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The Secret of the Sauce: What Democrats Need to Know About North Carolina's Kick-Ass Populism

A native explains how the people of North Carolina have been giving hell to fatcats for over 300 years.

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The planter class kept the upper hand, but even its stars had to bow to the state’s radically contrarian sentiments. The revolutionary hero Thomas Burke asserted both strong resistance to arbitrary power and ornery individualism when he insisted that the Articles of Confederation expressly recognize state’s rights. Later, North Carolina’s suspicions of manipulative elites helped make it the second last state to accept the Constitution.

Many a Tar Heel felt equally ambivalent about the Confederacy. The state was the last to secede, and western farmers, rightly suspecting that the conflict was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, took to draft dodging, desertion, tax evasion, and even open support of the Union. In the east, Henry Berry Lowry, a Native American “free person of color,” led an outlaw gang that raided plantations and launched guerilla attacks on the militia. The legendary “Robber Chief” continued to steal from the wealthy after the Civil War, concluding that the new Reconstruction Republican government could not be trusted any more than the one it replaced.

Insurgents v. the Establishment

During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides took turns looting John Green’s little factory in Durham and got a taste for his “bright leaf” tobacco. In the decades after, Washington Duke and his son Buck blazed their way to a near worldwide monopoly of the tobacco business. Spreading out alongside the mighty “Tobacco Trust,” a network of railroads linked the state to the rest of the nation. Commerce began to transform North Carolina’s agricultural, rural profile into an industrial and urban one, with political power shifting from east to west as towns exploded along the tracks from Raleigh through Greensboro, Winston-Salem to Charlotte.

The high-handed rapacity of the corporate chieftains reminded many North Carolinians of the old slave owners. As farm prices buckled and industrial conflicts spread, the spirit of John Culpeper and the Regulators reawakened. First the Knights of Labor and then the Populist Party traumatized the state political establishment.

In the mid-1890s, a “fusion” ticket of populists and Republicans, with key support from black leaders, won the legislature and elected not only the governor, but both U.S. senators. Recoiling in horror, conservative Democrats rallied a vast umbrella coalition of planters and industrialists to crush the insurgency with a mix of violence and bile-spitting racist appeals in the election of 1898. The Republican Party was reduced to a pathetic shell as the winners disenfranchised nearly all blacks and most poor whites through poll taxes, grandfather clauses and bare-knuckles brutality. By 1924, voter turnout, which stood at 85.6 percent in 1896, had plummeted to 35.8 percent in the presidential elections. In state elections, the Republican Party all but vanished. Democratic primaries were the only real contests. [See: Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson, Voting in American Elections: The Shape of the American Political Universe Since 1788 (Academica Press, 2009)].

But even this brutal regime could not survive without tolerating strident insurgent voices. The first wave of critics was heavily compromised by the Jim Crow system, but its searing indictments of the new corporate elites were often startlingly direct. State Supreme Court Chief Justice William Clark supported women’s suffrage and – very cautiously -- black economic empowerment; battling the railroads and the Dukes’ tobacco trust as he issued pointed calls for “socialized democracy.” Even Josephus Daniels, whose Raleigh News and Observer stoked the white supremacy that helped conservative Democrats beat back the Populists, filled his paper with reports of the Dukes’ tax dodging and mistreatment of farmers.

Once again North Carolina politics began to resemble a clash of two powerful weather fronts. Progressives grew bolder in the twenties, at first in the enclaves of the state’s colleges. At Wake Forest, liberal president William Louis Poteat mounted a vigorous defense of evolution.  The University of North Carolina blossomed into a major intellectual center, as historian Frank Porter Graham and others encouraged the first stirrings of a revived labor movement. Fearful of another populist upsurge, major East Coast institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation lent support to these islands of enlightenment. Their graduates sprang onto the national literary scene heaping scorn on southern backwardness -- Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward Angel and Wilber J. Cash in his classic The Mind of the South.