The Historiography of Antebellum North Carolina, 1835-1860
by Harry L. Watson
In 1835 North Carolina revised its constitution for the first time since 1776. In 1860 the election of Abraham Lincoln led the state into civil war and social cataclysm. These two events frame a distinct period in the work of most state historians. At the same time, they constitute the elements of a paradox for state historians and for students of southern history.
The democratic reforms of 1835 are commonly linked to the broad movement known as Jacksonian democracy. In an interpretation that is now standard, the convention's amendments led to more representative government, which led in turn to positive legislation on behalf of economic growth and development. The progress that resulted reversed the stagnation of the Rip Van Winkle period and by 1860 had laid the basis for a healthy, growing, and prosperous society.
In this widely accepted view of state history, the coming of the Civil War was a gratuitous calamity that originated outside the state and imposed itself on the people with sudden and arbitrary fury. It appears in our textbooks as a bitter non sequitur to the happy prosperity of the 1850s. We should not forget, however, that antebellum economic progress was wedded to the institution of slavery. Slavery was undemocratic, both in respect to the slave himself, and in the relations it fostered between