Tod Robinson Caldwell (1818-1874)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Tod Robinson Caldwell is noteworthy in North Carolina history for at least three reasons: he was the first lieutenant governor of North Carolina; he was the second Republican governor of the state; and he assumed governor’s duties after William Woods Holden, the first North Carolina Republican governor, was impeached.

Son of an Irish immigrant, Caldwell was born in Morganton (Burke County) on February 19, 1818.  As a student, he excelled.  He showed such promise at the University of North Carolina that the eminent attorney David Swain, then the university president, mentored the Morganton native.  He graduated from UNC in 1840 and soon earned a reputation as one of the state’s preeminent criminal lawyers.

Similar to many governors of the mid-nineteenth century, Caldwell’s career began as a state legislator.  Starting in 1842, he served four consecutive terms in the state House and then one term in the state Senate.  He was affiliated with the Whig Party, the political ancestor, according to some historians, of the Republican Party.  

As a state legislator, Caldwell championed nationalism and internal improvements.  He supported Henry Clay’s American system—a national, economic program that included protective tariffs, a national bank to provide loans and a standardized currency, and an organized system of transportation networks.  To little surprise, Caldwell denounced secession and cast his loyalties with the Union during the Civil War.  His son, however, died at Gettysburg fighting under Robert E. Lee’s command.

Caldwell played an important role in the newly created North Carolina Republican Party.  He and William W. Holden, editor and owner of the North Carolina Standard, helped form the party.  Among many things, the Constitution of 1868 created the lieutenant governor’s office.  On the first Republican ticket in North Carolina, Holden successfully ran as governor and Caldwell as lieutenant governor.  Caldwell assumed the governor’s duties, when Holden was impeached, and Caldwell became the state’s chief executive, when Holden was convicted.  Caldwell ran for governor in the 1872 election and barely won by approximately 2,000 votes.  If it had not been for the African American vote, Caldwell would have lost.

As governor, Caldwell had many ideas but in the end remained more or less ineffective. After assuming the reigns of power from Holden in 1871, Caldwell faced an emergency situation that he deemed necessitated national intervention: he asked the national government to suspend Klan activity in Rutherford County.   During his first, full term, according to The North Carolina Governors, he “called for a methodical resolution of the state debt; tried to pump new life into the school system; proposed new laws to restore order in the society, particularly in regard to the newly established rights of black citizens; and asked for vigorous prosecution of bond fraud leaders George W. Swepson and Milton S. Littlefield.”  The opposing Conservative Party controlled the legislature and implemented only the prosecution of bond fraud leaders.  (Many historians remember the Burke county native mostly for his unsuccessful efforts to revive the public school system.)  Caldwell had little success dismantling the apprenticeship program for parentless children and replacing it with orphanages.  He preferred the latter because apprentices were rarely sent to school and matured without being taught what he considered proper civic duties and godly morality.  He therefore believed that apprentices fell into “vice and degration [sic] and become a plague and a burden to the State.”  Orphanages, Caldwell argued, provided the correct training that children needed.

Like many Whigs and promoters of the American System, Caldwell was involved in the railroad corporations.  After the Civil War and before he became lieutenant governor, he was president of the Western North Carolina Railroad.  As governor of the state, he attended the board of directors’ meetings for the North Carolina Railroad.  At one on July 10, 1874, approximately a year and a half after his election, he fell ill from a gall bladder attack.  The following day, he died.   Lieutenant Governor Curtis Brogdon then assumed the governor’s job.