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The North Carolina Booklet 

Vol. XVI JULY, 1916 No. 1 

William Alexander Graham 

By Chief Justice Walter Clark. 

William Alexander Graham, Speaker of the House of 
Commons, Governor of ISForth Carolina, Secretary of the 
United States IS^avy, Senator of the United States and also 
of the Confederate States, nominee of the Whig Party for 
the Vice Presidency, was born at Vesuvius Furnace, the 
residence of his father. General Joseph Graham, in Lincoln 
County, North Carolina, 5 September, 1804. He sprung 
from that sturdy Scotch-Irish race which has furnished so 
many prominent men to the Republic. His mother was 
Isabella, daughter, of Major John Davidson, who was one of 
the signers of the famous "Mecklenburg Declaration of In- 
dependence'-' at Charlotte on 20 May, 1775, of which John 
Adams wrote: "The genuine sense of America at that 
moment was never so well expressed before nor since." 

The father of Governor Graham, General Joseph Graham, 
merits more than a passing notice. At 18 years of age he 
entered the Continental Army in 1778, soon became Adjutant 
and was promoted to Major of l ISTorth Carolina (Conti- 
nental) Regiment. He was in many engagements and was 
often wounded. At the capture of Charlotte by Cornwallis 
26 September, 1780, he received nine wounds (six of them 
with sabre) and was left on the ground for dead. He was a 
member of the State Convention of 1788 and also of 1789, 
served in several legislatures and in the war of 1814 com- 
manded a brigade from this State and South Carolina sent 
by President Madison to the aid of General Jackson in the 
Creek War. William A. Graham was the youngest son in a 
family of seven sons and three daughters who gTcw to iria- 


turity. One of his brothers, James Graham, was a member 
of Congress from this State, continnonsly from 1833 to 1847, 
except one term. One of his sisters married Rev. Dr. R. H. 
Morrison, President of Davidson College, and was the mother 
of the wife of Stonewall Jackson. 

The subject of this sketch began his academic education 
under Rev. Dr. Muchat, at Statesville, a scholar of repute. 
Thence he was sent to Hillsboro, where he was prepared for 
college. He entered the University of North Carolina in 
1820. At school and college he envinced the characteristics 
which distinguished him in later life — studious, thoughtful, 
courteous, considerate of others, with great natural dignity 
of manner, and marked ability. His schoolmate, Judge Bre- 
vard, said of him at this early age: "He was the only boy 
I ever knew who would spend his Saturdays in reviewing the 
studies of the week." He graduated in 1824 with the highest 
honors of his class, which he shared with Matthias E. Manly, 
afterwards a Judge of the Supreme Court. 

After a tour of the Western States, made on horseback, 
as was then the most convenient and usual mode, he began 
the study of law in the office of Judge Ruffin, at Hillsboro, 
and was admitted to the bar in 1826. Though his family 
connections were numerous and influential in Mecklenburg, 
Cabarrus and Lincoln, he decided to locate at Hillsboro, 
among whose resident lawyers then were Thomas Ruffin, 
Archibald D. Murphey, Willie P. Mangum, Francis L. 
Hawks, and Frederick Nash; and among the lawyers regu- 
larly attending from other courts were George E. Badger, 
William H. Haywood and Bartlett Yancey. At this bar of 
exceptionally strong men, he quickly took first rank. 

In 1833 he was elected a member of the General Assembly 
from the Town of Hillsboro, one of the boroughs which up 
to the Convention of 1835 retained the English custom of 
choosing a member of the legislature. It is related that he 
was chosen by one majority, the last vote polled being cast 
by a free man of color, this class being entitled to the fran- 


chise till the Constitution of 1835. Being asked why he voted 
for Mr. Graham, the colored voter, a man of reputation and 
some property, replied : ''I always vote for a gentleman." 

