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After ‘scalawag’ flap, former governor wins pardon

RALEIGH — All that teeth-gnashing over a pardon for Reconstruction-era Gov. William Holden may have turned out for the best.

Last week, the North Carolina Senate returned to the matter of Holden, who was impeached and removed from office 140 years earlier.

Senators had been scheduled to approve a resolution posthumously pardoning Holden back in March. Then an anonymous document left on their desks, in violation of the chamber’s rules, led to a bunch of hemming and hawing.

The document disparaged Holden as a “scalawag” and a lover of “carpetbaggers,” quoting a couple of mostly discredited Jim Crow-era historians. Turns out a legislative assistant employed over in the House distributed the document.

He’s no longer employed by the House.

He did, though, show up for the latest pardoning ceremony. Thanks to his actions, it took place in a more appropriated place, the cramped Senate chambers of the old Capitol where Holden’s impeachment trial took place.

House leaders had decided to hold a ceremonial session in the old Capitol to mark the 235th anniversary of the Halifax Resolves, North Carolina’s own document of defiance to the British Crown, which predates by a few months the Declaration of Independence.

After the dust had settled over the earlier controversy, Senate leaders decided that the meeting in the old Capitol would be a good time to move ahead with the Holden pardon.

The delay and resulting attention surely prompted a few people to turn to the history books and learn about one of the more troubled episodes of North Carolina history.

Some, like the once-employed legislative assistant, seem to believe that they know enough, that Holden’s impeachment was more than justified. They say that Holden, who founded the Republican Party in North Carolina, was both corrupt and acted illegally.

What is clear from the history books is that Holden acted as aggressively as any Southern governor to put down the Ku Klux Klan violence that arose as federal troops pulled out of Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War.

He hired detectives to track down Klan perpetrators of violence. When a state senator and black town councilman were killed with impunity in Alamance and Caswell counties, he sent a militia into the counties, established martial law and arrested more than 100 people.

His critics, of his time and today, say that he acted without justification.

Holden, in his own hand, put together a long list of justifications. He listed dozens and dozens of episodes of blacks and whites being pull from their homes at night by klansmen and then whipped, beaten or killed.

At his impeachment trial, Holden’s conviction was based upon the conclusion that no insurrection existed in Alamance and Caswell counties and that therefore his imposition of martial law and suspension of habeas corpus was illegal.

You can see what you think of the arguments at archive.org/stream/trialofwilliamwh03hold#page/n7/mode/2up.

It’s a complete transcript of the prosecution and defense arguments at his trial.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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