William Alexander Graham (1804 – 1875)

Written By Jonathan Martin

William Alexander Graham (1804 – 1875), a N.C. governor, U.S. Senator, cabinet member, and a vice-Presidential Whig nominee foresaw progress and political change in antebellum North Carolina. Entering politics in 1830, Graham soon became a vital part of the state’s Whig leadership. Graham served as campaign manager for the Whigs in 1842. Later, he served as the last of the three Whig governors during the Whig era of North Carolina politics (1836-1850).

Born on September 5, 1804, Graham was from a wealthy slaveholding family in Lincoln, North Carolina. He attended Hillsborough Academy before college, and Graham would later study law at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. After graduating in 1824, Graham started to practice law in Hillsborough in 1828. He married Susannah Sarah Washington in 1836 and they had ten children.

 In 1833, Graham started his political career by winning a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives. Originally drawn to politics by Henry Clay and his “American System,” Graham became a part of North Carolina’s “federal wing” of the Whig party. While these “federal wing” Whigs proposed a national bank, a protective tariff, and internal improvements, Graham only advocated a limited tariff. In 1838, Graham became Speaker of the House for the NC House of Commons, and two years later was elected to the U.S. Senate. As a senator, Graham supported President Tyler’s distribution of federal funds to the states in hopes to create “a more dynamic and commercial North Carolina.” Graham also served as the chairman of the senate Committee on Claims in the twenty-seventh Congress.

After his brief tenure as a senator, Graham was elected governor of North Carolina in 1845. William’s young age, progressive political stance, and party zeal led to many accomplishments as governor. Most prominent of William’s political goals included the preservation of North Carolina’s history during the Revolutionary War and the institution of a school for the deaf and mute. Graham’s agenda also took import to rescue the deteriorating Raleigh and Gaston Railroad as well as organizing militia companies during the Mexican War. Graham served for four years as governor and left the post in 1849.

Immediately following his departure from the governor’s office, Graham was appointed by President Millard Fillmore to occupy the Secretary of Navy’s seat in the cabinet. Graham served in that post until 1852, when he left to pursue an ultimately unsuccessful nomination for Vice President through the Whig Party. Returning to North Carolina, Graham served as a member of the state congress from 1854-1866, and as a notable senator in the Confederate Congress from 1864-1865.

In his latter years, Graham spent his time serving on the board of trustees for the Peabody Fund, a fund aimed at providing educational assistance to the post-Civil War South. Graham was also instrumental in arbitrating the border dispute between Virginia and Maryland from 1873-1875. This would ultimately be his final act of public service, as Graham died in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1875. He is interred in the Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Hillsborough, NC. Graham’s name remains a fixture in North Carolina history, as the USS Graham (US Navy Ship), SS Liberty Graham (World War II Liberty Ship), and the county of Graham are all named in his honor.