Point of View

Now there was a GOP

November 13, 2012 

North Carolina’s Republican leaders have been quick to cast their Election Day victories in historic terms. For the first time since 1898, their party now controls both houses of the General Assembly and the governor’s office. But there is more to the history than that.

Republicans of the late 19th century were a very different breed. For starters, they drew their electoral strength from a biracial alliance that united former slaves and the children of slaves with white working men and farmers who would feel right at home in today’s Occupy Movement. Their gubernatorial candidate, Daniel Russell, was a self-styled adversary of “railroad kings and bank barons.” “Call it socialism or what you please,” one of his supporters exclaimed, “damn a country where there is nobody prosperous but the bond-holder and the money-lender.”

The Republican lawmakers of the 1890s also believed in active government as an instrument of opportunity for ordinary Tar Heels. They raised corporate taxes, increased appropriations for state teachers colleges and charitable institutions, encouraged town and county leaders to create special tax districts in support of public schools, and capped interest rates at 6 percent in order to give relief to hard-working debtors pinched by the Depression of 1893.

Most important of all, Republican politicians of the 1890s acted to expand and safeguard the right to vote. They threw out the state’s infamous Payne Law of 1889, which had given county registrars the authority to turn citizens away from the ballot box if they could not prove their identity, age, occupation and place of birth.

Today, such regulations are touted as means of combating voting fraud, but Republican lawmakers in the 1890s renounced them as part of a thinly-veiled effort to “reduce blacks to a degraded position” and “disfranchise the laboring white man.” As a result of that reform, voter turnout in state elections soared to more than 85 percent.

Leaders of North Carolina’s new Republican majority are right to point out the power of the past to shed light on the present-day. They will make the state a better place if they now embrace their party’s true historical legacy.

James Leloudis is professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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