RALEIGH — While in North Carolina the Republican Party seems poised for a highly successful election cycle this year, the federal races for president and Congress present no clear partisan trend. Whoever wins the top job, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, will probably not win by much. Right now, prospects for major shifts in the GOP’s U.S. House majority or the Democrats’ U.S. Senate majority appear dim.
In other words, the 2012 election is likely to reemphasize that Americans are closely divided in their political opinions. Reaction to the results – whatever they may be – will reveal whether we are also bitterly divided, as has often been suggested.
Is there a chance for the president and Congress to take a major step towards fiscal sanity in 2013? Is there is a chance for likely Gov. Pat McCrory and a Republican legislature to craft conservative, pro-growth policies for the state that attract support from many North Carolina independents and moderate Democrats?
I would submit that the answer to these questions is yes. It’s happened before, after political conflicts at least as contentious as the ones we’ve seen in recent years. Here are a couple of interesting examples from North Carolina history. Both happen to involve new communities arising out of political compromises.
When Mecklenburg County was created out of Anson County in 1762, it was much larger than it is now. It stretched further east and south, encompassing territory now in Cabarrus and Union counties. There were two major population centers in Mecklenburg, one to the west that included the site of present-day Charlotte and one to the east that included Scotch-Irish settlers in the Mint Hill and Rocky River communities and German settlers further east along Dutch Buffalo Creek.
Thomas Polk, the great-uncle of future U.S. President James K. Polk, was the leader of the western faction. Swiss-born Martin Phifer was the leader of the eastern faction. Both men represented Mecklenburg in the colonial legislature. Both men wanted the new county to be run out of their respective communities. After years of machinations, Polk prevailed and the new county seat, originally called Charlotte Town, was founded.
But after the Revolutionary War, the easterners turned defeat into victory by convincing the state legislature to give them their own county. It was named after the speaker of the house, Stephen Cabarrus, who cast the deciding vote for the new county.
The political battle wasn’t over, however. Next, the Scotch-Irish and Germans fought for control of the new Cabarrus County government. Finally, they worked out a compromise in 1796, and cooperated in the construction of a new county seat located between their two communities. They named it, appropriately enough, Concord.
Several decades later, the residents of southeastern Mecklenburg and western Anson demanded their own county. They felt ignored and ill-served by the courthouse cliques in Charlotte and Wadesboro, and thought their population growth justified local control. The legislature finally acceded to their request in 1842.
But while agreeing about the need for local control, these leaders were both closely and bitterly divided by the state and national politics of the day. Some of them were loyal Democrats who strongly supported Andrew Jackson and his protégés. Others were strong Whigs who strongly supported Jackson’s longtime foe Henry Clay.
At the 1842 convention to name the new county, partisan differences flared. Democrats insisted that it be named Jackson County, in part because “Old Hickory” had been born in nearby Waxhaw. Whigs insisted that it be named Clay County, honoring the creator of the Whig Party now in power in both Raleigh and Washington.
After a length argument, a member named Aaron Little rose to speak. “Brethren,” he said, “let’s be united and call it Union,” since it had been fashioned from parts of Mecklenburg and Anson. “Amen,” responded the other commissioners. Union County was born.
Aaron Little was no stranger to politics. His father James Little had been a local politician. And Aaron’s wife Mary Polk was the great-grandniece of Charlotte founder Thomas Polk and a member of one of the region’s most prominent political families. In Aaron’s experience, there were certainly issues worth fighting over – but naming a new county wasn’t one of them.
Aaron Little, whose sister Polly was my great-great-great grandmother, knew that while you should never compromise your fundamental principles, making deals is an integral part of politics. If it’s a good deal, you get some of what you want in the short run while building relationships, credibility, and momentum for larger gains in the long run.
In other words, promoting concord and seeking a union of interests are consistent with the goal of enhancing freedom. New leaders, please take note.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.