North Carolina has probably underperformed in producing politicians of stature more than any other state. The South is full of powerful senators, representatives, and cabinet members. Not North Carolina. As best as I can figure out, it has never produced a president, VP, Secretary of State, Majority or Minority Leader, Secretary of the Treasury, or virtually any other indispensable individual in American political life. I believe it has one very minor early Supreme Court justice. Also, one short-lived Secretary of War. Its signers of the Declaration of Independence all managed to die young. Even in the Confederate government, North Carolina was underrepresented.
I don’t have a good reason for this. North Carolina has never been a densely populated state (at least until the very recent past), but neither has Mississippi or Alabama and they have much more significant politicians. It is surrounded by two relatively major states (in the early republic at least) in Virginia and South Carolina, but unlike the tiny states that surround Massachusetts, it’s not like NC leaders went to make their fortunes in Charleston or Virginia.
1. Sam Ervin–Senator from 1954-74. Most known for his lead role in prosecuting the Watergate scandal. Also played a role in bringing down Joseph McCarthy. Opposed civil rights legislation, as virtually all southern politicians did, but also was a leader on civil liberties issues, which most southern politicians were decidedly not. Building on his popularity after Watergate, Ervin made an album which I understand has the most unlistenable cover of “Bridge over Troubled Water” ever recorded. I actually saw this album in a record store in Eugene a couple of years ago. I don’t know why I didn’t buy it. I wonder if it is still there.
2. Furnifold Simmons. The utterly loathsome Simmons was a senator from 1901-31. The leader of the state Democratic Party in 1898, he led the charge to destroy the biracial political movement in Wilmington with maximum violence. Wrote the disfranchisement bill in North Carolina in 1901. Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee from 1913-19. Lost his seat after doing nothing to help Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election as Furnifold was dry and Smith wet.
3. Jesse Helms. Racebaiter of the New Right. Produced virtually no legislation, but a forebearer of the Republican feast of insanity to come.
4. Nathaniel Macon. Speaker of the House, 1801-07. Leader of the Jeffersonians who eventually criticized Jefferson for allowing government to grow too large. Senator, 1815-28. Turned down John Quincy Adams’ offer to run as VP in 1828, which is hardly surprising given that Adams and Macon had completely different philosophies of governing.
5. Zebulon Vance. Most prominent NC politician of the Civil War era. Governor during the war. Resisted Jefferson Davis’ call for the draft and in general sought to protect his state from Davis. Was elected to the Senate after Reconstruction.
6. Hugh Williamson. Represented NC at the Constitutional Convention. Was a major player behind the scenes to getting it through the states (did not write the Federalist Papers, but was close with Hamilton and Madison at the time). Wrote the 3/5 Compromise. Was briefly in Congress but retired early and did not play an active role in the early republic.
7. Josephus Daniels. Newspaper editor who race-baited his way into national prominence (very similar to Helms). Called for the crushing of the bi-racial political coalition in Wilmington. Was called the precipitator of the riot. Became Secretary of the Navy under Wilson. Banned alcohol from Navy ships under his watch. Ambassador to Mexico under FDR.
8. Thomas Ruffin. Really a state-level politician and judge. Here because of his 1829 decision as Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court in the case of State v. Mann which codified the fact that a slave master could literally do anything he wanted to a slave with no retribution. You can read more about this here.
9. Elizabeth Dole. Senator (not that she worked at it), 2003-09. Secretary of Transportation under Reagan, Secretary of Labor under Bush Sr. Long-time Republican insider. I may be overrating her, but given the competition, this seems reasonable.
10. William Alexander Graham. VP on the losing Whig ticket headed by Winfield Scott in 1852. Secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore. Was among the senators elected in 1866 by an unreconstructed South who were rejected by the Senate.
Wow, was that exciting.
Next: Rhode Island.