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Democratic Party

The modern Democratic Party in North Carolina arose out of opposition to so-called "radical" reconstruction efforts led by the Republican-controlled federal government in the 1860s and 1870s. The Conservative Party, a coalition of former Democrats and Whigs who opposed federal intervention in state affairs, won control of the General Assembly in 1870 and began to reverse some of the laws and policies established by the Reconstruction-era Republicans. In 1876 the Conservatives changed their name to Democrats and popular Civil War governor Zebulon Vance was returned to the state's highest office. In the eyes of many white North Carolinians, the state had been "redeemed."

Under the encouragement of the Democrats, whose policies aided business interests, the state began a rapid process of industrialization. Textile mills were built throughout the Piedmont, and the state's tobacco and furniture industries grew quickly.

Sources:   William S. Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989


The right to vote is called the franchise, thus disfranchisement is the removal of voting rights. This became an issue during the campaign of 1898 when Democratic leaders suggested that the only sure way to prevent "negro domination" in North Carolina -- especially in parts of the state where African Americans outnumbered whites -- was first to return the Democrats to power and then to pass legislation effectively preventing African Americans from voting. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution made it impossible for the states to deny the vote to African Americans outright, but many Southern states, beginning with Mississippi in 1890, enacted laws that worked to prevent most African Americans from voting. These new voting requirements included a poll tax and a literacy test and gave greater authority to local election officials. In the 1898 campaign in North Carolina, the Populists warned that if the Democrats went through with their plan for disfranchisement, they would pass laws that, by extension, also denied the vote to poor whites.

After the Democratic victory, the new North Carolina legislature began work on an amendment to the Constitution regarding voting laws. These new acts were passed in 1900, and would significantly decrease participation by African Americans in statewide elections for decades to come.

Sources: Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001. See chapter 8: "Defeating Fusion II: North Carolina, 1898-1900."

Farmers Alliance

The depression of the 1880s hit small farmers especially hard. Farmers in the midwest formed organizations to advocate for reform of monetary policies and to attempt to curb the influence of big business. The largest of these organizations was the National Farmers Alliance, which incorporated many statewide groups, including the North Carolina Farmers Association. North Carolinian Leonidas LaFayette Polk, former state secretary of agriculture and editor of the Progressive Farmer, was a national leader in the Alliance until his death in 1892.

The Farmers Alliance first advocated reform within the Democratic Party, but when the Democrats proved reluctant to change their business-friendly policies, many "Alliancemen" left in favor of a new party, the People's, or, Populist Party. However, as it became clear in North Caorlina in 1898, many Southern farmers who had supported the platform of the Populists, would soon return to the Democratic Party. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Farmers Alliance had lost a great deal of its influence and the Populist Party no longer posed a serious challenge.

Sources: William S. Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989; James Truslow Adams, ed., Dictionary of American History. Second Edition. New York: Scribner, 1940.


Frustrated by Democratic domination of nearly every election since 1876, the Republican and Populist parties decided to combine forces in an effort to gain control of the state government. The coalition was dubbed "fusion" by the Democratic press. Instead of running competing candidates on separate tickets, state Republican and Populist leaders divided the offices and ran on a single ticket. The parties first combined in 1894, successfully taking control of the state legislature. They joined forces again in 1896, claiming control of the legislature and several prominent offices in each election. Populist spokesman Marion Butler was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1894, while Republican leader Daniel Russell was elected governor in 1896. Similar attempts at fusion were made in other Southern states, but nowhere was it as successful as in North Carolina.

Sources: William S. Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989; Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1951.

News and Observer

By 1898, the Raleigh News and Observer was the self-proclaimed "largest daily in North Carolina." Under the editorship of staunch Democrat Josephus Daniels, the paper was strongly Democratic, and became the closest thing to an official party organ.

Daniels was involved in the Democrats' 1898 campaign from the beginning, working with Furnifold Simmons and other party leaders to formulate strategy. Daniels wrote later that "The News and Observer was the printed voice of the campaign." In the months leading up to the November election, the News and Observer hammered away at Republican and Populist leaders and maintained the party's steady cry of white supremacy. Daniels wrote,

. . . The News and Observer was relied upon to carry the Democratic message and to be the militant voice of White Supremacy, and it did not fail in what was expected, sometimes going to extremes in its partisanship. Its correspondents visited every town where the Fusionists were in control and presented column after column day by day of stories of every Negro in office and every peculation, every private delinquency of a Fusion office-holder. (Editor in Politics , p. 295.)

