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Joseph Gregoire de Roulhac Hamilton, 1878-1961
Party Politics in North Carolina, 1835-1860
Durham, N.C.: Seeman Printery, 1916.


Joseph Gregoire de Roulhac Hamilton (6 August 1878-10 November 1961) was a long-time professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the creator of the university's Southern Historical Collection. He was born in Hillsborough, graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with an M.A., and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he studied with William Archibald Dunning, a preeminent educator and scholar of Civil War and Reconstruction history. Hamilton taught briefly at the Horner Military Academy in Oxford and was principal of Wilmington High School before beginning his career as a history professor at the University of North Carolina in 1906. He would remain at the university for 42 years, becoming Alumni Professor and head of the History Department in 1908 and being named Kenan Professor in 1920. In 1930, he resigned his professorship to become head of the University's Southern Historical Collection, an institution he created and which under his leadership became the preeminent repository of manuscript materials about the American South. For many years, he traveled the South, knocking on doors, calling upon the elderly, and searching through attics, outbuildings, and basements in search of old letters, diaries, and account books. For this work, he has earned the nickname, "Ransack Roulhac."

Hamilton published widely in both scholarly and popular publications and played an important role in the development of social sciences at the University, including work with Howard Odum's Institute for Research in Social Science. Hamilton was widely respected by historians throughout the country, taught in university summer schools across the nation, and served on numerous professional committees and boards. His best known works are Reconstruction in North Carolina (1914), Party Politics in North Carolina, 1835-1860 (1916), North Carolina Since 1860 (1919), and the edited essays of William Dunning (1937). As a historian, Hamilton was a member of the "Dunning School," which held that northern politicians and freedmen hurt the South politically and economically during Reconstruction. This school emphasized the questionable practices of Reconstruction leaders and celebrated the rise of the South's old guard, the Democratic Party, in the 1890s. Although Hamilton's work is still read and cited, much of his interpretation of southern events following the Civil War is now questioned. His greatest contribution is the Southern Historical Collection, the repository of primary sources, which contemporary historians use to re-evaluate Hamilton's writings, and which future historians will likely use for further reinterpretations.

Party Politics in North Carolina, 1835-1860, first published between March 21 and August 22, 1915, as a series of Sunday newspaper columns in the Charlotte Observer, describes the political battles fought by North Carolina Whigs and Democrats during the years following the Convention of 1835 and before the Civil War. Chapter I, "Political Significance of the Convention of 1835," speaks to the pros and cons of the convention, which Hamilton labels "a great democratic victory," and Chapter II, "Social, Economic, and Political Background," provides a short description of North Carolina during its "Rip Van Winkle stage," in which the state's development became sluggish, seeming to sleep, while other states grew in population, economic output, and cultural offerings. Probably influenced by the progressive era and environment in which he wrote, Hamilton notes that during this stage no one wished to "take responsibility for the needs of the state." He explains that "[a]t the period of which we speak, the State as a whole was ignorant, shockingly so, even for that time, and ignorance bred a type of individualism that knew nothing of community spirit and that apparently could not develop it. The only community sense that the mass of the people of the State possessed in this period was a universal desire to be let alone and permitted to 'gang their ain gait' [take their own path] and a common hatred of any movement which might require the raising of taxes."

Beginning with Chapter III, "The Campaign of 1836," Hamilton's work devotes a chapter to each political campaign and includes information such as who ran for office from which party and each election's outcome. The chapters describe local allegiances to national political figures, party factions, and issues such as the national bank and railroads. They also include brief political biographies, including stances on some of the issues of the day, for major North Carolina political figures. For example:

[Bedford] Brown was a strict constructionist and a strong State's rights man of views very similar to Nathaniel Macon. This type formed the Democratic Party. [Willie] Mangum, on the other hand, represented the latitudinarian, anti-Jackson, pro-bank group which soon formed the Whig party. Brown's supporters were mainly in the East and hence were those who had fairly consistently opposed constitutional reform in the state, while Mangum found his chief support in the West which had supported Jackson in 1824 but abandoned him after 1828, largely because the East had turned a somersault and accepted him.

Summaries of the legislative activities of those elected in a previous campaign follow in the chapter devoted to the next campaign. Thus, acts of the 1836 and 1837 legislature can be found in the chapter devoted to the campaign of 1838, and the notable activities of those elected in 1838 are discussed in the chapter devoted to the campaign of 1840. Of special note is Chapter XI, which discusses the legislative session of 1848. This session not only dealt extensively with slavery, but also passed bills creating the North Carolina Railroad and the State Hospital for the Insane, reorganizing the institution for the hearing and visually impaired, chartering the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road Company, making provisions for the improvement of the Cape Fear and Deep Rivers above Fayetteville, and re-incorporating the Raleigh and Gaston road. In addition, this legislature gave married women property rights and created Watauga, Forsyth, and Alamance counties. The legislature also instructed the governor to issue an annual Thanksgiving proclamation, a move roundly condemned by the state's Baptists as a first step toward the union of church and state. "Rip Van Winkle," Hamilton declares, "was at last awake."

Kevin Cherry

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