Tag Archives: William Horn Battle

“Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

We are at a cultural moment.

Sexual boundaries seem to be the “acutest issue” of the moment.

These are not new questions to North Carolina. This moment is not the first.

In Greensboro in 1878, Quaker editor David Swaim thundered in Greensboro’s leading newspaper: “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

His conservative counterpart, former Supreme Court Justice and founder of the UNC Law School, William Horn Battle rejoined: “No Southern lady should be permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.”

They were arguing about whether women should be permitted to practice law.

The issue was joined in Greensboro and taken to Raleigh. Leading North Carolina legal figures of the day took up the question: Albion Tourgée, William Horn Battle, Richmond Mumford Pearson.

It is the story of Jamestown native Tabitha Holton who became the first woman lawyer in the South.

A circular published when Holton died proclaimed:

The power of thy genius has broken the iron bands of brutality which had been rivited [sic] for ages upon thy sex. No more can the barbed shaft of prejudice and envy reach thee in thy eternal repose.

First in all the Sunny South to claim, and obtain, the full rights of womanhood

Tabitha Holton’s story is fabulized here. Her victory, which upset the custom and practice of centuries, was, in the end, based on merit. Opposition based on her status as a woman failed to stand against her unquestioned merit as a lawyer.

 

An Eastern planter and a Piedmont abolitionist — William Horn Battle hanging out with Richard Mendenhall – Wait! What?

richard_mendenhall_older

Richard Mendenhall

William Horn Battle

William Horn Battle

OK – now I am fascinated.

In Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel, Kemp Plummer Battle recalls a trip that he and his father, William Horn Battle, made to Asheville in the summer of 1848. Kemp was sixteen years old. On the way, they stopped at Jamestown where they spent an evening with Richard Mendenhall, “an old acquaintance of my father.”

Here is part of Kemp Battle’s account:

Near Greensborough we met an old acquaintance of my father, a refined and educated Quaker named Richard Mendenhall. On parting, he said courteously, “Come and see me, Kemp, and I will entertain thee for thy father’s sake until I know thee and can entertain thee for thy own.” I afterwards found this was a quotation from Swift’s Tale of a Tub.

While Mr. Mendenhall did not keep a hotel, he was willing to furnish meals to travelers at his house in Jamestown (pronounced “Jimston”). My father and I had dinner with him. Some friends had told me that he was fond of testing their knowledge of history. I determined to put a bluff on him. He began by asking me what was a giaour, the title of one of Byron’s poems. I happened to know that it was a name given by the Turks to disbelievers in Islamism. I answered his question and at once plied him with counter historical questions so fast that he refrained from catechising me further.

A nice story. Old-time Tar Heels, indeed. You can visit the Mendenhall home in Jamestown today and see where they were.

But how did William Horn Battle come to be acquainted with Richard Mendenhall? They were an unlikely pair.

William Horn Battle was born and raised in Battleboro (then) in Edgecombe County, a town founded by his grandfather. His family were farmers and slaveholders and founders of one of the oldest cotton mills in the state, which operated with slave labor. Battle himself was a lawyer, banker, judge and North Carolina Supreme Court Justice. He is acknowledged as the founder of the UNC Law School. Conservative at his core, William Horn Battle was the very embodiment of the antebellum establishment. He prominently opposed licensing women to practice law.  Son, Kemp, among other roles, was president of the Chatham Railroad Company, Treasurer of the State, and president of the University of North Carolina.

Richard Mendenhall was born and raised in Jamestown in Guilford County, a town founded by his father and named for his grandfather who settled it. Mendenhall operated what is now preserved as the Mendenhall Plantation. He was a tanner, merchant, and educator. He was also an abolitionist and a founder and president of the Manumission Society of North Carolina. He led in transporting African Americans to Liberia and Haiti. He is said to have been a principal in the Underground Railroad. His younger brother, George C. Mendenhall, was a prominent lawyer, legislator, and UNC trustee. George was a large slaveholder, who formed companies of slaves that operated variously as builders, caterers, farm laborers, etc. Under Richard’s influence, George and his wife transported their slaves to freedom in the Midwest, thereby stimulating celebrated litigation. As a lawyer, George defended abolitionists and free blacks. Richard Mendenhall’s sons were a lawyer, bankers, investors in cotton mills, and leaders in building the North Carolina Railroad.  His son, Nereus Mendenhall, served as president and kept Guilford College open through the Civil War and afterward. Guilford College, when led by Mendenhall, has been characterized  as an “island of moderation, surrounded by a sea of fundamentalism.”

