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The competing legacies of William Woods Holden have ensured that opinions on the North Carolina governor continue to vary greatly. He has been praised for cracking down on the Ku Klux Klan during his tenure and criticized for the way he carried out this goal. Even 140 years later, when the topic of Holden's impeachment again appeared in the state senate, there were some who bitterly considered the governor a renegade who had trampled individual rights.
Holden was born in Hillsborough, North Carolina in November of 1818. At age 10, he apprenticed with the hometown newspaper, the Hillsborough Recorder. Holden later studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1841, but soon found himself back in the newspaper business. He worked at the Raleigh Star, and later became the owner and editor of the North Carolina Standard. Through this organ, he advocated for causes such as equal suffrage, universal education, and improved labor conditions.
First entering politics as a Whig, Holden joined the Democratic Party in 1843. A year later, he began serving in the state's house of commons and held a seat there until 1847. Holden was absent from politics for several years, although in 1858 he was rejected as both a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate. Though he defended states' rights to secede and supported the expansion of states and territories allowing slavery, Holden initially opposed the idea of North Carolina's secession since he thought it would lead to war. However, following the the secession of several other states and the attack on Fort Sumter, he took part in a secession convention in May of 1861 which led the state to break away from the Union and join the Confederacy. Holden's views changed again during the Civil War as he continued to publish his newspaper. He began to criticize the Confederate government and call for peace, saying it would be better for the South to meet a negotiated end to the conflict rather than fall in unconditional surrender. Some residents denounced Holden as a traitor, and in 1863 troops from Georgia attacked his office, destroyed his type, and seized personal papers. Yet Holden continued to publish until the Confederacy suspended the right of habeas corpus.
Holden's views impressed President Andrew Johnson enough that he appointed Holden the provisional governor of North Carolina during the postwar Reconstruction. This term was to last through December, and Holden worked to revise state constitution to recognize federal authority and begin restoring the economy. In December, Jonathan Worth defeated him in a re-election bid. Holden was offered a chance to represent the state in the U.S. Senate, but declined in order to return to publishing. Yet Holden remained politically active, changing parties again and becoming instrumental in organizing the state's Republican Party. He led the party's ticket in 1868 and was returned to the governor's office, although there was a brief standoff when Worth refused to recognize the Republican victory. This was resolved with an intervention by General Edward Canby to enforce the Reconstruction laws.
When he returned to office, Holden focused on initiatives such as prison reform, universal education, internal improvements such as railroad development, and equal justice. He also oversaw North Carolina's acceptance of Reconstruction efforts. The state had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in July of 1868 and officially returned to the United States. In March of 1869, the state ratified the Fifteenth Amendment. These additions to the Constitution sought to extend rights to former slaves, declaring that people born or naturalized in the United States were citizens and that color or past servitude did not prevent them from voting.
What did prevent them from voting was the campaign of terror waged by the Ku Klux Klan. The hooded vigilante group carried out lynchings, assaults, and other violent acts in an effort to suppress the black and Republican vote. Holden began to receive urgent requests for protection as civil authorities proved unable to unwilling to take on the KKK. In October of 1869, the governor threatened to declare Lenoir and Jones counties in insurrection. Holden also appealed to local law enforcement to take stronger action against the Klan, while the state legislature passed a law making it illegal to appear disguised in public for the purpose of violence or intimidation.
Though the actions helped cut down on the violence, it did not quash it entirely. Holden was especially concerned with continued KKK atrocities in Alamance and Caswell counties. In the former county, a band of men dragged Wyatt Outlaw, a black councilman and president of the local Union League, from his home and lynched him in February of 1870. Three months later, Republican state senator John W. Stephens attended a Democratic Party convention in Caswell County in an attempt to ease tensions by lending his support to the party's conservative candidate for sheriff. Instead, the candidate and several other attendees took him to the basement and stabbed him to death.
Under the Shoffner Act, recently passed by the state legislature, Holden had the power to declare counties to be in insurrection, raise militias to quell the rebellion, and suspend the right of habeas corpus. In March of 1870, he declared Alamance County to be in such a state, saying he had waited to see if there would be a public outcry against the KKK but that one never materialized, presumably because people were afraid of reprisal. "The laws must be maintained," Holden declared. "These laws are all over. Every citizen, of whatever party or color, must be absolutely free to express his political opinions, and must be safe in his own house. These outrages and these violations of law must and shall cease." In June, citing the murder of Stephens and six others in five counties, Holden declared Caswell County to be in insurrection.
