RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's present-day lawmakers are deciding whether to pass judgment on a decision by their Reconstruction-era predecessors 140 years ago to impeach and kick out a governor whose chief offense stemmed from stopping Ku Klux Klan violence during the turbulent years after the Civil War.
In a move that could compel legislators to confront the state's racist past, the Senate wants to debate this week a resolution pardoning the late Republican Gov. William Woods Holden, who became the first governor removed from office in the United States on March 22, 1871.
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, the party of Lincoln. Republicans did not take charge of the North Carolina Senate again until this year.
Democrats were angry with Holden for bringing in a state militia to quell a Klan insurrection that killed newly-freed slaves and other Republicans, both black and white.
The House approved eight impeachment articles against him, including several for jailing Klan supporters without due process rights. The Senate convicted him on six of the articles following a seven-week trial and removed him from office.
In 1876, 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.
Supporters of the resolution to pardon Holden say the Senate's debate will help set straight an injustice from a painful chapter in the state's history.
"He definitely warrants a pardon," said GOP Sen. Neal Hunt of Wake County, one of the resolution's three primary sponsors. "He was standing up for what is right. He was impeached by people who had very bad views about appropriate treatment of citizens, whether they were black or white people supporting black people."
Senate debate on the resolution scheduled for Tuesday was delayed until at least Wednesday after senators were given a document citing a nearly 100-year-old book by a University of North Carolina history professor criticizing Holden for supporting carpetbaggers and scalawags.
It was not immediately clear who put the document on their desks. It cited a 1914 book by professor J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton that it said berated Holden's administration and called his appointees corrupt.
Contemporary historians, however, have been more sympathetic to Holden, and three living former governors have signed a letter endorsing his pardon.
The debate was delayed to ensure Republicans had the correct information before undoing the pardon. "We'll be overturning something in the Senate from 140 years ago," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the chamber's rules committee chairman.
The House would still have to approve the resolution to give it formal weight to remove the impeachment and conviction.
Holden never sought a pardon before his death in 1892 at age 73.
A pardon was something Holden viewed "as some admission that he had done something wrong, which he said he didn't do," said Arch Allen, a Raleigh attorney who made the case to legislators to consider the resolution. Allen's late wife was Holden's great-granddaughter. "The new General Assembly has provided an opportunity for bipartisan sponsorship of this resolution."
Allen's effort received support after the present-day Republicans last November grabbed a majority in the Senate for the first time since 1870.
The Democrats of the 1860s and '70s were angry with the leanings of Republicans like Holden for promoting equality among all races and his handling of Klan activity in North Carolina.
Holden, a former Democrat, had accepted North Carolina's secession in the Civil War but later pressed for peace with the North and switched parties.
He called in a militia to put down Klan violence after GOP victories in the 1868 elections, including Holden's ascendancy to the governorship. The Klan hanged a black Republican near the Alamance County courthouse and stabbed a white Republican senator to death in an adjoining county, according to historians. The militia brought the region under control with little opposition.
A former newspaper editor, Holden wasn't helped by his political past. Holden had run on a peace platform and lost the 1864 election for North Carolina governor when the state was in the Confederacy. President Andrew Johnson named him provisional governor at the close of the Civil War, but Holden was defeated a few months later by a Conservative-backed candidate.
In a move that further riled Democrats, Holden called in the militia from western North Carolina, where Union sympathy was higher during the war, to confront the Klan, and he picked a former Union officer to lead it, said William Harris, who wrote a 1987 book on Holden. Holden also suspended the writ of habeas corpus for some arrested during the insurrection, which led to a series of court rulings that ultimately led him to release the prisoners.
"He had been so controversial," said Harris, a professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who supports the pardon effort. "His past was so much a part of this."
Democratic Sen. Dan Blue of Wake County, another primary sponsor, said he believes correcting Holden's impeachment and conviction can become a source of unity for state residents who lived through the civil rights era in the 20th century.
"There's also a redeeming message in it, too," said Blue, who was elected the state's first black House speaker in 1991. "There are a lot of other injustices we can correct and I'm hoping we can look at those as well, as well as make sure we don't inflict any injustices in this current climate."
(Associated Press/North Carolina State Archives)