By 1840, when John Motley Morehead took office as governor of North Carolina, the illiteracy rate for white North Carolinians was 26%. Based on nationwide studies, we can infer that the illiteracy rate for enslaved Blacks could not have been lower than 95%. The state did not have a single city with more than 20,000 residents and it had only recently established even the rudiments of public education, despite the state Constitution’s mandate that legislators establish a public school system having been in place for more than 60 years. The relatively few North Carolinians with education and ambition were leaving the state for more energetic places that actually offered opportunity.

A Whig rather than a conservative Democrat, Governor Morehead initiated a campaign of activist government to pull his state out of backwardness. He built canals and improved rivers and ports to correct for the state’s single greatest economic disadvantage–a lack of deep-water harbors. Morehead convinced the legislature to establish and invest in public schools (for whites only), and as a result the white illiteracy rate dropped by over ten points in just one generation. Seeing that locomotives were key to the state’s economic future, Morehead passed and personally funded a new North Carolina Railroad. Interacting in synergy, Governor Morehead’s initiatives raised the state up from backwardness, and earned him the title of “Father of Modern North Carolina.”

North Carolina does not find itself mired so deeply in the abyss of Southern backwardness as it did when Governor Morehead took the Oath of Office. The state is growing, albeit far more slowly than it did in previous decades, and due to the bipartisan work of Governor Cooper and some Republican legislators, North Carolina has attracted several large businesses in the last year. But in other ways, striking similarities exist between the state’s pre-Morehead crisis and the plight it’s suffering after 10 years of right-wing Republican rule. Test scores are going down and the achievement gap between Black and white students is going up. Personal income growth badly lags the national average (I suspect this may not trouble one Art Pope, who rules a poverty-wage retail empire). Population growth has slowed considerably, and 51 counties, like the state as a whole during Morehead’s day, are losing population in absolute terms. Over half the state’s counties, in other words, are fighting for survival.

How to persuade this political groundhog to stand down? I propose that we learn from the past by enacting a neo-Moreheadian agenda in North Carolina. State leaders should abjure the know-nothing minimal-government dogma that landed North Carolina in its pre-Morehead crisis and has resulted in social decline across the board in the twenty-first century. Like Morehead, they should robustly commit to modernizing the state by fostering strong public education and physical infrastructure. As railroads were the future of transportation in Morehead’s day, light rail and high-speed rail hold the keys to the future now. Investing in clean-energy infrastructure would allow the state to gain a foothold in an explosively growing global industry. Developing the state through public investment worked wonders between 1960 and 2010–see the industrial-grade data dredging it takes for conservative ideologues to make any case to the contrary–and can work again now.

Morehead’s Whig program contained an initiative that may surprise readers accustomed to thinking of the nineteenth century as a purely benighted period. He established a school for the deaf. If a nineteenth-century Southern politician can reach out to care for at least one marginalized group, twenty-first century leaders can exceed his efforts. We owe respect and service to the least among us. Let’s move beyond the hateful and small-minded politics of revenge and set out to make the state, as Morehead envisioned, a beacon of progress.


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