The third of eight children, Vance was born in 1830 in the small town of Weaverville, also the birthplace of a father of modern day conservatism, Richard Weaver. Obtaining an education at Washington College in Tennessee, Vance dropped out at age fourteen when his father unexpectedly passed away. After returning to Weaverville, Vance courted and eventually married Harriette Espy, and together, they would have four sons. However, Vance’s life still had a void – a formal education. Vance eventually gained admission to the University of North Carolina to study law, where he ended up excelling in the subject.
Vance later practiced law in Asheville. By 1852, he was elected county solicitor, thus beginning an extended career in public service. From 1858 to 1861, Vance served as a U.S. Representative as a member of the waning Whig Party. He dropped this post in 1861, when tensions arose between the North and South, and war looked inevitable. After the Union’s firing on Fort Sumter, Vance aligned his interests with the state.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Vance served as a captain stationed in Raleigh. Within a year, he was promoted to Colonel of Twenty-Sixth North Carolina, and spearheaded its charges at the Battles of New Bern and Richmond. After the summer of 1862, Vance retired from active duty, intent on resuming his career in public service.
In September of 1862, Vance won the gubernatorial election and became North Carolina’s 37th Governor. During his first term as governor (as he would later serve between 1877 and 1879), Vance’s primary goal was to assure the Confederacy that North Carolina was still loyal to their cause. However, Vance advocated individual rights and a more powerful local government, which frequently led to clashes between the governor and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate Government. Moreover, Vance’s political maneuvers, as some have argued, helped North Carolina residents at the expense of the South as a whole. Vance forbade the suspension of habeas corpus during the war, even though most states had lifted it. He also brokered deals with blockade runners to provide smuggled supplies to North Carolinians before other states received their provisions. For his efforts in improving the morale of the state’s residents during difficult economic times, Vance secured tremendous public support and approval from North Carolinians, and acclaim from many southerners.
During his first term as governor, Vance was arrested in May 1865 by Union forces. After filing a pardon form, Vance was released. He moved to Charlotte to once again practice law, but many Tar Heels still yearned for him to return to the Capitol and lead the state once again. Vance won the 1877 gubernatorial election, and this time, focused his efforts on rebuilding an economy torn by war and improving the declining status of agriculture and education in North Carolina. Deciding not to seek gubernatorial reelection in 1879, Vance was elected to the U.S. Senate, and served in that body for the remainder of his life.
On April 14, 1894, Vance died at his Washington residence. He is buried in Asheville.
“Zebulon Vance.” Architect of the Capitol. http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/nsh/vance.cfm (Accessed on June 23, 2011).
“Zebulon Baird Vance.” North Carolina Office of Governor Bev Purdue. http://www.governor.state.nc.us/contact/governors/zebulonBairdVance.aspx (Accessed on June 22, 2011).