His first appearance on the floor of the House of Repre- 
sentatives was on a motion to send to the Senate a notice that 
the House was ready to proceed to the election of a Governor 
for the State, and to place in nomination for that office, 
David L. Swain, who had been his college mate at the 
University of Korth Carolina. Two days later he had the 
satisfaction to report his election, and was appointed first on 
the committee to notify him of his election. The relations 
of these two distinguished^ men remained singularly close 
and cordial through life. In 1834 and again in 1835 he 
was re-elected for the borough of Hillsboro, and at both ses- 
sions he was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, then as 
now, deemed the highest position, next to the Speaker. In 
1838, as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he submitted 
the report of the Commissioners who had prepared the 
"Revised Statutes." • 

It was to him that in 1834 Judge Gaston, who was a 
Roman Catholic, addressed his open letter in defence of his 
acceptance of a seat upon the Supreme Court, notwithstanding 
the provision in the old Constitution (repealed by the Con- 
vention of 1835) which declared incapable of holding office 
all those who "deny the truths of the Protestant religion." 
With all deference to the writer thereof whose name will 
always command the highest respect, that letter will remain 
a plausible instance of special pleading whose defective logic 
has been pardoned by reason of the inherent opj^osition of 
all generous minds to the constitutional provision which gave 
rise to it, and the eminent public services, ability and popu- 
larity of its author. 

In 1838 and again in 1840, Mr. Graham was elected to 
the General Assembly from Orange County, and was Speaker 
of the House of Representatives in both. The journals, dur- 
ing his legislative career, attest his great industry and his 


leadership. He introduced the first bill that was passed to 
establish a system of common schools, and the bills introduced 
or supported, or reported by him on the subjects of banking, 
finance, education, and internal improvements, demonstrate 
the broadness of his views, and that he was one of the most 
progressive men of his time. 

In 1840, Judge Strange and Hon. Bedford Brown, the 
United States Senators from this State, resigned their seats 
rather than obey instructions which had been passed by the 
General Assembly. Willie P. Mangum, of Orange, was 
chosen to succeed Brown, and though Mr. Graham was from 
the same county and only 36 years of age, he was elected to 
fill Mr. Strauge's unexpired term. This was a most emphatic 
testimonial to his commanding position in the Whig Party, 
which held so many eminent leaders, and in the State at large. 
He was among the youngest, if not the youngest member, of 
the United States Senate, when he took his seat. He com- 
manded the respect and attention of that body upon all occa- 
sions, and we are told by a member of that Congress that 
"Mr. Clay regarded him as a most superior man, socially 
and intellectually." 

The time of Mr. Graham's service in the Senate was a 
stormy period. President Harrison, who had gone into office 
upon a tidal wave, died just one month after his inauguration, 
and was succeeded by the Vice-President, Mr. Tyler, who soon 
placed the administration in complete opposition to the poli- 
cies of the party by which he had been elected. Upon all the 
most important measures which came before the Senate, Mr. 
Graham impressed himself by arguments which received 
general approbation and which drew forth specially com- 
mendatory letters from Clay, Webster, Chancellor Kent, aial 

At the expiration of his term in March, 1843, Mr. Gra- 
ham resumed the practice of his profession, the Democratic 
Party having secured a majority in the General Assembly 
and chosen a member of that party, William H. Haywood, 


Jr., to succeed him in the Senate. In 1844 he was nomi- 
nated by the Whig Party for Governor. He had not sought 
nor desired the nomination. The salary of the office was 
small and its expenses great. In 1836 he had married Susan 
Washington, daughter of John Washington of New Bern, a 
lady of great beauty of character and person, and a young 
and growing family made demands upon his income, which 
was impaired by the inroads which public life had made 
upon his law practice. But true as always to the calls of 
duty, he yielded to the representations of gentlemen of high 
standing in all parts of the State. His Democratic competi- 
tor was Hon. Michael Hoke, like himself, a native of the 
county of Lincoln. Mr. Hoke was about the same age, of 
fine presence, decided ability and great popularity. After 
a canvass whose brilliancy has had no parallel in the history 
of the State, save perhaps that between Vance and Settle in 
1876, Mr. Graham was elected by a large majority. His 
competitor died a few weeks after the election, his death 
having been caused, it was thought, by the great physical 
and mental strain of the campaign. On 1 January, 1845, 
Governor Graham was sworn in, with imposing ceremonies, 
which, for brilliancy and the size of the audience;, were till 
then without precedent. 