Both the Battles and the Mendenhalls were Whigs and unionists. But, when war came the Battles were ardent supporters of the Confederacy. The Mendenhalls, Quakers, stood aside from the war. Some were imprisoned and abused for refusing to fight. Nereus Mendenhall interceded with Jefferson Davis to arrange legal protections for Quakers and other pacifists.

So William Horn Battle and Richard Mendenhall seem unlikely dinner companions. An eastern planter and a Piedmont abolitionist. Each might rather have regarded the other as a Carolina giaour, than as a dinner-table discussant of literature and history. (Sixteen-year-old Kemp Battle later became professor of history at UNC.)

MidLaw’s theory is that Battle and Mendenhall may have become acquainted in Raleigh, perhaps in connection with Richard’s service in the General Assembly (if he did serve, as MidLaw believes he did).

Or, it may have been that William Horn Battle and Richard Mendenhall were simply a pair of civil, cultivated people, North Carolina leaders, from different backgrounds and with different points of view in what was becoming an increasingly divided society. Old-time Tar Heels.

Grady Barnhill: premier lawyer, from Whitakers in a unique line of great lawyers

Grady Barnhill died last weekGrady Barnhill Jr. He was among North Carolina’s premier lawyers and, one surmises, the greatest litigator Whitakers has ever produced, although he made his career in Winston-Salem.

I knew Grady from about the time I began to practice in Greensboro. Early on, I learned that he grew up in Whitakers, which is just a few miles from Leggett where my mother was from, and even closer to Gethsemane where my father farmed. To my regret, I never divined whether Grady lived on the Edgecombe County side of town, or on the Nash County side. (For our international readers, these are North Carolina places whose significance is profound although not readily explained.)

Grady was a partner and leader of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, the great Winston-Salem law firm. He was the archetype of a litigator.

He was determined, tenacious, and tough as a root – and he was realistic, client-focused and (at least in my experience) totally devoid of nonsense. He was about resolving cases favorably for clients, not playing lawyer games. I admired him. Our profession was much the better for him.

Grady’s death calls to mind something I wonder about from time to time. How is it that so many exceptional lawyers have come from the small towns along Edgecombe County’s western border? Whitakers, Battleboro, Enfield. Originally, all three towns were part of Edgecombe. Enfield was peeled off when Halifax County was formed. Whitakers and Battleboro, like Rocky Mount, sit directly on the county line, which was established in the 19th Century by pushing Nash County’s boundary to the east (said to have been done in order to dilute the African American vote). The Wilmington & Weldon Railroad had been routed up that path when the builders of the railroad agreed to move their tracks east in order to attract funding from Tarboro and Edgecombe investors. The county line was later moved to the railroad.

Anyway, what remarkable lawyers came down that line:

  • from Battleboro: William Horn Battle, legislator, Supreme Court reporter, judge, justice, North Carolina’s first revisor of statutes, and founder of the UNC law school;
  • from Enfield: James Edward O’Hara, North Carolina’s first African-American lawyer and second African-American Congressman, together with three chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court (Joseph Branch, M. Victor Barnhill, and R. Hunt Parker); and
  • from Whitakers: Grady Barnhill, exceptional trial lawyer, exemplary professional, and key builder of a great and enduring North Carolina law firm.

A Fable of Women in the Law

Tabitha Ann Holton’s story should be a movie. The only problem would be restraint. It’s the Zero Dark Thirty and Argo problem. Should factual accuracy stand in the way of fabulism?

Tabitha Ann Holton

Tabitha Ann Holton

The South’s first woman lawyer, Tabitha Holton, was the child of religious dissenters who settled in central North Carolina. Her father was “read out” of his Quaker meeting. He was educated as a lawyer but became a Methodist Protestant minister. Ultimately, he was too outspoken even for that anti-hierarchical and anti-slavery denomination and he led in forming an even more radical one.

