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John Willis Ellis, 1820-1861
Speech of Hon. John W. Ellis, Delivered before the Democratic State Convention, in Raleigh, March 9, 1860
Raleigh: "Standard" Office Print, 1860.


John Willis Ellis (23 Nov. 1820-7 July, 1861) was born in the eastern section of Rowan County (which later became Davidson County), attended Randolph Macon College, and graduated from the University of North Carolina. He was first elected to the House of Commons at the age of twenty-three, and he served ten years as a judge on the superior court, stepping down to run for governor in 1858. He was a strong advocate of states' rights, but as late as November 1860 he opposed secession and civil war. In an address that month to the North Carolina General Assembly, while not openly calling for secession, he did call for a conference of those states "identified with us in interest and in the wrongs we have suffered; and especially those lying immediately adjacent to us." However, when Fort Sumter was fired upon, President Lincoln called for troops, and Governor Ellis famously stated, "You can get no troops from North Carolina," and ordered the state militia to confiscate federal military property and equipment located within the states borders. He called the General Assembly into session and it passed a convention bill. On May 20, 1861, the convention unanimously adopted an ordinance of secession. Governor Ellis died a little over a month later.

John W. Ellis delivered his Speech at North Carolina's Democratic convention as his acceptance speech for the party's nomination for a second term as governor. Focusing on the main issue facing the state that year, Ellis directed his fire at William H. Seward, then running for the Republican Presidential nomination. Ellis blamed Seward for the unrest in the country, asserting that "the abolition of slavery here at home is the design of our opponents" (p. 4). Seward opposed slavery, and Ellis maintained that he must be beaten down and crushed out. Ellis praised Northern members of the Democratic Party for supporting the laws of the land, namely by following the dictates of the Fugitive Slave Act and returning runaway slaves to their Southern owners. He condemned "black Republicans" for refusing to do so (p. 7).

In North Carolina, Democrats argued over the ad valorem tax. Slaves, although considered property, were taxed at lower rates than were other forms of property, a discrimination that favored slave-owners. Ellis's chief opponents at home, the Whigs, generally favored more equal taxation, but the Democrats were split on the issue, dividing largely between those in the east who opposed ad valorem taxation and those in the west who favored it. In this speech, Ellis appealed to his party to remain united so that it would not be defeated in the coming election. Ellis won re-election, the national Democratic Party did divide its support of presidential candidates, and Abraham Lincoln, a Republican (who wasn't even on the ballot in North Carolina), was elected.

Works Consulted: Powell, William S., ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 2, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Kevin Cherry

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