The gubernatorial campaign of 1876 has assumed mythical status in North Carolina's history. The two protagonists have been portrayed as the outstanding leaders of their respective parties; their open-air debates became legendary episodes of intellectual warfare. The election is also remembered as a turning point in the state's political history: in 1876, the Democratic Party seized control of the state's political machinery and held it for the next century, during which time the "right" people ruled for the good of the entire society; the party also brought to an end the "corrupt" government by blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags that had disgraced North Carolina during Reconstruction. Like many other myths, this one contains historically accurate elements combined with misinformation and self-serving distortion. Yet when the inaccuracies and distortions are removed, it remains clear that the campaign was a crucial one for determining the state's future.
The great battle almost failed to take place. While Zeb was the most obvious Democratic gubernatorial candidate, there are a number of indications that he was not enthusiastic about serving another term as governor. In addition, several of his fellow Democrats were convinced that he would be a divisive candidate who might fail to oust the Republicans from the governor's office. Probably the person most anxious for Zeb to receive the gubernatorial nomination was Democratic senator Matt W. Ransom. Ransom had been elected to take the Senate seat Zeb was denied in 1871 and 1872, and he was aware that Zeb could have legitimately laid claim to the seat following the 1876 election. Surviving correspondence indicates that Ransom worked diligently to secure support among his operatives to nominate Zeb for governor.1
Before the gubernatorial nominating convention took place, Democrats in the Sixth District of North Carolina were called on to nominate a candidate for Congress. Although there was a Democratic incumbent in place, Thomas S. Ashe, Zeb was apparently interested in securing his position. Zeb, his law partner Clement Dowd, and prominent local politician Walter L. Steele worked together quietly to send delegates to the congressional nominating convention who opposed Ashe. Zeb apparently hoped to claim