One of the most effective tools of the campaign was the paper's use of editorial cartoons, which usually ran on the front page. Daniels and cartoonist Norman Jennett came up with the topics, which frequently ridiculed Governor Daniel Russell and North Carolina's African American politicians. At a party celebrating the Democratic victory, a motion was passed to thank the News and Observer for its leadership throughout the campaign.

Sources:   Alf Pratte, "Daniels, Josephus." In Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 6. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Josephus Daniels, Editor in Politics. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1941.

Populist Party

The Populist Party, sometimes called the People's Party, grew out of the national Farmers Alliance, an organization of small farmers. The Farmers Alliance favored monetary reform (especially the free coinage of silver), low-interest loans, and fair trade. The Alliance originally advocated for reform within the Democratic Party. Failing that, the "alliancemen" ventured into politics on their own.

The Populists first received a significant number of votes in North Carolina in 1892. In that election, the votes received statewide by the Populists and Republicans were, when combined, greater than those received by the Democrats. The voters sent a clear signal that the Democratic Party was no longer the party of the majority.

Despite clear policy differences, especially in the area of monetary reform, the Populists and Republicans joined together in the 1894 campaign, splitting the offices on the ballot in a fusion agreement. It worked, with the new fusion government taking control of the legislature and winning again in the election of 1896.

In the election of 1898, the Democrats effectively reclaimed many of the conservative white voters who had fled to the Populists. The incessant and effective white supremacy campaign by the Democrats overwhelmed the opposition. By the closing months of the campaign, even the Populists were coming over to the side of white supremacy, publishing racist editorials and cartoons in their newspapers, with the only difference being that the Populists accused the Democrats of placing African Americans in state office.

Although the Populists again fused with the Republicans in 1900, the election of 1898 had effectively destroyed the party. By the early twentieth century it ceased to be a viable third party, both in North Carolina and nationwide, and the two-party system was firmly established.

Sources: Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1951.

Progressive Farmer

The Progressive Farmer was founded in 1886 by Leonidas LaFayette Polk, the former secretary of agriculture for North Carolina and a leading advocate on behalf of farmers. The paper contained practical advice for farmers and some discussion of statewide political issues. In 1887, the paper became the official organ of the North Carolina State Farmers Alliance. As the Alliance became more politically active, so too did the Progressive Farmer.

After Polk's death in 1892, the paper continued to be published, openly supporting the Populist candidates in the statewide elections of 1894 and 1896. In 1898, under the leadership of editor Clarence Poe, the Progressive Farmer initially stayed away from the contentious election before finally being drawn in late in the campaign. In October, the paper published an election supplement, which attacked the Democrats for ignoring pressing issues to concentrate solely on race. The supplement included several racist cartoons, which accused the Democrats of placing African Americans in statewide office.

Although the Populist party faded after the elections of 1898 and 1900, the Progressive Farmer, returning to issues of more practical use to farmers, thrived. The paper changed hands several times, but remained a mainstay in farming households and continues to be published today.

Sources: William D. Poe, Jr., "The Progressive Farmer, 1886-1903." M.A. Thesis, University of South Carolina, 1971.

Red Shirts

Toward the end of the 1898 campaign, especially in southeastern North Carolina, groups of men in red shirts appeared at rallies and rode on horseback and in wagons through African American neighborhoods, brandishing shotguns at the terrified onlookers. Josephus Daniels suggests that the Red Shirts were the idea of South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman, who had used them in a campaign as early as 1876. Tillman made several speeches in North Carolina in the 1898 campaign and was usually accompanied by Red Shirts. Although there were several acts of violence against African Americans attributed to the Red Shirts, it was thought that their menacing presence alone was enough to intimidate potential Populist or Republican voters. Daniels wrote, "If you have never seen three hundred red-shirted men towards sunset with the sky red and the red shirts seeming to blend with the sky, you cannot conceive the impression it makes."

Sources: Josephus Daniels, Editor in Politics. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1941; Hugh T. Lefler, ed., North Carolina History Told by Contemporaries. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1934.

Republican Party

The Republican Party in North Carolina was formed in 1867, primarily by former unionists and men who had recently relocated to the state. William Woods Holden, editor of the North Carolina Standard and later governor, was the most prominent spokesman of the party. From its inception, the party welcomed African Americans.

As former Confederates were pardoned and allowed to vote and participate in government again, they gave strength to the new Conservative party, later renamed the Democratic Party. Taking advantage of popular opposition to the reconstruction policies of the Republican-led federal government, the Democrats regained control of the North Carolina legislature in 1870 and the governor's office in 1876.