Holden put the task of raising a militia to Col. George W. Kirk, who commanded Union troops in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. These troops moved into Alamance and Caswell counties and also posted a presence in Cleveland County, where state KKK leader Plato Durham lived. As the troops arrested suspected agitators, some accused Holden of perpetrating the same crime he was purportedly trying to stop. With state elections coming up in August, opponents felt the militia troops were terrorizing innocent civilians and trying to intimidate voters. There were complaints of brutal behavior by Kirk's troops, including two men who had been hanged by their necks in an effort to get them to divulge information on the Klan.
Democrats criticized the move as unconstitutional, claiming Holden's accounts of violence were exaggerated and that civil authorities were capable of handling the crime that was occurring. One address declared, in part, "It is true that murders and other outrages have been committed, but they have not been confined to any particular locality or any political party; and when Governor Holden represented to the President and to Congress that these acts are evidence of disloyalty, he is guilty of a willful libel upon the people whose rights he has sworn to protect." The party theorized that Holden could even be trying to provoke a violent conflict with the KKK, allowing him to put the entire state under martial law.
A standoff between Holden, Kirk, and judicial authorities began in the summer when Chief Justice Richard Pearson of the state's supreme court served a writ of habeas corpus on Kirk ordering four prisoners to be delivered before the court. Kirk refused, since Holden had instructed him not to surrender any prisoners to civil authorities. Pearson contacted Holden on the issue, and the governor responded that he felt the civil courts were " no longer a protection to life, liberty, and property; assassinations and outrage go unpunished, and civil magistrates are intimidated." He wanted the prisoners to be tried before federal military tribunals. While Pearson deliberated the issue, Holden wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant seeking federal troops to bolster the militia. "The organization is widespread and numerous, is based on the most deadly hostility to the Reconstruction acts, and is in all respects very unfriendly to the government of the reconstructed states and to the United States," he said. Grant immediately ordered the Secretary of War to comply with the request.
Pearson's ruling was slightly critical of Holden, determining that the governor did not have the right to suspend habeas corpus but that his actions in declaring the counties to be in rebellion and putting them under occupation had been legal. He also tacitly supported the governor by determining that Kirk had "sufficient reason" to not deliver the prisoners when ordered, and that the judiciary's role would be exhausted once he sent the writ to Holden for approval. In other words, he did not agree that Holden should suspend habeas corpus but he did not demand enforcement of the writ. Holden, of course, flatly refused to approve the writ once it came across his desk.
With the state authorities proving unhelpful, the prisoners now appealed to U.S. District Court Judge George Brooks. When Brooks also ordered a writ of habeas corpus for the men, Holden again looked to Grant for help. He argued that if the federal army demanded the prisoners, the court's writ would not apply to them. Attorney General Amos T. Ackerman replied that this would amount to the government blocking the judicial process. Holden relented, telling Kirk to obey the writ, and the federal proceedings were called off. Most of the prisoners arrested by Kirk's troops would later be released. In November, Holden declared that the situation had improved enough that he could lift the martial law. It was the end of what became known as the "Kirk-Holden War," but only the beginning of the proceedings against Holden.
The hotly contested state elections had occurred in August, and the new legislature assembled at the end of November. If Holden had truly been trying to influence the election with his actions, the plan had backfired. The Democrats won a majority in the legislature, which now had 32 members in the state senate and 75 in the house of commons. The party immediately pushed for the governor's impeachment, and in December the house voted 60-46 to remove Holden for "high crimes and misdemeanors." Holden stepped down while the impeachment proceedings got underway, and Lieutenant Governor Tod Caldwell took over for him. Meanwhile, the black members of the house issued a joint address supporting Holden, saying the impeachment proceedings were retaliatory; the governor, they said, had "thwarted the designs of a band of assassins, who had prepared to saturate this state in the blood of the poor people on the night before the last election, on account of their political sentiments, and to prevent them from voting."
