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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,068

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This is the grave of Jeter Pritchard.

Born in 1857 in Jonesboro, Tennessee, Pritchard grew up in the middling classes of southern Appalachia. That the region had middling classes, the tailor turned president Andrew Johnson being the classic example, is why there wasn’t much support in this region for treason in defense of slavery. These areas had more in common with the free labor ideology of the North than the plantation dominated politics of the South, which had no room for a white middle class. So Pritchard was apprenticed to be a printer as a kid, a classic example of how free labor people thought the nation should work. He became the editor of the Roan Mountain Republican, a local east Tennessee rag. This type of southerner was a Republican. In fact, east Tennessee has basically been Republican ground from 1860 to the present, making it very unusual in this way. By 1880, Pritchard, although only in his early 20s, was already a Republican elector for James Garfield from North Carolina. He had moved to western North Carolina at some point there, but the politics were very similar there to east Tennessee.

Pritchard’s rise was most certainly not just about him being a newspaper editor. He also went to law school and passed the bar in 1889, starting a law practice in the town of Marshall, North Carolina. Now, being from a Republican district of a Republican state, one could win certain offices. Pritchard was very ambitious. So he ran for Congress in 1885 and won, serving two terms. But it was going to be far more difficult to be elected as a Republican in a Democratic dominated state, one with white supremacy in full force and violence toward Black voting ready to come down. That took time in North Carolina, not really coming to fruition until the Wilmington Coup of 1898. But still, when Pritchard decided to run statewide for lieutenant governor in 1888, he lost. He was out of Congress for the next term, but then won another term in 1890. He wanted to be senator that year too and Republicans would have named him if they had won the state legislature, but they did not. Then he lost his reelection bid for Congress in 1892.

So Pritchard might have just been a footnote here, one of many people who get elected to Congress for a few terms and then are utterly forgotten (note how few people who topped out in the House get profiled in this series. Most of them are completely uninteresting). But the politics of post-Reconstruction North Carolina were still more in flux than in other southern states. There was still Black voting in some areas. Moreover, the Farmers Alliance had a big footprint in that state. There was a lot of discontent over the elite white Democratic Party dominance over the politics and economy. If you squint, you can even kind of see real Black-white alliances in politics. So you had the particular conditions that can open the door for someone like Pritchard. In 1894, Zebulon Vance died. He was a senator at that time. The North Carolina legislature was dominated at that time by the fusion Republican-Populist coalition. So they sent Pritchard to the Senate to complete Vance’s term and then sent him again for a full term in 1897. He was the first Republican senator from the South in two decades.

In the Senate, Pritchard was basically a guy. A junior senator, he wasn’t deeply involved in the highest points of power. But he played a key purpose–patronage. The Republican Party was less committed to patronage for Black southern supporters by the year, but still having a Republican in the South get elected to the Senate was a big deal for them and so he became the conduit for a lot of this. Moreover, Pritchard had at least some minimal interest in Black rights himself. He warned William McKinley of the rising coup attempt in Wilmington and urged him to send federal troops there to protect the biracial political alliance effectively running that city in the face of furious white supremacists in Raleigh and Charlotte. McKinley did nothing because he really didn’t care about Black rights. Probably the biggest contribution Pritchard made in the Senate was introducing a bill that created the forest reserve which would eventually make up the core of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We also need to place Pritchard’s own racial position in context. He was a Republican. He was fine with Black voting rights. But he was also a racist who used the tropes of the time about trusty darkies in the Civil War that stayed by their kind master’s side to justify all of this. Here’s an example of one of his speeches at the time to justify Black rights:

“I want no truer soul than that which moved the trusty slave, who for four years, while my father fought with the armies that barred his freedom, slept every night at my mother’s chamber door, her and her children as safe as if her husband stood guard, and ready to lay down his life on her threshold. … (There were) often 500 Negroes to a single white man, and yet through those dusty throngs, women and children walked in safety, and the unprotected homes rested in peace.”

Ugh.

In 1903, a position on what is today the District Court for the District of Columbia opened. opened. Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity to show the South that it should support Republicans. So although Pritchard was a fairly minor figure, he was chosen to fill the seat. There was little question Pritchard would be a reliable vote for Republican interpretations of the Constitution. To his credit, he cared more about Black rights on the Court than the rest of his Republican colleagues and repeatedly urged them to issue a decision that would overturn the Grandfather Clause, but they didn’t care about Black rights at all and they did nothing. Then the next year Roosevelt nominated him to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and he was confirmed shortly after. He stayed in there until his death in 1921, at the age of 63.

Jeter Pritchard is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit other Roosevelt judicial nominees, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Rufus Day is in Canton, Ohio and William Henry Moody is in Georgetown, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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