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On this day, March 22nd in 1871, William Woods Holden was the first governor in the United States to be impeached and removed from office.  His story is a reminder of what happens when pure partisan rancor becomes the norm in unhappy eras of American politics.

Before the American Civil War, Holden was a newspaper publisher who tried (unsuccessfully) to steer North Carolina on a Whiggish course towards peace.  Additionally, he politically opposed the Confederate government during the war, and so, after the rebellion was finally crushed, Andrew Johnson appointed William Woods Holden as provisional governor of North Carolina.  He lost the special gubernatorial election of 1865, but was returned to power at the head of the Republican ticket in 1868. Unlike other southern governors, Holden instituted aggressive policies to curtail the Ku Klux Klan. In 1870 he called out the state militia to crack down on the Klan which had assassinated a republican state legislator and lynched a black policeman.  The governor declared martial law in two counties and temporarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus for certain suspected Klan members.

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This upheaval became known as the Kirk-Holden war and it resulted in a severe political backlash during November of 1870 (1870 was an election year).  The North Carolina election that year was marred by vote tampering, voter suppression, and outright violence, and the Republicans lost their legislative majority (back in those days, the Democrats were the party of bigotry, intolerance, oppression, and cruelty).

After the election, William Woods Holden was impeached and removed from office in in a vote which hewed exactly to party lines.  The Democrats took full control of North Carolina and moved the state away from the Reconstruction-era civil rights reforms championed by Holden (who went into self-exile in Washington DC, where he again worked on a newspaper).  However, history is a long, strange affair and William Woods Holden was fully pardoned and exonerated by unanimous vote of the North Carolina state legislature…in 2011.