Zeb faced a difficult battle to win a third term in the Senate. The small farmers of North Carolina were in financial distress and were looking for political solutions to their problems. Through the Farmers' Alliance, they had challenged the leadership of the Democratic Party in 1888 and had nearly succeeded in seizing control of the Democratic organization. Since the farmers' difficulties had only grown worse in the intervening years, it was plain that they would seek to gain redress for their grievances from the state and federal governments in the 1890 election. Zeb recognized that this situation was fraught with danger for him. Viewing himself as a consistent friend of nonelite whites, however, he assumed that he would be able to survive the challenge through traditional political means by making his now standard addresses and appeals to the voters. He followed this plan as much as his health would allow, but he discovered that a new generation of voters did not respond to the appeals that had protected Zeb and the older leaders of the Democratic Party since 1865.
Zeb recovered slowly from his eye operation. In March he was in Black Mountain, and he reported to Florence that he was feeling fine. Less than two weeks later, however, he had to admit that his strength was only returning slowly. Zeb's weakness was emphasized when Florence's mother died in Louisville in April and Zeb was unable to accompany his wife to the funeral. Finally, in May, Zeb had recovered sufficiently to be able to resume some more strenuous physical activities. He traveled to Greensboro and gave a major address. Then he returned to Black Mountain and began to work around the estate. He also began writing a chapter on Reconstruction in North Carolina for Hilary A. Herbert, which is described in detail later in this chapter. By the late fall he seemed fully mended. He spoke to a large gathering in Carthage, North Carolina, and he delivered some campaign speeches in Virginia during the fall elections of that year. As late as October 1889, however, he still had to reassure his family and friends that he was "getting quite strong."1
He made his first major public appearance in the spring of 1889 to deliver a speech at the Guilford Battle Ground before a crowd that he estimated