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Daily Journal

Who You Calling a Cohee?

Jul. 30th, 2012
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RALEIGH — No matter what happens in the gubernatorial election this year, a political string will be broken – our governor will no longer hail from Eastern North Carolina. The Republican nominee, Pat McCrory, is the former mayor of Charlotte. The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, is a former state senator from Rutherford County.

Since 1993, Democrats Jim Hunt from Wilson, Mike Easley from Rocky Mount, and Bev Perdue of New Bern have headed the state’s executive branch. And before the two-term tenure of Jim Martin, a former Republican congressman from the Charlotte area, Jim Hunt served his first eight years as governor from 1977 to 1985.

During most of the 20th century, North Carolina governors could be elected to only a single term – and the election was basically settled during the spring Democratic primary, not the fall general election against a token Republican. The Democrats maintained an informal rotation system for decades, with an Eastern governor followed by one from the Piedmont or West, who was then followed by an Easterner, and so on.

After Republican Jim Holshouser achieved his pathbreaking gubernatorial victory in 1972, however, Democrats were inclined to change the system. The constitution was changed to allow two consecutive terms. And the rotation tradition disappeared.

Voters in the Piedmont and mountains don’t like it. They have long seen state government as favoring the interests of the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina. Of course, folks from the latter areas see things differently. With many of the state’s highest unemployment and poverty rates to be found in Eastern counties, they think state government ought to be focused on the plight of the state’s neediest communities, even if that means redistributing tax dollars from one region to another.

Political rivalry between North Carolina’s East and West is certainly nothing new. In fact, it dates back to before North Carolina was a state. The irony is that during North Carolina’s early history, it was the Eastern counties that held not just most of the political power but also most of the wealth. It was the Piedmont and Western counties of the Carolina backcountry that were relatively poor.

The two sides of the dispute had colorful nicknames, although the terms were not limited to North Carolina. During colonial times and the early decades of the American republic, east-west rivalries in both Carolinas and Virginia were sometimes described as a contest between tuckahoes and cohees.

The Easterners called the Westerners “cohees,” which would be akin to calling someone a redneck or hick today. According to one 19th century historian, the term originated when Easterners heard Scotch-Irish Presbyterians use the phrase “quoth he” instead of “he said.” Meanwhile, the Westerners came to call the Easterners “tuckahoes,” which was the Indian name of a plant that grew along the tidewaters of Virginia and North Carolina. Tuckahoe was also the name of the famous William Randolph's Virginia plantation later acquired by Thomas Jefferson. In using the term, Westerners were ridiculing the East’s Anglican establishment for being pretentious and patronizing. It’s a bit like calling someone a “country-clubber” today.

The whole cohee-vs.-tuckahoe thing may sound a bit silly. But the underlying disputes were very serious. During the 1760s and early 1770s, for example, backcountry settlers suffered various abuses at the hands of colonial officials, including unjust taxes and fines, land swindles, and courthouse corruption. Many became furious. They formed local discussion groups and political organizations, calling themselves Regulators. Originally dedicated to nonviolent protest, the movement eventually turned into a military effort to force concessions from Gov. William Tryon. The resulting War of the Regulation would culminate in the 1771 Battle of Alamance, where Tryon’s forces – most of them militiamen from the East – clashed with about 2,000 Regulators. The latter were crushed.

In the decades after the Revolutionary War, the regional rivalry continued. Piedmont and Western counties filled up with settlers but did not acquire proportional representation in the General Assembly. It wasn’t until constitutional revisions in 1835 that the problem began to be addressed.

As should be obvious, the rivalry never really went away. I’m guessing that in 2016, whichever party is out of power will consider nominating a gubernatorial candidate from the Triangle or Eastern North Carolina, hoping to take advantage of the inevitable grievances.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.