Home / Most Prominent Politicians / Most Prominent Politicians (XII): North Carolina

Most Prominent Politicians (XII): North Carolina


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.

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  • mark f
    • mark f

      It’s awesome, by the way.

      • Richard

        I have the album although can’t say I’ve listened to it much over the last thirty years

    • Jeffrey Beaumont

      I dont know if it is really all that cool to poke fun at an otherwise very respectable guy.

  • Shouldn’t John Edwards be there? Sure, a nothin’ Senator, but he was a VP candidate, and a presidential candidate that was taken seriously. Liddy Dole or Edwards is probably a coin toss for inconsequential, but I’d give Edwards the nod.

    • Dole accomplished far more in the cabinet than Edwards did in his career.

      • Bill Murray

        Liddy Lights, getting sued by South Dakota, privatizing Conrail and initiating drug testing within the DoT vs. Co-sponsoring 203 bills including the Iraq War I AUMF and the Spyware Control and Privacy Protection Act

        Neither is exactly crowned with glory or a lifetime of big accomplishments

        • Third brake lights alone have had a greater impact on our society than everything Edwards did in his political career.

          • Bill Murray

            Yes, that’s probably true, but it’s not exactly earth shattering either, given that cars already had two brake lights. and given the name, I assume they are something that were her “idea” to implement not something the President wanted and she did for that reason, which has to count more for her.

            • but it’s not exactly earth shattering either

              It’s North Carolina. She wouldn’t make the Massachusetts list.

              • Bill Murray

                I’m not sure she’d make the South Dakota list

    • Edwards really didn’t ever do anything.

      • Warren Terra

        And if he did, he’d deny it until after the DNA tests came out, until the criminal prosecution was in the works, and (especially) until after everyone who’d ever believed in the line of self-evidently contrived hooey he was pitching had been maximally humiliated.

        • Bill Murray

          I’ll gladly give you a gold star today for this coment

        • mark f

          “FTW” said Andrew Young.

      • Edwards did something once, but only because Bob Shrum told him he had to.

  • jbj

    Terry Sanford, dude. When other Southern governors included Ross Barnett and George Wallace, NC had an honest-to-god progressive in the executive mansion. 2-time presidential candidate, served a term in the Senate.

    Also Jim Hunt, 16-year governor, bulwark against the GOP tide that swept the South in the Reagan and post-Reagan years.

    • You can definitely make a case for Sanford.

    • Rich C

      Just wanted to endorse Sanford as a Top 10 NC pol. If you are willing to credit him with setting the mold for New South moderate Democratic politicians, then you can argue his influence extends at least to Carter and Clinton. In any event, he played a huge role in transforming NC into an education and technology leader.

    • jbj

      I’d put Sanford in the top 5. Chocolate Whizbang (below) quotes the line I was gonna quote about the cultural difference here — NC was less typified by huge plantations (and huge planters with grandiose egos) than SC or VA and was less fanatical about slavery and secession. Anyway, it’s a little galling to be found wanting in comparison to SC and VA. The politics here, though far from perfect, are way better, and I chalk that up largely to the influence of public figures like Sanford, Frank Porter Graham, and Bill Friday. (All of whom had major influence as leaders of educational institutions, not just governmental.)

    • basement cat

      Sanford was also involved in the creation of the North Carolina Fund, which was a forerunner of a lot of other civil rights and anti-poverty programs.

  • John

    What about Terry Sanford? One of the “New South” governors, he favored desegregation in the early 60s, which was hardly common for a southern politician in those days. He was a major supporter of public higher education in the state, and the key figure behind the creation of the Research Triangle. He apparently would have been JFK’s running mate in 1964 had he lived, and Johnson wanted Humphrey to pick him as his running mate in 1968. Ran for president a couple of times in the 70s, was president of Duke for many years, and later served as a senator.

  • CJColucci

    Furnifold Simmons? I’m pretty well informed, and if I have never heard of the 2d-most important politician in an old state’s history, that’s saying something.