Tabitha was educated at Greensboro Academy. She watched as her brothers studied law and then, in January 1878, she applied for a license herself, alongside her brother Samuel. But, the relevant North Carolina statute limited the practice of law to “persons” and so there was a controversy about whether that term included women.

At the time, only six states had admitted women to practice law, and roughly a dozen women had been licensed in the entire country. None in North Carolina; none in the South.

North Carolina’s Supreme Court asked for oral argument. The newspapers took up the issue. Iconic figures aligned on each side: William Horn Battle  for tradition vs. Albion Tourgée for Tabitha.

Battle was the archetypical Southern CONSERVATIVE; Tourgée, the RADICAL. Tradition vs. change. What price progress?

William Horn Battle

William Horn Battle

Battle was a Confederate planter raised in Edgecombe County in the East. He had been a judge and Supreme Court justice, a cotton mill owner, banker, high church Episcopalian, scholar and founder of the UNC law school. He was a mighty defender of common law pleading.

Tourgée was a Yankee and former Union Army officer who had moved south after the war to Guilford County in the Piedmont. He was reviled as a carpetbagger and had recently relocated from Greensboro to Raleigh in order to escape the rancor of Greensboro’s white community. He was a failed manufacturer and nurseryman, a respected legal scholar, a founder of the North Carolina Republican Party, a popular author, a judge, the principal draftsman of North Carolina’s Constitution of 1868 and a crusader for racial justice – the originator of the phrase “color blind justice” and plaintiff’s counsel in Plessy v. Ferguson. He championed Code pleading.

Battle blasted: “No Southern lady should be permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.”

The Greensboro Patriot rejoined: “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

Albion Tourgee

Albion Tourgee

In the end, Tourgée mounted a compelling argument in which he cited persuasive points and authorities, including Battle’s own legal treatise.

At the center of the swirling controversy was a demure but determined Quaker/Methodist maid – one who knew the law cold. Bar exams at that time were conducted orally by Supreme Court justices. Tabitha aced hers.

The Court ruled on the spot that she should be licensed. Tabitha marched home to Guilford County, then off in triumph to private practice in partnership with her brother in Dobson. The sun set slowly over the hills of western Surry County.

But wait. There is an epilogue. Tabitha practiced law only for eight years before she succumbed to tuberculosis at age 33.  After her death, a handbill was distributed in Dobson. In part, it read:

Tabitha A. Holton, noble daughter,

Rest thou in thy immortal triumph. The power of thy genius has broken the iron bands of brutality which had been rivited [sic] for ages upon thy sex. No more can the barbed shaft of prejudice and envy reach thee in thy eternal repose. Thy genius stripped DEATH of all terror.

First in all the Sunny South to claim, and obtain, the full rights of womanhood. Death has crowned thy works; but a short space of time did eternity allot for thy mortality.

Tabitha was returned to Guilford County and laid to rest with her family in the cemetery at Springfield Meeting House. Her headstone reads, “Granted license in practicing law by the Supreme Court of N.C., January Term 1878, Died June 14, 1886.”

* * * *

Almost every detail set out above is factually accurate. The principal variance is that while William Horn Battle is acknowledged to have opposed Tabitha’s admission and made the statement quoted above, there is no confirmation that he was present at Tourgée’s argument before the Supreme Court. (See the Kelley Harris paper, Tabitha Anne Holton: First in North Carolina, First in the South  for  what can be confirmed.)

But this is after all, a fable – of tradition, change, and the role and status of women.

And, there is a broader point to be made: that, burdened by the weight of centuries of tradition and beset by towering cultural archetypes, Tabitha was a hero; and the legal profession provided the characters, the instruments and the path for her quest.

Major social change was achieved by moving from a general principle to its application in new circumstances. The way forward was guided by relevant points and authorities; and, ultimately, the victory was won by Tabitha’s unquestioned qualifications on the merits of her particular case.

A fable, I say. And a movie.