Holden Impeachment

Written By North Carolina History Project

The tumultuous Reconstruction years influenced North Carolina, and political power struggles abounded in the state. In 1870, the Conservative Party won numerous elections, and with its newly gained power, the party worked successfully to impeach Governor William Woods Holden (R). His impeachment marked the second time that an impeachment of a governor occurred in United States history. His conviction marked the first time in the nation’s history.

The Conservative Party gained the majority of seats in the state Senate and House in 1870, a year when division infected the North Carolina Republican Party. This electoral success afforded an opportunity to impeach and disgrace the governor, whose policies had infuriated many Conservatives. (Impeachment is the act of bringing an official to trial for unconstitutional acts; he or she may or may not be convicted of wrong behavior).

Holden’s impeachment stemmed from his efforts to combat rising activity by the Ku Klux Klan, especially in Alamance and Caswell counties. Numerous vicious incidents had occurred. In February 1870, the Klan had taken a black Republican leader, William Outlaw, from his home and hanged him; later they hangedtwo other blacks and whipped other Republicans, black and white. The impetus for Holden’s action was the murder a few months later of John W. Stephens, a prominent white Republican leader. Stephens was stabbed in a room in the basement of the Caswell County Courthouse; the murderers locked the room with his body in it.

Holden had already tried and failed to get more than token help from the federal government to combat the Klan. So he hired a former Union commander from Tennessee, George W. Kirk. Holden declared martial law in the two counties, and Kirk’s militia of about 670 soldiers rounded up about 100 leaders of the Klan in the counties. Holden did not release them or send them to a court, thus suspending the writ of habeas corpus, which was illegal under the North Carolina Constitution.

The prisoners petitioned to the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, who responded by having writs of habeas corpus sent to Kirk. But Holden told Kirk not to accept them. He explained to the chief justice that “the civil Courts are no longer a protection to life, liberty and property; assassination and outrage go unpunished, and the civil magistrates are intimidated . . . .” (His letter is quoted by Jim W. Brissom.[1]) Martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus were necessary, Holden claimed.

Even when a federal district judge, Justice George W. Brooks, demanded the writs be followed, Holden resisted at first. He appealed again to the federal government for support, but Secretary of War William W. Belknap advised him to send the writs that Brooks had demanded. The prisoners were brought to court; about half were indicted, but none was ever convicted.

Holden’s political enemies brought forth eight charges in their impeachent. Two charges were that Holden acted illegally by sending troops into Alamance and Caldwell counties when each county’s government remained in control.  Accusers also charged Holden with two counts of illegally arresting two men (Josiah Turner and John Kerr).  According to the prosecution, Holden also twice suspended the writ of habeas corpus when arresting the men. Two other charges were that Holden refused to follow state laws when raising troops and acted illegally when paying troops.

In essence, according to historian William S. Powell, Conservatives, under the leadership of Frederick N. Strudwick, charged Holden with “declaring martial law; unlawfully raising troops; illegally declaring counties to be in a state of insurrection; illegally arresting . . . citizens; . . . seizing, detaining, imprisoning, and depriving those citizens of their liberty and privileges as freemen; and . . . refusing to obey a writ of habeas corpus.”

The impeachment trial lasted for seven weeks and respected attorneys from the prosecution and defense, including William A. Graham and William N. H. Smith, put forth arguments and together cross-examined 170 witnesses.  Holden was convicted of the last six offenses.  (Each charge received a separate vote.)  Shortly afterward, by a 36 to 13 vote, the Senate removed Holden as governor and barred him from holding future public offices at the state level. Lieutenant Governor Tod R. Caldwell succeeded Holden.  

The story did not end there, however. Many years later, on March 9, 2011, the North Carolina Senate unanimously pardoned Holden, posthumously, noting that Holden had “dispatched the State militia to Alamance and Caswell counties to stop the violence being caused by the Ku Klux Klan . . . and [his] steadfast resistance to the Klan led to his being impeached and removed from office. . . .” [2] The North Carolina House of Representatives did not take up the bill, however, so the pardon is incomplete.

[1] Jim D. Brisson, “‘Civil Government Was Crumbling Around Me'”: The Kirk-Holden War of 1870,” North Carolina Historical Review 88, no. 2 (April 2011), 123-163, at 148.

[2] General Assembly of North Carolina (2011), Senate Joint Resolution 256, March 9, 2011.