On March 6, 1900, North Carolina author Mary Oates Spratt Van Landingham referred to North Carolina as being a “vale of humility between Two Mountains of Conceit.” She, and many North Carolinians like her, considered their fellow Tar Heels to be more humble than their upper-crust Virginian neighbors, and more stoic than the rebellious and noisy South Carolinians.
North Carolina was idealized as a patchwork of Yeoman farms spread from Manteo to Murphy, lacking the ills that the other Southern states faced. In reality, North Carolina has exhibited some of the worst excess, bigotry and oppression characteristic of the Southern political tradition.
While poorer than its neighbors to the North and South, early North Carolina was still dominated by the plantation-owning ruling class. Headquartered in New Bern, the colony was governed through an aristocratic system, in which the interests of slaves and poor whites were pushed out of the way in order to fulfill the desires of the “gentleman” class. The excessive taxation and excess lifestyle of royal governor William Tryon’s administration prompted many western North Carolinians to take up arms and fight against the government.
This system continued following the War for Independence. In 1856, less than five years before national tensions turned to civil war, North Carolina became the last state to remove property qualifications for voting. Despite the introduction of universal white male suffrage in 1856, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that a non-elite would become governor of North Carolina. Even then, he was be impeached and removed from office due to his perceived heavy-handedness in dealing with the Ku Klux Klan in the state.
Several non-elite governors succeeded him despite a hostile elite establishment. This chain of rule was broken with the end of Reconstruction in the American South and the re-election of wartime governor and planter’s son, Zebulon Baird Vance. Property requirements were restored, and they would not be lowered again until Republican-Populist Daniel Russell came to office in the 1890s. However, an elite, Democrat-controlled legislature overturned these concessions in the legislature, disenfranchising many of the state’s poor whites and Blacks.