1861 NC POWER POLITICS

The best brief summary of the political domanance exercised, from the late colonial period to 1861, by North Carolina’s upper class (or gentry) over the remainder of the state’s population is found in Paul D. Escott and Jeffrey J. Crow, “The Social Order and Violent Disorder: An Analysis of North Carolina in the Revolution and the Civil War,” THE JOURNAL OF SOUTHERN HISTORY. Volume 52, Number 3 (August, 1986), pages 378 and 379.

“. . . .The Carolina gentry, moreover, showed scant interest in the promotion of religion, polite society, arts, or education. North Carolina’s colonial elite, primarily first- or second-generation immigrants, displayed a strong acquisitive spirit and a keen sensitivity to the forces of an emerging commercial economy. The colony’s political institutions were thus used to advance the gentry’s private ends. Struggles over land, quitrents, representation in the [state] assembly, taxes, and patronage consumed the elite’s energies in the half century before the Revolution. When the [North Carolina] gentry drafted the first state constitution in 1776, high property qualifications for officeholding and the payment of ‘public taxes’ in order to vote assured the men of property [real and personal] and substance would continue to run the commonwealth’s affairs and exercise the suffrage [the right to vote]. Indeed, the seven-member Council of State and the governor were elected by the legislature rather than by popular ballot.

Despite extensive amendments to the [North Carolina] constitution in 1835, little had changed by the eve of the Civil War. Except for giving the election of the governor to the people, the constitutional convention of 1835 made few substantive changes and in effect turned aside the wave of constitutional reform that was democratizing the South. Property qualifications remained in force for all high offices, and these were meaningful enough so that no ordinary yeoman could serve in the legislature, much less in a more prestigious office. Proof that the restrictions [on political participation by ordinary citizens] actually worked was found in [North Carolina’s] legislature, where more than 85% of the members in 1860 were slaveholders. This was the largest percentage of slaveholders in any southern legislature, although less than a third [according to another source it is just under 30%] of North Carolina’s white families owned slaves. And despite the fact that only 3 per cent of the state’s white families were planters (owners of at least twenty slaves), more than 36% of the legislators [in the North Carolina legislature] were planters, one of the highest percentages in the South. Moreover, except for the offices of sheriff and clerk of court, local government [especially the county government and county court] – which since colonial days had exercised great powers and made the greatest impact on the average citizen – rest with an appointed [patronage driven] oligarchy of prominent men, justices of the peace who served for life. These wealthy individuals customarily dominated county affairs; some of them held power for decades and then passed the reins of local government on to their sons. Among the states of the South, only South Carolina had as aristocratic a system of government [as North Carolina] in 1860.”

For more detail on the heavy, disporportionate concentration of economic and political power in the hands of North Carolina’s wealthiest slaveholders and other elite men read the exemptions that they awarded themselves to avoid fighting in the Civil War at “1861 Avoiding Military Service.” Also, in the military regiments in which men from Nash and Wilson Counties fought notice the high rate of resignation for commissioned officers who disportionately came from North Carolina’s wealthiest families.

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