Graham Brothers

Brothers James and William A. Graham were leaders of the Whig Party in antebellum North Carolina. Both were born in Lincoln County to a prosperous slaveholding family. Born on January 7, 1793, James served six terms in the United States House of Representatives. Before entering politics, James graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and practiced law in Rutherford County. He served in the state legislature from 1822 to 1824 and again from 1828 to 1829. In 1833, he entered the United States House of Representatives and repeatedly won reelection until meeting defeat in 1842. Two years later he regained his seat and held it until his term expired in 1847, when he retired from Congress. His younger brother William, born on September 5, 1804, served for two years in the United States Senate before becoming Governor of North Carolina.  Like his older brother, William also graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After practicing law in Hillsboro, William won election to the state House of Representatives in 1833 and served until he won a seat in the United States Senate. During his period of service in the House of Commons, he was twice elected Speaker of that chamber. He was elected North Carolina’s Governor in 1845 and again in 1847.  Whigs nominated William, once described as the handsomest man in all of North Carolina, as Vice President in 1852, but the Whig ticket of Winfield Scott-William Graham lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce and his running mate William R. King in a landslide.  The ticket, however, lost North Carolina by only 745 votes.

A Split in the Whig Party

The Whig Party in North Carolina had two different wings.  The Graham brothers belonged to what has been called the “Federal wing” which supported the measures of the national Whig party: a national bank, a federally sponsored program of internal improvements, and a protective tariff.  The Graham brothers, however, did not support high tariffs. In national politics, low-tariff Whigs stood behind Henry Clay and faithfully supported his presidential ambitions.  The other wing has been referred to as a “states rights wing.”  Led by William P. Mangum, Whig states’ rights adherents tended to oppose most measures that the “Federal” Whigs supported. The states-rights Whigs became Whigs because they disliked and opposed President Andrew Jackson. Once Old Hickory left office and the national Whig party asserted its economic plan, these Whigs had no political home, but they remained Whigs although their political views coincided more with the Democratic Party platform.  

The Quiet, Older Brother

James Graham rarely spoke while he served in the House. Most of his preserved papers are letters to his brother. Some demonstrate his commitment to democracy. “It is in vain for the Politicians to coerce the people into the support of any candidate,” he wrote in 1838; “They must take the most available candidate of their own views and principles.”  While in Congress, Graham usually voted with fellow Whigs. He voted, for instance, against the bill that created the Independent Subtreasury in 1840. The next year, he voted with the Whig majority to repeal it and supported a bill that would have created a third national bank (President John Tyler vetoed the bill).  Regarding the tariff, Graham, like his brother, disagreed with most of his Whig brethren. In particular, the Tar Heel representative voted against the Tariff Act of 1842.  Interestingly, the bill barely passed by a vote of 105 to 103.  If one Congressman had switched his vote, Graham’s vote against the Whig-sponsored tariff could have had serious ramifications for his party. In that same year, 1842, Graham lost his seat to Thomas L. Clingman.  Two years later he regained it.  In 1846 he voted for the declaration of war against Mexico but then voted against the Democratic-sponsored Walker Tariff of 1846, which sought to lower import duties. After declining to seek another term in 1846, James Graham retired from politics. He died in 1851.

Younger Yet Influential

Few men in North Carolina history have held as many public offices as William Graham. Unlike his older brother, William Graham left behind a plethora of documents for historians to reconstruct his life. He also spoke frequently when in Congress, and he wrote editorials for North Carolina papers. Graham entered the Senate at the end of 1840, yet his term ended in March 1843. On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison took the oath of office to be the nation’s ninth president. A month later, Harrison had died and John Tyler, a states’ rights Whig from Virginia, became the new president. In September, Tyler approved the Distribution that Graham had voted for. Under the act, the surplus revenue of the federal government from land sales would be returned to the states based on their number of representatives in the House. States could then use the returned revenue however they wished, including constructing roads, building libraries, creating universities, or any other public works that the state desired. Since the federal government would be returning its excess revenue to the states, political pressure would build for the government to maintain high tariff levels to keep its coffers filled. Tyler told Congress that if average rates on imported articles rose above twenty percent, distribution would have to end. Graham considered the issue of distribution more important than any other issue because the federal funds would allow North Carolina to improve its coastline and build roads and canals. Because eastern Whigs had opposed his elevation to the Senate, Graham sought to appease them by working to pass bills that would appropriate funds that would link the Albemarle Sound with the Atlantic Ocean. Graham, like other Whigs in the state, envisioned a more dynamic and commercial North Carolina, and this, he thought, could best be accomplished through federal funds.Shortly after Tyler approved the Distribution Act, he again vetoed a bill that would have created a new national bank. Whigs broke with the President, as did Graham. Tyler’s cabinet resigned and Tyler suddenly became a president without a party. In the summer of 1842, Tyler vetoed a series of tariff bills, favored by the Whigs, because the bills included distribution provisions. This time however, Graham supported the President while most Whigs discussed impeaching the embattled Tyler. When the Senate finally passed a tariff bill without distribution, Graham voted against it.

