Election Case of Joseph Abbott and Zebulon Vance

Written By Jonathan Martin

After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution prevented anyone who had served the Confederacy from holding a seat in Congress. In 1870, Zebulon Vance, previous North Carolina governor during the Civil War, ran for the U.S. Senate. The incumbent senator, Joseph Abbott, lost the election to Vance, but he challenged the legitimacy of the election because Vance had supported the Confederacy.

Abbott, who relied heavily on his black supporters, received fewer votes since blacks had not yet obtained the right to vote in North Carolina. Vance had served as both a U.S. Representative and North Carolina governor, earning him the popular vote.

In March 1871, Abbott filed a complaint to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections. Abbott claimed that he should have been elected given the fact that Vance was barred from serving in the U.S. Senate for his past Confederate support. However, a year before the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, Vance was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. The Senate Elections Committee split over the issue, but a verdict was eventually issued in April 1872.

Since Abbott had obtained only a small percentage of the vote, the Elections Committee ruled that his minority votes were not enough to take the election. In response to the argument about the Fourteenth Amendment’s exclusion of past Confederate supporters, the committee ruled that Congress had the capacity to remove restrictions that prevented a Southern representative or senator from taking office. By ruling in favor of Vance, the committee set the precedent that allowed the Senate the discretion to pardon elected representatives and senators in the years to follow.

Vance, wary of a decision in favor of Abbott, decided to resign from office a month before the committee’s verdict. Matt W. Ransom, former N.C. Attorney General and Confederate General, was elected to take Vance’s vacant seat. The Senate Elections Committee ruled in favor of Ransom’s election on April 24, 1872.

The three North Carolina politicians involved in the dispute remained in government positions after its conclusion. Senator Ransom served in his position until his death in 1904, and Zebulon Vance returned to the U.S. Senate where he served until he passed in 1894. Though Joseph Abbott lost the case, he was later appointed port inspector by President Rutherford B. Hayes.