Holden's trial began in the senate in February of 1871. He was charged with eight articles of impeachment, which alleged that he had illegally declared the two counties in insurrection, illegally arrested two men (including Joshia Turner Jr., the anti-Republican editor of the Raleigh Sentinel), willfully ignored a writ of habeas corpus, and unlawfully recruited and paid troops. The house would also approve a ninth charge, accusing Holden of conspiracy to defraud the state on railroad bonds, but this never went before the senate. The trial lasted until March and heard 170 witnesses. Ultimately, the senate voted 36-13 to convict him of six counts and remove him from office. It was the second time in U.S. history that a governor was impeached, and the first time that one was convicted.
The unrest in North Carolina had a direct effect on national politics. At the same time that Holden's impeachment trial was going on, Congress was taking steps aiming to better enforce Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights. Just a month after Holden was convicted, Congress passed what was dubbed the Ku Klux Klan Act. This made it a federal offense for anyone to conspire to deny someone from voting, running for office, or otherwise utilizing their citizenship rights, with the special note that it was also unlawful to do this while disguised. The measure essentially allowed federal intervention to take place in the states if any groups were in violation of the law. It specifically denied some of the actions Holden had advocated, including martial law and trials before military tribunals, but it did allow the President to suspend habeas corpus at his discretion in these cases.
The Ku Klux Klan renewed its activities in North Carolina, waging a new campaign of terror in Rowan County shortly after Holden was impeached. Caldwell received appeals for aid, but felt his hands were tied. The Shoffner Act had been repealed by the new legislature, and he was powerless to raise a militia to address the problem. When the Ku Klux Klan Act passed, he requested help from Grant and federal troops were called in to restore order.
Holden, barred from holding political office as a result of his impeachment, was offered ministerial posts to Peru and Argentina but declined both. He moved to Washington, D.C. for awhile to again resume his newspaper career by editing the Daily Chronicle. In 1873, he returned to North Carolina and became the postmaster of Raleigh, holding the position for the next decade. Although several legislators made efforts to pardon him and clear his political disabilities, none were successful. Holden continued to write and serve as something of an unofficial head of the Republican Party until his death in March of 1892.
The pardon effort resurfaced in 2011, but what the legislators behind it found that Holden's reputation was still a touchy subject. What was intended to be a simple vote, symbolically held on the 140th anniversary of Holden's conviction, was derailed when an anonymous person managed to sneak a two-page report onto the senators' desks denouncing Holden as “a bitter, unscrupulous and arrogant demagogue.” As the vote was delayed, the Caswell County Historical Association joined in condemning the former governor, with members saying he had carried out an illegal rebellion, never convicted anyone of being in the KKK, and rightfully been convicted; the pardon would "condemn Caswell’s history on the state level and put us all to shame and glorify Governor Holden, making rights truly wrongs," one historian with the group declared.
The association appealed to the senator from Alamance, who also joined in the call to further study the issue. Doug Berger, a Democratic co-sponsor of the bipartisan proposal, said the bill had the support of a state historian who considered the impeachment to be motivated mostly by racism and party politics. Berger said he was willing to dedicate more study to the issue, but thought it would lead to "the Civil War being fought all over again."
Ultimately, the flare-up settled down. In April of 2011, in a special session held in the old capitol building where Holden was removed from office, the North Carolina senate unanimously voted to pardon Holden.
Sources: National Governors Association, The North Carolina History Project, The North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial, "Debate on Holden Pardon Delayed by 'Scurrilous' Report" in the New Bern Sun Journal on March 22 2011, "High School Student Halts Holden's Pardon" on WRAL on March 24 2011, "N.C. State Senate Pardons Governor Who Stood Up to Klan" in Reuters on April 12 2011, Historic Alamance County: An Illustrated Almanac by William Murray Vincent, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies by Victoria E. Bynum, The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography edited by William S. Powell, Lectures on the Growth and Development of the United States edited by Edwin Wiley and Irving Everett Rines and Albert Bushnell Hart, Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction by Richard Zuczek, The American Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events, North Carolina in the Civil War by Michael C. Hardy, The Ku Klux Klan: A Guide to an American Subculture by Marty Gitlin, Carpetbaggers, Cavalry, and the Ku Klux Klan: Exposing the Invisible Empire During Reconstruction by J. Michael Martinez, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 by Gregory P. Downs, The American Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1870