A U.S. Congressman and later a U.S. Senator, David Settle Reid served as North Carolina’s governor from 1851 until 1854. The Democrat is known for playing an instrumental role in the demise of the North Carolina Whig Party with his adroit debating in the 1848 election. He is also known for being supportive of public education and for defending what he believed to be southern rights.
Born in Rockingham County, Reid lacked the pedigree that many founding-era and antebellum-era governors possessed. Nevertheless, he opened a law practice and achieved political fame and success in his twenties.
Throughout his political career, Reid supported public education efforts. He was instrumental in the passage of the 1839 public school law. It is no surprise that North Carolina’s first public school opened in Reid’s native county. As governor, Reid appointed the state’s first Superintendent of the Common Schools, Calvin H. Wiley. When Reid was governor, public education remained one of his three main interests; the other two were building internal improvements and defending southern rights.
As a U.S. Congressman in the 1840s, Reid endorsed President James K. Polk’s war efforts in Mexico and emerged as a strong ally of the president. In 1848, Democratic leadership convinced Reid to run for governor.
Although he lost the 1848 gubernatorial election, Reid forced Charles Manly to debate on his terms and played a key part in the Whig Party’s ruin in the Tar Heel State. The Democratic Party’s platform was silent on the issue of manhood suffrage, but the “reluctant candidate” made his personal thoughts concerning the issue into a major part of the campaign. He wanted the state constitution to be amended to ensure that “all voters for a member of the House of Commons [should] be allowed to vote for Senators.” At a Beaufort debate, he inquired whether Manly supported broadening the vote. Manly was flummoxed. A day later Manly rejected the idea and called Reid’s concern as nothing more than “political claptrap.” That response multiplied the internal division within a party already split over the issue. Reid lost, but only by 848 votes—the closest gubernatorial election in a decade or so.
Reid defeated Manly in the next election and that marked a new political era for the Democratic Party in North Carolina and was the start of the last act for the Whig Party.
Reid won his reelection bid and in his third year as governor, the state legislature appointed him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. (Warren Winslow of Cumberland County assumed the governor’s position.) The Piedmont native soon earned a reputation in Washington, D.C. as a states’ righter.
The state legislature chose someone else in 1858 to be a U.S. Senator. So Reid returned to his home. He died in 1891.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2006) and William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989).