Republican candidates continued to receive a significant number of votes in the 1880s and early 1890s, but they were never able to achieve a majority. The Republicans finally found success at the ballot box by running a joint campaign with the upstart Populist Party in 1894. Although the Republicans and Populists had differences, most notably in their views on monetary policy -- the Populists favored the free coinage of silver as a means of deflating the currency while the Republicans remained committed to the gold standard -- they found enough common ground to work together. After the new fusion government took office, they successfully reformed election laws, which made it easier for people to vote, and returned county government to local control.

The fusion ticket won again in 1896, with Republican Daniel Russell elected as governor, but when the 1898 election neared, the relations between the Populists and the Republicans began to sour. Having already achieved many of the goals they set in 1894, they were having a harder time finding areas in which to cooperate. The two parties finally agreed to run together in 1898, each acknowledging that this was the only chance they had to beat the Democrats.

In the 1898 campaign, the Republicans ran largely on their past successes and appealed to the patriotism of voters in asking them to support the party of President William McKinley, especially with the nation at war with Spain. However, from the beginnings of the campaign, the Republicans were forced into a defensive posture. The Democrats were relentless in their cries of Republican corruption and "negro domination" and the Republicans were never able to get around these accusations and raise issues of their own. After Daniel Russell's term expired in 1901, it would be 71 years before another Republican was elected governor in North Carolina.

Sources: William S. Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989; Jeffrey J. Crow and Robert F. Durden, Maverick Republican in the Old North State: A Political Biography of Daniel L. Russell. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1977.


The coinage of silver became a major political issue in the decades following the Civil War. The silver dollar had slowly fallen out of circulation and gold had become the dominant form of sound currency. As the country continued to expand to the west, new mining ventures uncovered increased quantities of silver. Many southern and western farmers, who had been hit hard by the uncertain economy beginning in the 1870s, came to believe that the federal government's reliance on gold currency was a key cause of the farmers' financial problems. Farmers and their advocates began to argue that more expanded coinage of silver and a return to full bimetallism would increase the value of silver and result in a more equitable distribution of wealth.

The cry of "free silver" was taken up by the national Farmers Alliance and, later, the Populist Party. Calling for the unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio of 16:1 to that of gold (a ratio originally set by the federal government in 1830), the Populists argued that an expansion of the currency system would result in increased (but controlled) inflation, which they said would improve the economic standing of small farmers by raising crop prices and reducing the value of their debt. The cause of "free silver" was opposed by the Republican Party, which counted eastern businessmen and bankers as its key constituents.

The Republicans and Populists in North Carolina did not come to an agreement on the silver issue when they ran together in the elections of 1894 and 1896. However, the Populists' continued discomfort with the "gold-bug" Republicans was one of the reasons the party originally tried to fuse with the Democrats in 1898. Silver was also an important campaign issue for the Democrats. In the rally that opened the campaign, the two main issues were announced as the "white man and the white metal."

Sources: Lawrence Goodwyn,  Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America New York: Oxford University Press, 1976; Marshall Gramm and Phil Gramm, "The Free Silver Movement in America: A Reinterpretation." Journal of Economic History 64, no. 4 (2004): 1108-1129; James Turner, "Understanding the Populists." The Journal of American History 67, no. 2 (1980): 354-373.

Wilmington Daily Record

The Wilmington Daily Record , an African American newspaper, was founded in 1892, but didn't have much success until Alex Manly took over as editor in 1895. By 1898 it was billing itself as "The Only Negro Daily in the World." The paper catered to the local African American community, but in every aspect it resembled the white papers of the time, with a social column, advice to readers, editorials, and articles reprinted from other newspapers. The editorial stance of the paper was solidly Republican, and Manly favored fusion with the Populists as the most effective way of advancing the interests of African Americans in North Carolina.

On 18 August 1898, the Daily Record published an editorial in response to an article by a Georgia woman who suggested the widespread lynching of African Americans in order to protect white women. The unsigned editorial -- most often attributed to editor Alex Manly, though possibly written by associate editor William L. Jeffries -- suggested that relationships between African American men and white women were far more common than most whites were willing to admit. Indeed, "Meetings of this kind go on for some time until the woman's infatuation or the man's boldness bring attention to them and the man is lynched for rape."

The editorial went unnoticed by the white press for a couple of days before it was discovered and reprinted in the Wilmington Star. The Democratic press rose in an uproar, printing excerpts in papers across the state. In the Raleigh News and Observer, the editorial appeared under the headline "Vile and Villanous."

When Wilmington erupted in violence after the election in November 1898, the office of the Wilmington Daily Record was one of the targets of the angry white mob.

Sources: Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1951;  Robert, H. Wooley, "Race and Politics: The Evolution of the White Supremacy Campaign of 1898 in North Carolina." Ph. D. Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1977.