Whigs Restored Two
Party Rule to Chatham and North Carolina
The term Whig originally referred to the
American revolutionaries who were fighting the Crown. In September of
1781 the notorious local Tory, David Fanning, led 1,100 men to attack
Hillsboro, a center of discontent and also the capital of North
Carolina. There they killed 15 Whigs and captured more than 200
others including the Governor and other prominent military and
Whig militiamen tried to free the
prisoners at Lindley’s Mill on Cane Creek but ran out of ammunition
and lost over one hundred men. There were two local Whigs of
importance among the dead, Col. John Lutterhell of Haw River and Major
John Nall of Bear Creek. The Whig hero of the battle, Col. Robert
Mebane was murdered some time later in what is now Williams Township,
and his killer, a Tory named Henry Hightower was captured and hanged.
The term Whig was revived again in 1834
when a coalition of diverse groups, all opposed to some of President
Andrew Jackson’s policies, formed the Whig Party. Jackson himself was
elected by a broad coalition of conflicting interest groups and was
frequently involved in fights not only with his opponents but also
with diverse factions among his supporters.
For many years since North Carolina had
joined the Union, the Jeffersonian Republican party controlled the
state’s political scene, and the Eastern end of the state controlled
the Republicans. They favored a strict interpretation of the
Constitution, states’ rights, feared the influence of any federal
internal improvements, and rigid economic controls. In the election
campaign of 1824 they backed William Harris Crawford, but dissidents
in the Republican Party formed a People’s Party which backed Andrew
The People’s Party, much to the dismay of
the Republicans, carried North Carolina in the 1824 election, with
heavy support from the western end of the state which favored
federally financed internal improvements, constitutional reform, a
reform of party machinery and the exclusion of slavery above 36º 30’.
Chatham, Randolph and Guilford Counties, supported Crawford, the
Republican. The election of 1824 had Jackson winning a plurality of
popular and electoral votes, but none of the five candidates had a
majority. This situation threw the election into the House of
Representatives which chose John Quincy Adams as President.
Jackson spent the next four years
polishing his image and in 1828 he was elected, winning a clear
majority in the Electoral College, and he was re-elected in 1832.
During these two terms he gradually fell out of favor with the West
and the Sound region of North Carolina because of his opposition to
federally financed internal improvements, his devotion to states’
rights, and his obsession with economy.
In 1834 a group of diverse factions, all
opposed to Jackson’s policies and forceful attitude, formed the Whig
party. Lacking in unity, except for common antagonism toward Jackson,
the new party was comprised of proponents and opponents of protective
tariffs, federal aid to state projects, the right of states to nullify
unpopular federal laws, and national banks. The following year the
Whig party was established in North Carolina and managed to elect
seven of the state’s thirteen congressmen and a fairly good minority
in the General Assembly. The formation of the North Carolina Whig
Party put a stumbling block in the ability of the conservative
plantation holders in the East to dominate the state’s role in
national and state politics.
Soon the Jackson backers dropped the
various names they were known by and became known as Democrats. The
Whig-Democrat split restored the two party system to North Carolina.
A Chatham County resident from Pittsboro,
Abraham Rencher, served in Congress from 1821 to 1834 under the
National Republican banner, but in 1836 he ran again as a Whig and was
elected. After his tenure in Congress, Rencher served as Minister to
Portugal and Governor of the territory of New Mexico. He and his wife
Louisa are buried in St. Bartholomew’s Churchyard in Pittsboro.
The Whigs strongly favored public
schools, a special school for the deaf and mute, a hospital for the
insane, state aid to internal improvements, a national bank,
protective tariffs, and revisions of the North Carolina Constitution
In November 1833 the State Assembly
recommended that the North Carolina Constitution be revised either by
legislative amendment or by a “people’s convention.” The East favored
the legislative amendment procedure while Chatham County and the West
wanted a convention. The deadlock resulted in the matter being
Finally in January 1835, strongly pushed
by Gov. David L. Swain and the growing power of the Whigs, a bill was
passed calling for a referendum on the question of holding a
convention. The call for a convention won by a margin of 5,856, in
spite of objections by the privileged classes in the east. The
convention was held in July 1835 and produced a revised Constitution.
