Following the American Revolution and creation of a new system of government, North Carolina spent the first four or five decades of the 1800s under the control of regressives.
Before delving into the small but determined resistance to regressives during that period and what they would be able to eventually change, as well as a state icon they couldn’t in time, it may be helpful to explain what regressive means.
Philosophically, regressives differ from other conservatives because rather than just seeking to tap the brakes on what they see as unbridled progressivism, regressives actually seek to reverse progress.
Following the American Revolution, most were not among the third of North Carolinians still loyal to Great Britain or, of course, the 25% in bondage.
But regressives represented a faction that lobbied for a return to those pre-war values and ideals.
In the Tar Heel state, a slightly higher percentage were regressives than than those who were characterized as radicals or rioters because they wanted even more change.
Together, these two group narrowly outnumbered the remaining loyalists, most of whom would emigrate elsewhere.
Throughout the nation, as other states perpetuated the progressivism upon which America was founded, regressives in North Carolina during those early decades earned it a reputation as the “Rip Van Winkle” state.
As a result, land values plummeted as more than a third of North Carolinians moved away.
Between 1830 and 1840 alone, nearly half of the counties lost population according to a superbly documented book entitled, North Carolina Through Four Centuries.
The 1850 census revealed that 31% of all native North Carolinians still living in the United States resided in some other state. Backwardness had driven away more than 400,000 Tar Heels, two-thirds of whom were white.
This was equivalent to half the state’s population in that census.
For the first half of the 1800s, the legislature was controlled by less than 10% of the population, including slave-holding planters living down east who were adamantly opposed to public education, roads, government in general and taxes.
Fast forward two hundred years. Sound slightly familiar?
Between 2000 and 2010, half of North Carolina’s counties were again losing population with most relocating to the state’s more progressive cities.
Regressivism is as much a part of America as any other view, if not a bit ironic in a nation forged by progressives. But it doesn’t take popularity for this view to seize control.
Because very few voters today are able to vote for the handful of legislators who are in control of setting legislative agendas in many states, including North Carolina, those decisions are also essentially controlled by about 10% of the electorate.
In part, it is an inherent flaw in representative democracy vs. more “popular” forms of democracy, but not perhaps, a view currently held by regressives who often seem to rationalize overriding the views of the majority of voters by insisting that the same would be done to them were they not in power.
Fueling this partisan view of “screw them before they screw you back,” is the fact that since 1998 “fewer than 10% of both state senate and state house seats have been competitive,” a factor driven by partisan gerrymandering of districts.
The thing to remember is that during much of that earlier period of regression following the Revolution, a handful of deeply concerned and resilient North Carolinians were persistently advocating progressive ideas, which following the Civil War, would put “the state on a totally new course.”
They were named Yancey, Caldwell, Fisher, Swain, Gaston, Morehead and Graham.
But their architect was Judge Archibald DeBow Murphey who was born in Red House, which is now called Semora, a crossroads just northwest of what is now Hyco Lake, a twin in Person County just west of Mayo Lake where we now split time with our home just south in Durham.
The area of Murphey’s origins is now a part of Caswell County, but when he was born it was a part of Orange County.
Judge Murphey eventually practiced law down in Hillsborough a few miles west from what is now Durham and established a residence in Hawsfield (southwest of current-day Mebane.)
It was during this period that Murphey crafted his plan for North Carolina’s salvation including “establishment of a public education system, construction of canals and turnpike roads, as well as a general public welfare system,” and eventually railroads.
In fact, regardless of sympathies, North Carolinians weren’t paying much attention to succession leading up to the Civil War.
Instead they were focused on constitutional reform and a struggle over ad valorem taxes as a means for wealthy plantation owners to pay their fair share to fund Murphey’s vision.
Many of Durham’s founding generation were heavily influenced by Murphey’s strategic views including his close friends here, the Camerons.
They encouraged others in what would become Durham to push for statewide progress such as building railroads and a strong banking system.
Keep in mind by 1820, only 7% of Americans lived in cities and progressives such as Murphey saw a scalable role in development and progress for state government.
There were only 61 settlements with more than 2,500 people in the whole country at the time and only five with more than 25,000 people so progressives such as Murphey were clearly farsighted.
But progressives at the time were not able to save the longleaf pine forests that provided North Carolinians their “tar heel” nickname as well as a species of our state tree.
In pre-settlement times, these savannah-like forests dominated a swath from northeast North Carolina in a strip that straddled the fall line between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain continuing in an arc down through the south all the way to Texas, 90 million acres in all.
These would have been the forests where my 8th great grandmother Mary Jane was born on Salmon Creek, more than three hundred years before I would uncover my North Carolina roots.
But from a time before North Carolina earned its “tar heel” nickname until the mid-1800s, these trees were used for naval stores or in other words tar, pitch, rosin and turpentine.
More than just shipping, it was the “wagon” industry that relied on grease produced from these distinct trees as well as uses for their wood by settlers, such as fencing.
Colonists would gird or strangle the trees to death while replacing the understory savannah grasses with corn and other crops as well as letting livestock such as hogs range wild.
Soon huge numbers of hogs, cattle, horses, mules, sheep and goats eventually trampled through these forests contributing to their demise while depleting the soil across much of North Carolina by 1900.
By 1920, the longleaf pine was virtually extinct.
Gone were not only trees that take 100 to 150 years to reach full size (between 98 and 115 feet) and may live to be 500 years old, but gone too were seas of understory savannah grasses.
Environmental and science historians have placed nearly as much blame on these practices for the sediments that will muddy North Carolina’s streams, rivers and lakes for a thousand years, as they do on the farming practices used to raise cotton and tobacco.
Another factor is that we know now that our soils in the South are much more fragile than other parts of the country.
Fully two-thirds of the deforestation that has taken place across America over the last 400 years occurred during the sixty years between 1850 and 1910.
When a movement took hold to re-plant pine trees in North Carolina, short-leaf pines such as loblolly were used instead of longleaf pines because they grow faster, much closer together and don’t require ground fire to reproduce.
Since the 1960s when collectively pines were named North Carolina’s state tree, efforts have been underway to re-establish longleaf pines using prescribed fire along their base as well as protecting the tiny old growth stands that have been discovered.
But one thing is for sure, for now this means that North Carolina has a much different natural sense of place than it once had.
It is in the wake of this desecration that culminated in the early 1900s that another strategic wave of progressivism took hold in North Carolina, launching its mainstream status as a tourism destination.
More on that in the next post, including a fourth wave in the early 1970s that voters embedded in the constitution, something that legislators including regressives today choose to ignore.