, the last time was the late 1860s.

During the Fusion Era (the 1890s), North Carolina Populists and Republicans agreed on key issues, including county home-rule, voting rights, and education. They formed a temporary alliance that helped each other win political office and unseat a common enemy: the Democratic Party.

The parties did not merge into one. Both had separate executive committees and candidates and separate identities. Yet both depended on the existence and cooperation of the other.

Marion Butler, a leading, nationally known Populist, approached North Carolina Republican leaders and convinced them that in every state political race, the Democratic candidate should face opposition from either a Republican or a Populist. But in no race should a both a Populist and a Republican run against a Democrat. The strategy worked, even at the federal level; fusionists in the General Assembly elected Populist Butler and Republican Jeter Pritchard to the U.S. Senate.

So it’s more accurate to say the Democrats were out of power for a while in the 1890s than to say the Republicans were in power; any GOP power depended on Populist cooperation.

The Republican Party started in 1854 and Abraham Lincoln was its second presidential nominee. Although the log-splitter and later railroad attorney became the 16th president, his name did not appear on North Carolina ballots in 1860. That may be because the Whig Party — the predecessor of the GOP — still fielded candidates in the Old North State even though it had died in other states.

When the gunfire ceased and the smoke had cleared and Johnny Reb and Billy Yank — or rather when most of the Billy Yanks had returned home (thousands were stationed in 10 states of the former Confederacy that had been divided into five military districts) — the Republican Party started gaining influence in the Tar Heel State. In 1868, they elected as governor William Woods Holden, and both houses of the General Assembly went Republican. The GOP controlled the legislature essentially from 1868 to 1870.

Amid accusations that Republicans were corrupt drunkards, a new state constitution was written and adopted in 1868. (Fifteen African-American GOP delegates were at the constitutional convention). The new constitution added more offices to the executive branch, including a superintendent of public instruction, and extended the governor’s term from two years to four. Senatorial elections went from being based on a region’s wealth to its population.

The biggest change possibly occurred in the judicial branch. The power of county courts was diminished; lawmaking abilities were transferred to county commissioners and more cases were to be tried in Superior Courts.

In 1870, the Conservative Party — former Democrats and Whigs who opposed the more radical, congressional forms of Reconstruction and preferred President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction agenda — gained a significant number of seats in both houses. They started working to impeach Gov. Holden, who became the second governor in the United States to face impeachment. Holden was accused of suspending habeas corpus and unlawfully sending militia into counties to suppress Klan activity. The Republican became the first governor in the nation to be convicted and removed from office.

From 1870-76, North Carolina elected 30 African-Americans to the General Assembly and one to Congress. During the Fusion Era, election laws increased voter rolls by 80,000, and approximately 1,000 African-Americans held state or local political offices or government positions.

Long story short: The 2011 legislature is more momentous than previously thought. It’s been more than 140 years since Republicans have held such power.