His inaugural address was especially noteworthy, not alone 
for its purity of style and elevation of thought, but in its 
recommendations. The Asylum for the Insane, and for the 
Deaf, Dumb and Blind, and the Emmons Geological Survey 
all had their genesis in this Inaugural, the first two being 
established by laws enacted during his administration and 
the latter just afterwards. He also laid special emphasis 
upon the Common School System, then lately inaugurated, 
and the first act in favor of which had been introduced by 
himself when a member of the legislature. Mr. Webster in 
a letter specially commended the address for its wisdom and 
progressiveness, as did Prof. Olmsted for its recommenda- 
tion in favor of the establishment of a Geological Survey. 


His aid to our new and struggling railroads built bj State 
aid was invaluable. 

In 1849 he delivered the address before the Literary Socie- 
ties at the University. This address remains to this day one 
of the very best of the long series delivered since the incipi- 
ency of the custom. Upon the success of his party in the 
election of President Taylor, Senator Mangimi, one of the 
confidential advisers of the new administration, wrote Gov- 
ernor Graham that he could make his choice between the Mis- 
sion to Russia and the Mission to Spain. Subsequently the 
Mission to Spain was tendered him and declined. 

Upon the accession of President Fillmore, Mr. Graham was 
tendered the appointment of Secretary of the Xavy in a very 
complimentary letter from the President, who urged his 
acceptance. In July, 1850, he entered upon the duties of 
the office. Such was his diligence that his first report, 30 
K|ovember, 1850, embraced a review of the whole naval estab- 
lishment with recommendations for its entire reorganization. 
Even an opposition Senator, Thomas H. Benton, joined in 
the commendation of his report, and wrote with special 
reference to the Coast Survey service: "I consider it one 
of the most perfect reports I ever read — a model of a business 
report and one which should carry conviction to every candid 
inquiring mind. I deem it one of the largest reforms, both 
in an economical and administrative point of view, which the 
state of our affairs admits of." 

His administration of the Navy Department was marked 
by one of the most remarkable enterprises, whose success has 
been of world wide importance — the organization of the Perry 
Expedition to Japan, which opened up that ancient empire 
to modern civilization. The success of that expedition con- 
stitutes one of the principal claims of Mr. Fillmore's adminis- 
tration to the admiration of posterity and was, indeed, an 
era in the history of the world, of which the events of the 
last few years are striking results. The exi^edition was con- 
ceived and inaugurated by Mr. Graham and was execivted 


upon the lines laid down by him, and the commander, Com- 
modore Perry, was selected by him, though the expedition 
did not actually set sail till after he had resigned. In 1S51 
Mr. Graham also sent out under the auspices of the TSavy 
Department, an expedition under Lieutenant Herndon to 
explore the valley and sources of the Amazon. The report 
of this expedition was published by order of Congress in 
February, 1854, and was noticed by the London ''Westmin- 
ster Review" of that year, which bestowed high praise upon 
the author for his conception, and the thoroughness and wis- 
dom of his instructions to the commander. 

The great compromise measures of 1850, which would have 
saved the country from the terrible civil war, if it could 
have been saved, received strong aid and support from the 
then Secretary of the Navy, who was on terms of intimacy 
and personal friendship with Clay, Y\"ebster and other leaders 
in- that great movement to stay destructive tendencies, which 
proved, ''alas, too strong for human power." When the Whig 
^N^ational Convention assembled in June, 1852, it placed in 
nomination for the presidency, Winfield Scott, and William 
A. Graham for Vice-President. With a delicacy which has 
been rarely followed since, he resigned ''to relieve the admin- 
istration of any possible criticism or embarrassment on his 
account in the approaching canvass," and the President 
appreciating the high sense of delicacy and propriety "which 
prompted the act, accepted his resignation with unfeigned 

It may well be doubted if any of his predecessors, or suc- 
cessors, either in the office of Secretary of the E'avy or Gov- 
ernor of iSTorth Carolina, has shown as much progressiveness, 
and as large a conception of the possibilities of his office, in 
widening the opportunities for development of the country. 
Certainly none have surpassed him in the wisdom and breadth 
of his views, and the energy displayed in giving them suc- 
cessful result. It is his highest claim to fame that he was 
thoroughly imbued with a true conception of the possibilities 


and needs of the time and his whole career marks him as 
second to none of the sons whom North Carolina has given 
to fame. 

