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 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 political enemies brought forth eight charges. 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.
William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989) and Richard L. Zuber, North Carolina During Reconstruction (Raleigh, 1969).