  • Furnifold Simmons

    You just made that up!

  • There’s an error in the link to the Wilmington murder riot in para 2 (Furnifold’s Finest).

    You Have http://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilmington_Insurrection_of_1898 and need to remove the extra http:// at the beginning.



  • Everett
  • Bill Murray

    I always wondered why more people aren’t named Furnifold. Now I know the reason. Furnifold is NCs King John the Last

    • mark f

      I’m surprised everyone’s fixated on “Furnifold” when the #5 entry is named “Zebulon.” ZEBULON!! Makes me want to have another kid.

      • Scott de B.

        The funny thing is that Zebulon Vance isn’t even the most famous Zebulon in American history.

        • Bill Murray

          Zebulon Pike represent

  • the chocolate whizbang

    The old line about North Carolina (variously attributed to Zeb Vance and Alexander Hamilton) is that the state is “A vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” Those mountains, obviously — both geographically and reputationally — being The Old Dominion of Virginia and the Palmetto Republic of South Carolina.

  • ned

    just a note that james polk was from north carolina, he was president but rates a so what ..

    • He moved to Tennessee when he was 11.

    • He’s on the Tennessee list.

      • Cackalacka

        I presume you’re doing the same with Andrew Jackson, then?

        Oh, and +1 for Terry Sanford.

        But sweet Jesus, Dole? She’s about as authentic as Memphis-style barbecue.

  • 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.

    If that was the case, then why would Adams even offer it to Macon? Was it already an early case of “I’ve got Northern support, but I need some Southern votes to win” mentality (which, if it was, I frankly didn’t realize operated at such an early period of the republic), or something else?

    • I think Adams was trying to keep the illusion of the Era of Good Feelings together by saying we are all Jeffersonians.

  • ScottC

    I think Terry Sanford and Luther Hodges could fit in somewhere in 8-10 – though sure, it’s a judgment call when you are at that section of the rankings.

  • Margaret

    Are you not counting Andrew Johnson because he eventually moved to TN? There’s a fabulous historic marker proclaiming his birth in a kitchen “1 mile east” from the marker itself.

  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    Really Sanford needs to be on there above Dole. She is really about as much a North Carolinian as James Polk was. Sanford was a good governor, and an even better senator.

  • Knecht Ruprecht

    I always thought Loving v. Virginia was the most felicitously named judicial decision, but learning about State v. Mann causes me to reconsider.

  • Cackalacka

    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.

    Yeah, uh, about that first category:


    • Polk moved to Tennessee when he was eleven.

      Johnson moved to Tennessee when he was sixteen.

      Jackson moved to the part of North Carolina that was to become Tennessee when he was 20, and it was split off when he was 23.

      That statue is a little pathetic. It reminds me of the time Boston held a rally to celebrate the Colorado Rockies Stanley Cup victor in 2001, because a former Bruin was on the team.

      • efgoldman

        Ray Bourque.
        He wasn’t from North Carolina, neither, also too.

      • cackalacka

        Verb: Make or manufacture from components or raw materials

        We can argue formative years and local political participation, but Colorado Rockies?!? don’t tell them Nordiques fans that their beloved team changed names again.

        As for why NC hasn’t produced as many esteemed politicians, please note that this state was the last to secede, and that wasn’t by chance. Poor soils lead to poor cash crop production leads to less profitable pre-industrial industrial slave plantations leads to less dynastic wealth of the Southern variety, i.e. aristocratic assholes.

        Regardless, that statue may be pathetic, but this town has raised the cup more times over the past ten years than the state of Tennessee, the Rockies, and the nation of Canada, combined.

  • rm

    Jesse Helms also made great contributions to the Cause of Evil in foreign policy, where he was a major force behind our love for Latin American death squads, military dictatorships, and landed aristocracy. His congressional staffers spread their evil into the State Department in the W administration. Jesse seemed to me to have a personal appreciation for the people who ran these kinds of governments, like they represented his ideal society.