The new Constitution called for popular
election of the governor for a two year term, the assembly would meet
bi-annually instead of annually, the North Carolina Senate was to
consist of 50 members and the House of Commons of 120 members. The
members of the lower House were to be elected according to federal
population figures, with each county guaranteed at least one, but the
Senators were to be elected by districts according to the amount of
state taxes paid. Free Negroes were disfranchised, and religious
qualifications for office-holders and special representation in the
legislature by larger boroughs was abolished. The Western end of the
state overwhelmingly ratified the work of the convention, overcoming a
nearly total vote against it in the East. Chatham County citizens
voted for approval, with 556 for and 200 against.
Chatham’s Whigs drew most of their
backing from the working class, the yeoman farmers, and the
underprivileged classes. The party’s emphasis on education, humane
treatment of the sick and poor, and absence of a pro-slavery stance,
may have attracted votes from western Chatham’s significant Quaker
Cotton was Chatham’s most important crop,
cultivated mainly by slave labor, but the slaveholders were far fewer
in numbers than the small farmers, Quakers, and tradesmen who outvoted
the Democrats locally and in national elections. The Chatham vote was
carried by the Whig candidate for governor in every election between
1836 and 1854. Chatham also voted for the Whig candidate for
President from 1832 to 1852, and the Whigs not only carried North
Carolina in Presidential elections between 1840 and 1852, but also
accounted for one half or more of the State’s Congressional
delegations during the same period.
In 1848 Charles Manly, a Chatham native
who practiced law in Pittsboro but lived in Raleigh, was elected
Governor on the Whig ticket, beating Democrat David S. Reid by less
than 1,000 votes. Reid had surprised Manly in a public debate by
calling for free suffrage and Manly committed his party against it.
This stance by Manly did some damage, and even in his native Chatham
he received 935 votes against a surprising 781 for Reid. Two years
later Reid defeated Manly by almost 3,000 votes statewide, even though
Manly took Chatham by 312 votes. There were no Whig governors after
In 1857 the Democrats’ free suffrage bill
was approved by the electorate, with Chatham voting for approval, 1047
to 735. The bill ended the freehold qualification for voting for
senators, and apportioned the state senators as well as legislators on
the same population basis as in federal elections, with slaves
counting as three fifths.
The debates over slavery and the question
of extending it into the southwestern territory acquired in the
Mexican War caused a division in the national political parties. The
Northern anti-slavery groups united in the new Republican party. Many
Whigs flirted briefly with the Know-Nothing or American party, which
after six years took on the Whig name in 1860.
The conservative element of the
Democratic party and the Whigs resisted the call for secession by the
radical wing of the Democrats. An election was held in February 1861
to let the people decide whether or not to call a convention to
consider secession, and they voted not to do so. In Chatham 283 votes
were for the convention and 1,795 were cast against it.
The voter’s opinions changed after the
battle over Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops. Party quarrels
were forgotten and a new convention, assembled May 20, 1861,
subsequently voted to secede and ratified the Provisional Constitution
of the Confederate States of America. Once this happened, party lines
were set aside and people of all sides of the political spectrum
concentrated on the war effort. The Whigs were no longer a factor in
North Carolina politics, but during their existence they had broken
the grip of the Eastern plantation class and restored a two party
system to North Carolina.
Major sources for this column were: “The
Presidency of Andrew Jackson” by Donald B. Cole and “Chatham County
1771-1971” by Hadley, Horton, Strowd.
*Fred J. Vatter is past
president of the Chatham County Historical Association, an organization
for which he is also a board member and museum curator.
The above article appeared
in the Fall 2004 issue of the Chatham County Line.