Abbott versus Vance U.S. Senate Election

Written By Jonathan Martin

After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevented anyone who had served the Confederacy from holding a seat in Congress.  In 1870, former North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance ran for the U.S. Senate.  The incumbent senator, Joseph Abbott, lost the election.  He then challenged the election’s legitimacy, for Vance had served as an officer in the Confederate Army and later as the governor of a Confederate state.

Even though the Republican Abbott had worked to improve the Tar Heel State during his senatorial career, North Carolina chose his Democratic opponent in the 1870 election. Vance’s previous political career in Congress and as governor undoubtedly impressed many Tar Heels.  Abbott relied heavily on African American support, and until black male suffrage was secured in the state, his political chances were slim.

In March 1871, Abbott filed a complaint with the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections. He pointed out that Vance, a former Confederate officer, governor, and supporter, was barred from serving in the U.S. Senate.  However, a year before the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, President Andrew Johnson had pardoned the North Carolinian.  For a while, the Senate Elections Committee remained divided over the issue, but a verdict was eventually issued in April 1872.

The Elections Committee responded to Abbott’s claim.  First, it ruled that the paltry show of support for Abbott indicated that he could not win the election. Second, the committee ruled that Congress had the capacity to remove restrictions preventing a former Confederate sympathizer from being a U.S. representative or U.S. Senator.  This decision set a precedent that allowed the Senate the discretion to pardon elected representatives and senators.

A month before the Elections Committee issued its verdict, however, Vance had resigned.  Matt W. Ransom, former N.C. Attorney General and a Confederate General, was elected to assume Vance’s vacant seat.  The Senate Elections Committee ruled in favor of Ransom’s election on April 24, 1872.

The three politicians involved in the electoral dispute remained in government positions after the event.  Ransom served as a U.S. Senator until his 1904 death, and Zebulon Vance later served in the state’s other Senate seat until he passed away in 1894.  Even though Joseph Abbott lost his case, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as a Port Inspector.