The North Carolina Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to pardon Reconstruction-era Gov. William Holden, convicted of impeachment charges and removed from office for his role in halting Ku Klux Klan activities 140 years ago.
Last 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 Klan.
Holden gained infamy in post-antebellum North Carolina for his efforts to combat the Klan. In the late 1860s, he hired two dozen detectives to try to thwart the intimidation tactics of the group.
The detective unit was not overly successful in limiting Klan activities, but Holden’s efforts exceeded those of other Southern governors.
Holden eventually called out the militia against the Klan in 1870, imposed martial law in Alamance and Caswell counties, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus for accused leaders of the Klan in what became known as the Kirk-Holden war.
Not surprisingly given the poisoned atmosphere of the Reconstruction period, some local residents believed Holden warranted impeachment and removal from office on March 22, 1871, largely for jailing citizens without due process rights.
Holden’s impeachment took place months after Democrats — the party that had favored secession and the formation of the Confederacy — took back control of the statehouse from Republicans.
Republicans did not gain control of the NC Senate again for 14 decades, until this year.
“The House approved eight impeachment articles against him, including several for jailing Klan supporters without due process rights,” according to The Associated Press. “The Senate convicted him on six of the articles following a seven-week trial and removed him from office.”
Years after his impeachment, Holden said he acted “purely as a defensive measure to save human life and to protect and secure free suffrage to all.”
“I had solely in view the vindication of the law, the protection of the citizen and the good of society,” Holden said, according to a historical review article.
“One-hundred forty years ago, this Legislature created a great injustice,” Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, told a packed Senate chamber Tuesday.
“Justice demands that it be reversed,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, according to M2Mpolitics.com.
Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin, called Tuesday “a historic day in the history of North Carolina.”
Berger noted that while Holden did suspend habeas corpus rights when he called out the militia to quash the Klan in Alamance and Caswell counties, he did so to preserve life and safety.
He read from a history book which took note that at a political convention of the newly formed Republican Party in North Carolina, a former master met his former slave on equal grounds.
The resolution must now be passed by the N.C. House before taking effect.