In 1852, after his retirement from the Cabinet, he de- 
livered before the Historical Society of New York his admir- 
able and instructive addre^ss upon ''The British Invasion of 
the South in 1780-81." This address i3reserved and brought 
into notice many historical facts, which with our usual 
magnificent disregard of the praiseworthy deeds of our State 
had been allowed to pass out of the memory of men and the 
record proofs of which were mouldering and in danger of 
being totally lost. 

Mr. Graham was State Senator from Orange in 1854-55, 
took, as always, a leading part, and gave earnest sup- 
port to Internal Improvements, especially advocating railroad 
construction. He and Governor Morehead headed the delega- 
tion to the Whig Convention in 1856 at Baltimore, which 
endorsed the nomination of Mr. Fillmore. He was one of 
that number of distinguished men from all sections, who met 
in Washington in February, 1860, and who in the vain hope 
of staying the drift of events towards a disruption of the 
Union and Civil War, placed before the country the platform 
and the candidates of the "Constitutional Union" party. 

In February, 1861, he canvassed parts of the State with 
Governor Morehead, Judge Badger, Z. B. Vance, and others, 
in opposition to the call of a State Convention to take the 
State out of the Union, which was defeated by a narrow 
margin and doubtless by their efforts. But the tide of events 
was too strong. The fall of Fort Sumter 13 April, 1861, 
and the call by Mr. Lincoln upon North Carolina for her 
quota of 75,000 men — a call made without authority — 
changed the face of affairs. The State Convention met 20 
May, 1861, and on the same day unanimously pronounced 
the repeal by this State of the Ordinance of 1789 by which 
North Carolina had acceded to the Federal Union under the 
Constitution of the United States. Mr. Graham, Judge 


Badffer, and others concurred in the result, after first offer- 
ing a resolution (which was voted down) basing the with- 
drawal of the State, not upon the alleged inherent right of 
the State to withdraw from the Union at its will, but upon 
the right of revolution justified by the action of the Federal 

One of Mr. Graham's most eloquent and convincing 
speeches was that made before the Convention in December, 
1861, in opposition to an ordinance requiring a universal 
test oath, which was defeated. While giving to the Confeder- 
ate Government his full support, he earnestly opposed arbi- 
trary measures which indicated any forgetfulness of the 
rights of the citizen, and in March, 1861, he procured action 
by the Convention which caused the return to his home of a 
minister of the Gospel in Orange County, who had been ille- 
gally arrested by military order and confined in prison at 
Richmond. His speech against the test oath was used by 
Reverdy Johnson in arguing ex -parte Garland, in the United 
States Supreme Court. 

In December, 1863, Mr. Graham was elected to the Senate 
of the Confederate States by a vote of more than two- thirds 
in the General Assembly, and took his seat in May, 1864. 
It was at a troublous time and his counsel was, as usual, 
earnestly sought. In January, 1865, after consultation with 
General Lee, and with his full approval. Senator Graham 
introduced the resolution to create the Peace Commission, 
whose adoption caused the Hampton Roads Conference, 
8 February, 1865, and might have saved the brave lives so 
uselessly sacrificed after that date, but that President Davis 
declared himself without power to come to any terms that 
would put an end to the Confederacy. Thereupon Senator 
Graham gave notice that to save further useless effusion of 
blood he would introduce a resolution for negotiations looking 
to a return to the Union, but the notice was unfavorably re- 
ceived, and he decided that the introduction of the resolution 
would be unavailing. Had it passed, we might not only have 


saved innch useless bloodshed, but have avoided the unspeak- 
able horrors of Eeconstruction. But blindness ruled those 
in power. His course has been thought like that of North 
Carolina — reluctant to leave the Union, opposed to unsurpa- 
tions by the new government, willing to negotiate for honor- 
able peace when hope was^gone, but that being denied, hold- 
ing out to the end. Five of his sons, all of them who were 
old enough, were in the Confederate Army to the end, and 
each of them was wounded in battle. 

