Graham, William A.

Born: 1804-09-05 North Carolina

Died: 1875-08-11 Saratoga Springs, New York

Flourished: 1832-1865 North Carolina

Born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, William A. Graham was a plantation owner, lawyer, state representative, United States and Confederate senator, two-term governor of North Carolina, secretary of the U.S. Navy, and vice-presidential candidate. Educated in preparatory academies in Lincolnton, Statesville, and Hillsborough, he studied the classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating in 1824, he studied law with Thomas Ruffin, gained admittance to the bar in 1825, and began practicing in Hillsborough. Throughout his life, he also owned three plantations that were operated by the labor of nearly one hundred enslaved people and managed by overseers. Graham was a founding member of the Whig Party, and remained active in politics until 1865. He served in the North Carolina House of Commons from 1833 to 1838, again in 1840, and was its speaker in both 1838 and 1840. He advocated for public education, a protective tariff and national bank, and investment in internal improvements. In 1836, he married Susannah Sarah Washington, with whom he eventually had ten children, two of whom died before reaching adulthood. His political career accelerated in 1840, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. After serving in the Senate from 1840 to 1843, he was elected governor of North Carolina, a position he held from January 1845 to January 1849. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore appointed him secretary of the U.S. Navy, and, in 1852, the Whig Party nominated him as their vice-presidential candidate. Graham's presence on the Whig ticket alongside Winfield Scott was meant to reassure Southern Whigs that the party was bisectional. When the Democratic Party's candidate, Franklin Pierce, won the election of 1852 by a landslide, Graham retired to his homestead for two years. He re-entered politics in 1854, first by serving as a state senator, then by serving as a Confederate senator after voting for North Carolina to secede from the Union. Although he supported peace negotiations, he also asserted that the Civil War would be in vain if the institution of slavery were disrupted. He participated in preliminary negotiations for the surrender of Raleigh, North Carolina just before Abraham Lincoln's murder.

Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 1113; Max R. Williams, "Graham, William Alexander," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 9:392-93; Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 724; William Tecumseh Sherman, General Sherman's Official Account of His Great March Through Georgia and the Carolinas (New York: Bunce and Huntington, 1865), 161; Gravestone, Hillsborough Old Town Cemetery, Hillsborough, NC.