Tenure as Campaign Leader

With his Senate term close to concluding, Graham knew that to maintain his seat, Whigs must remain in control of the North Carolina legislature. Graham became the campaign leader of the Whigs in 1842. Because Congress did not recess until the beginning of September, Graham led the Whig campaign in North Carolina from his Senate desk in Washington. He corresponded with editors and colleagues and tried to convince the people of North Carolina that the Whig Party should not be held responsible for the sins of John Tyler.  In the elections of 1842, the Democrats, however, regained control of the North Carolina legislature, and they gave Graham’s Senate seat to William H. Haywood.

Next Stop: Governor’s Office

Immediately after Graham’s Senate term ended, Whigs in North Carolina asked him to be their candidate for the office of Governor of North Carolina. Graham refused all overtures at first and chose instead to practice law. But after constant badgering and the realization that a strong showing by the Whigs in North Carolina would help their nominee in the presidential race of that same year, Graham consented to run. After being confined to his bed for two months, Graham campaigned throughout the state but concentrated his efforts on the western and central regions, the heart of North Carolina Whiggery. He and his Democratic opponent, Michael Hoke, held numerous debates together. When the people went to the polls, they rewarded Graham with the governorship by just over three thousand votes. The Whigs won a comfortable majority in both houses of the state legislature, too. The euphoria of the North Carolina Whigs did not last long, however. In November, the state gave its electoral votes to Henry Clay but Clay, the Whig candidate, lost the presidential election to Democrat James K. Polk.

At his inaugural, Graham echoed Thomas Jefferson’s famous oration that “We are all Federalists, We are all Republicans” by announcing: “If we glory in the name of American Citizens, it should be with feelings akin to filial affection and gratitude, that we remember we are North Carolinians!” Though he had supported measures that tended to increase the powers of the federal government while he served in the Senate, Graham told the people of North Carolina that he would defend the rights of their sovereign state as governor: “The line of partition between State and Federal powers should be kept distinctly marked; and while those yielded by the States should be liberally exercised for the general good, those retained should be carefully watched over and preserved.”

As Governor, Graham sought to preserve the history of North Carolina during the American Revolution. He urged his fellow citizens to send him documents and stories pertaining to the struggle that began in 1776. The Whig controlled state legislature and Graham also saved the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad. Democrats charged that the state should only spend $79,000 on the railroad but the Whigs argued that the state needed to spend $300,000. In the end, the Whig argument won and the state paid $363,000 for the mortgage on the railroad.  Graham took an interest in humanitarian efforts as well. This included reforms such as providing assistance to the deaf, blind, and mute. In 1846, Graham won a second term as Governor by defeating James B. Shepard by almost eight thousand votes.

Second Term

Although he had been a caretaker to his predecessor during his first term as Governor, William Graham hoped to set his own legislative agenda during his second term. Unfortunately, he spent a large part of his second term dealing with North Carolina militia companies and with officers who wanted appointments to serve in the Mexican War. Graham tried to be fair, but militia companies were organized geographically and by party. Thus, no matter which company received an appointment, there would be hurt feelings. Several members of the North Carolina regiment even received dishonorable discharges after fomenting a mutiny while serving in Mexico near Buena Vista. Because the North Carolina constitution limited the number of terms for a governor for two, Graham could not seek a third term in 1848. Charles Manly, a Whig, became North Carolina’s thirty-first Governor by defeating Democrat David S. Reid by less than nine hundred votes.

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Graham became Secretary of the Navy in Millard Fillmore’s Cabinet. In 1852, he became the Whig party’s nominee for vice president but lost that election. Two years later, he won a seat in the North Carolina Senate. Some of the remaining Whigs mentioned Graham as a possible candidate for the presidency in 1860 but this movement garnered little support or enthusiasm. During the Civil War, Graham won an election in 1862 to serve in the Confederate Congress. He died in New York State in 1875 and his body was returned home to North Carolina for a burial in Hillsboro.


J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton ed., The Papers of William Alexander Graham (6 vols., Raleigh, 1957-?); Thomas E. Jeffrey, State Parties and National Politics: North Carolina, 1815-1861 (Athens, 1989); Marc W. Kruman, Parties and Politics in North Carolina, 1836-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1983); Max R. Williams, “William A. Graham: North Carolina Whig Party Leader, 1804-1849” diss.  (University of North Carolina, 1965).