The Confederate Senate adjourned 16 March, and on the 
20th he visited Kaleigh at request of Governor Vance, and 
in the conference told hiui that he left Eichmond satisfied 
that all hope for the success of the Confederacy had passed; 
that Mr. Davis had declared that he was without power to 
negotiate for a return to the Union; and that each State 
could only do that for itself ; but he advised Governor Vance 
that should he call a meeting of the Legislature to consider 
such action, Mr. Davis should be apprised. To this Governor 
Vance assented. But before further action could be taken 
the approach of General Sherman made it useless. On 12 
April, 1865, Governor Vance sent ex-Governors Graham and 
Swain as Commissioners to General Sherman, then approach- 
ing Kaleigh, with a letter asking a suspension of arms with 
a view to a return to the Union. The letter is set out in 
''North Carolina Regimental Histories" Vol. I, page 58. 
General Sherman courteously received the Commissioners 
but declined the requested truce. Of course Governor Gra- 
ham's course in this trying time expressed the views of all 
those who saw the hopelessness of the situation, and who felt 
that the lives of the gallant men who had served their coun- 
try faithfully should now be preserved for its future service 
in days of peace. He was not wanting in this supreme hour 
in the highest fidelity to the people that had honored and 
trusted him. 

Of especial interest, showing his wisdom and foresight are 
his letters to Governor Swain, of this period, published in 


Mrs. Spencer's "Last Ninety Days of the War." He was 
the trusted adviser of Governor Vance, who in his life of 
Swain says: "In those troublous years of war, I consulted 
him more frequently perhaps than any other man in the 
State except Governor Graham," adding, that "in him there 
was a rounded fullness of the qualities, intellectual and moral, 
which constitute the excellence of manhood in a degree never 
excelled by any citizen of ISTorth Carolina whom I have per- 
sonally known, except by William A. Graham." Governor 
Graham was also the sure reliance of Governor Worth, whose 
most important State papers are from his pen. 

In 1866 Mr. Graham was elected to the United States 
Senate with his former classmate and competitor at college, 
Hon. Matthias E. Manly as colleague, but the Republican 
majority in Congress was contemplating Reconstruction and 
they were refused their seats. When such legislation was 
enacted, a universal gloom fell upon the entire South. In 
its midst a Convention was called of all conservative citizens, 
irrespective of former party affiliations to meet in Raleigh, 
5 February, 1868, over which Mr. Graham was called by 
common consent to preside, as our wisest citizen. His earn- 
est, able and statesmanlike speech had a powerful effect, it 
aroused the people from despondency and infused into them 
that spirit of determination which continued to grow in 
strength till the State returned to the control of its native 
white population. In this speech, he was the first, in view 
of the recent Act of Congress, conferring suffrage upon the 
colored race, to lay down the necessity for the Whites to 
stand together, and he enunciated the dectrine of "White 
Supremacy" as indispensable for the preservation of civiliza- 
tion in the South. While others favored efforts to obtain 
control or guidance of the Negro, he, with a better knowl- 
edge of that race, insisted upon the solidarity of the Whites 
as our only hope. The event has proved the accuracy of his 
foresight. This speech while the Convention was in session 
was as brave as any act of the war. 


He was prominent in asserting the right of the citizens to 
the writ of habeas corpus in 1870, when Judge Pearson 
declared the "judiciary exhausted" ; and when Governor 
Holden was impeached in December of that year, his was 
the first named selected among the eminent counsel, who were 
retained to assist the managers appointed by the House of 
Representatives in the prosecution. His speech was one of 
great ability, but singularly free from personal denunciation 
of those w^ho had trodden imder foot the Constitution and 
the laws. 

He was selected by the great philanthropist, George Pea- 
body, as one of the board of eminent men whom he requested 
to act as trustees in administering the fund donated by him 
to the cause of education in the South, which had been so 
sorely impoverished by the war, and attended its sessions 
with great regularity. 

He was also selected by Virginia to represent her upon 
the Board of Arbitration appointed by that State and Mary- 
land to settle the disputed boundary between the two States. 

On 20 May, 1875, he delivered an address at Charlotte 
upon the celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of the 
Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and arrayed in a 
masterly manner the historic evidence of its authenticity. 

