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Letter from William Woods Holden to Honor. R.M. Pearson, July 26, 1870


Letter from William Woods Holden to Honor. R.M. Pearson, July 26, 1870


This letter was written by Governor Holden to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Honor. R.M. Pearson. It was concerned with Ku Klux Klan activity in Alamance and Caswell Counties in central North Carolina. Governor Holden focused on ridding these counties of Klan violence. His actions against the Klan are what led to his impeachment. In this letter, Holden revealed his awareness of the Klan violence taking place in Alamance and Caswell Counties. He stated that people in these counties were either too afraid of the Klan to do anything, or they were associated with the Klan. Holden defended himself by stating that he could not leave citizens unprotected in such a violent state. He was also concerned with making sure Honor. R.M. Pearson understood that he would not break the law unless it was an extreme circumstance, like the one occurring in Alamance and Caswell Counties.


William Woods Holden


"Memoirs of W.W. Holden," Documenting the American South, accessed October 29, 2014,




Jessie Byrd




North Carolina

Original Format



Raleigh, July 26, 1870.

To the HON. R. M. PEARSON,
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of N. C.:

"SIR: - I have had the hour to receive, by the hands of the Marshal of the Supreme Court, a copy of your opinion in the matter of A. G. MOORE; and the Marshal has informed me of the writ in his hands for the body of said MOORE, now in the custody of my subordinate officer, Col. GEORGE W. KIRK.

"I have declared the counties of Alamance and Caswell in a state of insurrection, and have taken military possession of them. This your Honor admits I had the power to do "under the Constitution and laws." And not only this, "but to do all things necessary to suppress the insurrection," including the power to "arrest all suspected persons" in the above-mentioned Counties.

"Your Honor has thought proper also to declare that the citizens of Alamance and Caswell are insurgents, as the result of the Constitutional and lawful action of the Executive, and that therefore, you will not issue the writ for the production of the body of Moore to any of the men of the said Counties; that "the posse comitatus must come from the County where the writ is to be executed," and that any other means would be illegal.

"I have official and reliable information that in the

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Counties above named, during the last twelve months, not less than one hundred persons, "in the peace of God and the State," have been taken from their homes and scourged, mainly if not entirely on account of their political opinions; that eight murders have been committed, including that of a State Senator, on the same account; that another State Senator has been compelled from fear for his life to make his escape to a distant State. I have reason to believe that the governments of the said Counties have been mainly if not entirely in the hands of men who belong to the Kuklux Klan, whose members have perpetrated the atrocities referred to; and that the County governments have not merely omitted to ferret out and bring to justice those of this Klan who have thus violated the law, but that they have actually shielded them from arrest and punishment. The State judicial power in the said Counties, though in the hands of energetic, learned and upright men, has not been able to bring criminals to justice: indeed, it is my opinion, based on facts that have come to my knowledge, that the life of the Judge whose duty it is to ride the circuit to which the said Counties belong, has not been safe, on account of the hatred entertained towards him by the Klan referred to, because of his wish and purpose to bring said criminals to justice. For be it known to your Honor that there is a widespread and formidable secret organization in this State, partly political and partly social in its objects; that this organization is known, first, as "The Constitutional Union Guard," - secondly, as "The White Brotherhood," - thirdly, as "The Invisible Empire:" - that the members of this organization

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are united by oaths which ignore or repudiate the ordinary oaths or obligations that rest upon all other citizens to respect the laws and to uphold the government; that these oaths inculcate hatred by the white against the colored people of the State; that the members of this Klan are irreconcilably hostile to the great principle of political and civil equality, on which the government of this State has been reconstructed; that these Klans meet in secret, in disguise, with arms, in uniform of a certain kind intended to conceal their persons and their horses, and to terrify those whom they assault or among whom they move; that they hold their camps in secret places, and decree judgment against their peaceable fellow-citizens, from mere intimidations to scourgings, mutilations and murder, and that certain persons of the Klan are deputed to execute these judgments; that when the members of this Klan are arrested for violations of the law, it is most difficult to obtain bills of indictment against them, and still more difficult to convict them, first, because some of the members or their sympathizers are almost always on the grand and petit juries, and secondly, because witnesses who are members or sympathizers unblushingly commit perjury to screen their confederates and associates in crime; that this Klan, thus constituted and having in view the objects referred to, is very powerful in at least twenty-five Counties of the State, and has had absolute control for the last twelve months of the Counties of Alamance and Caswell.

"Under these circumstances I would have been

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recreant to my duty and faithless to my oath, if I had not exercised the power in the several Counties which your Honor has been pleased to say I have exercised Constitutionally and lawfully; especially as, since October, 1868, I have repeatedly, by proclamations and by letters, invoked public opinion to repress these evils, and warned criminals and offenders against the laws of the fate that must in the end overtake them, if, under the auspices of the Klan referred to, they should persist in their course.

"I beg to assure your Honor that no one subscribes more thoroughly than I do to the great principles of habeas corpus and trial by jury. Except in extreme cases, in which beyond all question "the safety of the State is the supreme law," these privileges of habeas corpus and trial by jury should be maintained.

"I have already declared that, in my judgment, your Honor and all the other civil and judicial authorities are unable at this time to deal with the insurgents. The civil and the military are alike Constitutional powers - the civil to protect life and property when it can, and the military only when the former has failed. As the Chief Executive I seek to restore, not to subvert, the judicial power. Your Honor has done your duty, and in perfect harmony with you I seek to do mine.

"It is not I nor the military power that has supplanted the civil authority; that has been done by the insurrection in the Counties referred to. I do not see how I can restore the civil authority until I "suppress the insurrection," which your Honor declares I have the power to do; and I do not see how

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I can surrender the insurgents to the civil authority until that authority is restored. It would be a mockery in me to declare that the civil authority was unable to protect the citizens against the insurgents, and then turn the insurgents over to the civil authority. My oath to support the Constitution makes it imperative on me to "suppress the insurrection" and restore the civil authority in the Counties referred to, and this I must do. In doing this I renew to your Honor expressions of my profound respect for the civil authority, and my earnest wish that this authority may soon be restored to every County and neighborhood in the State.

"I have the honor to be, with great respect,
Your obedient servant,
W. W. HOLDEN, Governor."


"Memoirs of W.W. Holden," Documenting the American South, accessed October 29, 2014,


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William Woods Holden, Letter from William Woods Holden to Honor. R.M. Pearson, July 26, 1870, Civil War Era NC, accessed July 12, 2024,