    Terry Sanford is one of the people who worked against Jesse’s evil vision on the home front, so another vote for him.

    I must admit that as much as I still hate Jesse Helms, he is not the worst NC politician in history. He never supported armed coup at home like Furnifold, having enough of them to sponsor in our neighboring countries.

    • snuh

      on helms and his terribleness in foreign policy, the helms-burton act, which i guess is why there is a qualifier in the statement “produced virtually no legislation.”

  • Interesting project:

    You underestimate Josephus Daniels (surely the only pacifist to be Secretary of the Navy) and Macon, on whom see Schlesinger: being fourth man in the party of Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin is not bad.

    But this would seem to be that the population drain: How many Tennessee politicians, like Polk and Jackson, came from North Carolina? And does Levi Coffin of the Underground Railroad count for North Carolina? Edward Coles counts for Virginia.

  • You could fit John Coltrane and George Clinton in somewhere couldn’t you?

    Also, why not Dolley Madison and Governor James B. Hunt who gave Jesse Helms the fight of his life and exposed him for all time to the rest of the country?

    I think Edward R. Murrow and Tom Wicker deserve a mention too.

    Lots of others like Charlie Rose that I don’t respect.

    • cackalacka

      +1. Don’t forget Maceo Parker.

      Charlie Rose is a national shame now, or at least, that is what I tell myself.

  • INotI

    Furnifold/Zebulon 2012!

  • Mark

    I looked at Ruffin’s opinion in the Mann case, and it’s not as reprehensible as you made it seem. Ruffin clearly hated slavery and hoped it would wither away, but–as long as it existed–he recognized that it rested entirely on violent coercion, and not on the other nonsensical bases being advanced by his Southern peers. What he said was, We’re not going to pretend. Read it: this was a man in agony about the peculiar institution who told the truth about the kind of law it rested on.

  • HairyApe

    All I have is a newspaper clipping but it indicates Majority Leader Kitchen from NC voted against WWI declaration of war. If he’s from NC, he probably deserved his anonymity.

    • mark f

      Claude Kitchin:

      From 1915 to 1919 he was House majority leader; from this position he opposed the Wilson administration’s “Preparedness” crusade, seeking unsuccessfully to hold down the growth in size of the army and navy. It was not surprising, then, that he was one of the representatives who voted against declaring war on Germany in April 1917; indeed, his example and speech against American entry probably swelled the number of dissenters to fifty. Though he threw himself into the war effort thereafter, he remained a critic of some of the administration’s war policies, especially regarding taxation policies. He championed an “excess profits” tax that was steeply progressive over a policy of selling Liberty Bonds that shifted the financial burden on the war onto future generations. In 1920 he suffered a stroke after an impassioned speech, and three years later he died.

      • HairyApe

        Thanks. I’m pre-Wiki, relying on what used to be a good memory. Pacifism and anti-militarism are among admirable qualities of some of those summarily dismissed for racism in these parts.

  • Gwen

    I think that Sheriff Andy Taylor did more good for American than Senator John Edwards.

    Of course, the fact that “The Andy Griffith Show” is the only television or film that I can think of that is set in North Carolina also suggests that NC is a bit of a cultural sahara.

  • Jestak

    I’ll second Jim Hunt and Terry Sandford.

    Another name to note is Lee Overman, who was a US Senator from NC for approximately the same period as Furnifold Simmons and seems to have been nearly as loathsome, having been one of the first big Congressional red-baiters as well as filibustering an anti-lynching bill (successfully).

    While NC hasn’t produce many politicians of true stature, it seems to have been a leading cradle of journalists; it’s the birthplace of David Brinkley, Al Hunt, Charles Kuralt, Edward R. Murrow, Charlie Rose and Vermont Royster.

  • David b

    George Badger, only senator unsuccessfully nominated for supreme court. Counts for summthin

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