Attractive Statesville

Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 30

George Washington is the Model

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 3:32 PM by Jenny Levins

The Iredell County Public Library hosted speaker Harry Watt on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, for a special lecture on North Carolina Civil War Governor Zebulon Vance. Mr. Watt. who is a past president of the Vance House Association, presented, “Zebulon Vance: The War Years” as part of a series of free lectures sponsored by Statesville’s Vance House Museum on the history of Iredell County in the Civil War.  Vance was from Buncombe County and began the war as the Colonel of the 26th N.C. Regiment until he was elected Governor of North Carolina in the later part of 1862. The Vance house where the Governor was lived is now an historical site and museum in Statesville.

At the end of the war Governor Vance left Raleigh ahead of the advance of General Sherman’s army and came to Statesville where his wife and children had been sent for safety.  On the morning of May 13, 1865, the day of his 35th birthday, Vance was arrested by Union troops in Statesville and sent to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C.  Vance returned to N.C. and later received a pardon on March 11, 1867. Vance resumed his early law practice and in 1866 he returned to Statesville where he defended ex-Confederate soldier Tom Dooley on trial for the murder of Laura Foster. In 1876 Vance was again elected Governor of North Carolina and in 1878 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Today Zebulon B. Vance is remembered as perhaps the most colorful and popular politician in North Carolina’s history.

The most popular President in United States history is probably George Washington whose birthday is on February 22. Despite all his great accomplishments perhaps Washington’s greatest act on behalf of his country was to leave office. No, I am not trying to be funny. By refusing a third term and retiring to Mount Vernon Washington showed the world that the Founding Fathers really had created a new form of government. The Europeans probably looked at this United States after the Revolution ended and smiled. Let’s see who was the General who led your armies to victory over the British Empire in 1781at Yorktown? George Washington. Who presided over your Constitutional Convention in 1787? George Washington. And who did you elect as your ruler in 1789? You know the one you call President? George Washington. Yeah, like we haven’t seen this act before. You Americans ever hear of Julius Caesar or Oliver Cromwell?

When the Revolution ended people would hail Washington on the street with “Long live George Washington” much as they had at one time said, “Long live the King.” Officers under Washington wanted to name him King, but Washington quickly put an end to the idea. Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in Annapolis on Dec. 23, 1783. In doing so he insured that power in this new country would be turned over to civilian rule. When Washington’s adversary King George III asked the American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence, West replied, “They say he will return to his farm." The astonished King replied, “If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington did just that returning to Mount Vernon and his agricultural pursuits. 

Washington was elected President of the United States unanimously by electors in early 1789 and again in 1792. He was asked to run for a third term, but for the second time in his life he gave up power and refused to run. On March 9, 1797 Washington loaded up his wife Martha, the family dog, his granddaughter Nelly and her parrot, George Washington Lafayette and his tutor, took a look around, and probably said the 1797 equivalent of “Were out of here.” The family had a six-day ride back to Mount Vernon. His decision not to run for a third term allowed for the first contested Presidential race in the U.S. to occur in 1796 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Thus, a new “checks and balance” system was begun with the two-party political system of electing officials in the U.S. Even in the beginning people, including Washington found political parties to be distasteful and Jefferson himself once wrote, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party I would not go at all.” How did Washington keep power from going to his head? Perhaps it was all the years he had spent in the saddle as a soldier and farmer. After Washington’s death on Dec. 14, 1799, “Light Horse” Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee said, “To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.”  Washington was also first to the door when it was time to leave.

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark in February of 2014