Among his many valuable addresses is that delivered at 
Greensboro in 1860 upon the services of General Nathanael 
Greene, and memorial addresses upon the life and character 
of Judges A. D. Murphey and George E, Badger and Chief 
Justice Thomas Ruffin. His address at the State University 
and that upon the British Invasion of ISTorth Carolina in 
1780-81 have already been mentioned. ISTotwithstanding his 
frequent public services, in the intervals he readily returned 
to his professional duties and to the last was in full practice 
at the bar. His argument before Judge Brooks in 1870 at 
Salisbury on the habeas corpus for release of Josiah Turner 
and others was a masterpiece. 


He was nominated by acclamation in Orange County to 
the State Constitutional Convention of 1875. His declin- 
ing health prevented his taking part in the canvass. He 
issued a strong address to his constituents which was widely 
circulated throughout the State, with great effect. His elec- 
tion was a matter of course, but before he could take his 
seat, he had passed beyond earthly honors. He was at Sara- 
toga, ]Sr. Y., attending the session of the Virginia and Mary- 
land Boundary Commission when renewed and alarming 
symptoms of heart trouble appeared. The best efforts of 
medical science proved unavailing, and he passed away early 
in the morning of 11 August, 1875, being nearly 71 years 
of age. 

ISTumerous meetings of the Bar and public bodies, not 
only in North Carolina, but elsewhere, expressed their sense 
of the public loss, and the great journals of the country re- 
sponded in articles expressive of the national bereavement. 
The States of Maryland and Virginia took care that his 
remains should be received with due honor and escorted 
across their, borders. At the borders of ISTorth Carolina they 
were received by a committee appointed by the Mayor and 
Common Council of Raleigh, a committee apijointed 
by the bar of Raleigh, and another by the authori- 
ties of the town of Hillsboro, by officials and many promi- 
nent citizens of the State and conveyed by special train to 
Raleigh where they were escorted by a military and civic 
procession to the Capitol, in whose rotunda, draped for the 
occasion, they lay in state. Late in the afternoon of the 
same day, attended by the Raleigh military companies and 
by special guards of honor, appointed by cities and towns 
of the State, and by the family of the deceased, his remains 
were carried by special train to Hillsboro, where they were 
received by the whole population of the to\\Ti and escorted 
to the family residence, where they lay in state till noon on 
Sunday, August 15th. At that hour they were conveyed to 
the Presbyterian Church, and after appropriate funeral sen'- 


ices were interred with solemn ceremony, amid an im- 
mense concourse gathered from many counties, in its historic 
graveyard, where rest the ashes of William Hooper, A. D. 
Murphey, Chief Justice ISIash, Judge J^orwood, and many 
others, worthily prominent in the annals of the State. 

Governor Graham left surviving him his widow, who sub- 
sequently died 1 May, 1890; seven sons, to wit: Dr. Joseph 
Graham, of Charlotte (died August 12, 1007) ; Major John 
W. Graham, of Hillsboro; Major W. A. Graham, of Lincoln; 
Captain James A. Graham (died in March, 1909), and 
Captain Kobert D. Graham (died July, 1904), both resident 
in late years in Washington City; Dr. George W. Graham, 
of Charlotte ; Judge Augustus W. Graham, of Oxford ; and 
an only daughter, 3usan Washington, \vho married the 
author of this very imperfect sketch of his life and services. 
She died in Raleigh 10 December, 1909. 

Fortunate in his lineage and the sturdy race from which 
he sprung, strikingly handsome in person, of commanding 
appearance and stature, courteous in his bearing toward all, 
high or low, of high mental endowments, of a personal char- 
acter without spot or blemish, true to all men, and therefore 
true to himself, possessed of undaunted courage, moral and 
physical, with remarkable soundness of judgment, conserva- 
tive in his views, but ])rogressive in his public action, abun- 
dant in services to his State and to his country, holding the 
entire respect of all and the hatred of no one, J^orth Caro- 
lina has laid to rest in her bosom no son greater or more 
worthy than William A. Graham. His fame will grow 
brighter as the records are examined and weighed in the cold, 
clear, impartial light of the future. 

To North Carolinians, the name of William A. Graham 
is the synonym of high character and true service, and in 
rendering to him and his memory high honor, the people of 
the State have indicated those traits of character which most 
strongly command their approbation. 

Stat nominis umbra.