Presidents’ Day is officially a federal holiday established by an Act of Congress in 1879 to observe the birthday of the first President of the United States, George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732. But it’s clear that February 22 was important to many Americans before that honor was mandated by legislation. For example, on Saturday, February 22, 1868, a delegate from Chatham County to the Constitutional Convention of the State of North Carolina introduced this resolution:
Resolved, That in respect to the memory and in honor to the distinguished services of General George Washington, he, who was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” this Convention adjourn until 10 o’clock, A. M., Monday next.
My fourth great-uncle, Elijah B. Teague, was a delegate from Forsyth County to that same Constitutional Convention. He had been elected to that position in November of 1867 as a Republican. That election was held at the direction of the United States Congress, in which North Carolina was not represented at the time because of its secession during the Civil War, and by the Commanding General of the Second Military District of the United States Army. The purpose of that convention was to write a new constitution so that the state could be readmitted to the Union.
On that Saturday morning, only 16 delegates voted in favor of adjourning to honor our country’s first president on his birthday. 75 delegates, including Teague, voted against it. A differently worded resolution was then adopted by a majority vote:
Resolved, That with profound reverence for the memory of George Washington, we will honor the day of his birth, not by adjourning, but by proceeding to engraft upon the Constitution the great principles of justice and liberty, which have made his name illustrious.
It is fitting, I think, that they immediately took up the Report of the Committee on Suffrage for the rest of the day. In other words, they would eventually have to decide who was eligible to vote in state elections and what would disqualify someone from holding public office. Four days earlier, the delegates had received the Report of the Committee on Suffrage, along with several minority reports from members of that committee. Two delegates, for example, invoking the words “tyrannical and unjust” to describe the demands of the Federal government, wrote that by resisting “negro suffrage and negro equality” until it is forced, “we will not have consented to our own humiliation, and will at least, have preserved our honor and self-respect.”
Another minority opinion had been expressed at the beginning of February in the form of a motion to add the following words to the section of the state constitution that described the Executive Department:
No person of African descent or of mixed blood, shall be eligible to the office of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or any other Executive office.
11 delegates supported that motion. 83 delegates, including Teague, opposed it. Also rejected by 83 delegates, including Teague, in early February was a motion to add these words to the section of the state constitution that described the state militia:
. . . white and colored persons shall be organized into separate commands, and no white man shall ever be required to obey a negro officer.
The Report of the Committee on Suffrage included a recommendation that anyone who had been elected to public office should be required to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of North Carolina, “not inconsistent therewith.” The final form of the state constitution that would be adopted took that same minimal oath and required voters to take it too. There were several attempts, however, to expand that oath, such as swearing that:
I am truly and devotedly attached to the Union of all the States, and opposed to any dissolution of the same, that I entertain no political sympathy with the instigators and leaders of the rebellion, or with the enemies of the Union, nor approbation of their principles or purposes, that I will neither by word or act encourage or countenance a spirit of sedition or disaffection towards the government of the United States or the laws thereof, and that I will sustain and defend the Union of these States, and will discourage and resist all efforts to destroy or impair the same.
26 delegates, including Teague, voted in favor of that expanded version. 73 delegates voted against it. So my fourth great-uncle didn’t always vote with the majority at this Constitutional Convention. But the end result was a pretty amazing document for its time and the second of only three constitutions in the history of North Carolina.
That second constitution declared that the people of North Carolina are grateful to God “for the preservation of the American Union.” It further stated “that there is no right on the part of this State to secede” and “that every citizen of this State owes paramount allegiance to the Constitution and Government of the United States.” And the list of rights near the beginning of that constitution included these words:
Slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than for crime whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and are hereby, forever prohibited within this State.
Universal male suffrage was a major feature of this constitution. Those voting rights, however, would be severely restricted after the Democratic Party regained control of the General Assembly of North Carolina and many public offices across the state in the election of 1898 through violence and voter intimidation. Once in power, conservatives in the General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment in 1899 that would impose a poll tax and a literacy requirement for male citizens to be able to vote. That constitutional amendment was ratified by a popular vote in 1900 that was marked by further violence and voter intimidation to ensure that it passed.
In 1900, nearly 30% of male voters in the state were illiterate, and disproportionally African American. That African American voters were the intended victims of this constitutional amendment is evidenced by the fact that it also also included a grandfather clause. The clause allowed an illiterate male to vote if he registered by 1908 and was a direct descendant of someone who had been registered to vote prior to Reconstruction. Sadly, it would take the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to restore much of this deliberate erosion of the voting rights of African Americans.
In the meantime, the guest speaker for the 1905 dedication of Forsyth County’s new Confederate monument in Winston, North Carolina, was the Honorable Alfred Moore Waddell, Mayor of Wilmington, North Carolina. I’ve written previously about his white supremacist views and his leadership in the only successful coup d’etat in American history within the borders of the United States. That was in 1898, when an armed white mob seized control of the City of Wilmington, murdering innocent citizens and forcing the mayor, board of aldermen, and chief of police to resign.
Another important figure in the organized plot to exploit racial tensions in North Carolina to benefit the Democratic Party in the election of 1898 was Robert B. Glenn, whom I’ll write about separately. He would become the Governor of North Carolina in 1905, and a high school would eventually be named in his honor. I know that since I was Valedictorian of the Class of 1988 at Robert B. Glenn High School in Forsyth County, North Carolina. I wonder what my fourth great-uncle, Elijah B. Teague, who publicly affirmed “the great principles of justice and liberty,” would think of that.