NC drops ball on Reconstruction pardon

Fayetteville Observer editorial writer Gene Smith says the North Carolina Legislature blew it when it recently squandered the opportunity to issue a pardon to Reconstruction-era Governor William Woods Holden.

Earlier this month, efforts to pardon Holden, the first governor removed from office in the United States, were put on hold because Senate Republicans weren’t unified on whether to absolve him for actions stemming from his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.

The state Senate sent a bipartisan resolution about Holden to the chamber’s Rules Committee, where unpopular or controversial bills have been known to die over the years, according to the Associated Press.

Smith admits Holden was no saint, but contends that during Reconstruction few men were:

Declaring martial law wasn’t one of Holden’s excesses. He clearly had that authority. Neither was using state troops to enforce it in Alamance and Caswell counties, where the Klan was happily murdering Republicans. In fact, two charges stemming from the troops’ involvement were the only ones of which Holden was acquitted.

Half a dozen others stuck – including a couple that should have. Holden’s force made arrests outside the counties under martial law, and he refused, for a time, to comply with writs of habeas corpus. No state or state official gets to annul the federal Constitution.

Even so, the impeachment was itself a political lynching. It wouldn’t have mattered if Holden had faced a single count of jaywalking. The outcome would’ve been the same because he had dared try to breathe life into the 14th and 15th amendments. The status quo had been upset by the Civil War, and Holden had sided against those who were committed to restoring it.

They won. Democrats were ascendant in the legislature. There were Klansmen and Klan sympathizers everywhere – in law enforcement, in the press, in the Assembly and other places of influence – and everyone knew that Holden had no chance.

Smith adds in the irony that in the very year that the Republican Party regained control of the legislature for the first time since 1871 – the year of Holden’s impeachment – Holden’s “political heirs won’t budge because a few of them peddled the foolish idea that we mustn’t recognize people for the good they’ve done unless they are flawless, which is to say gods.”

Smith writes that it’s time Americans learn that it’s possible to honor our nation’s forefathers for what they got right – valor, compassion, insight, talent – without feeling as though it also denies their frailties, justifies their misdeeds and rewrites history.

“Pardoning a man who put it all on the line fighting homicidal traitors bent on dragging the South back into the muck of delusion, injustice and brutality would’ve been a decent start down the road to understanding,” he concludes.

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