Meet North Carolina's First (and Last) At-Large Congressman
In 1883, a guy from Wadesboro was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a statewide election. It had never happened before. It hasn't happened since. Blame a (legal) glitch in the system.
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In 1882, a man named Risden Tyler Bennett ran for Congress. Bennett was born on a plantation near Wadesboro, went to school at Davidson College, joined the Confederate army in 1861 as a private, left in 1865 as a colonel after being wounded three times, then started to climb the political ladder in North Carolina. One year after the Civil War ended, Bennett became the Anson County solicitor. In 1872, he was elected to the state legislature. In 1875, he helped write a new state constitution. In 1880, he became a superior court judge. Two years later, he resigned to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.
I mean, okay. Whatever. As biographies of late 1800s North Carolina politicians go, this feels fairly boilerplate. Here’s the thing, though: At the time, North Carolina had eight Congressional districts. Bennett didn’t run in any of them. Instead, he became the only person in this state to take advantage of a very specific glitch in the system. Hence, Bennett won a statewide race, and became North Carolina’s first (and last) at-large member of the U.S. House. How did he pull that off?
Wait, I thought members of the U.S. House had to represent a district!
You and me both, brother.
Maybe I’m being optimistic here, but if there’s one thing that you can assume that most people know about Congress, it is the following:
The Senate: Each state gets two members.
The House of Representatives: Each state gets a certain number of representatives, based on its population.
That number changes every ten years, based on the results of the U.S. Census. After the U.S. Constitution was ratified on March 4, 1789, the house had 59 representatives, based not on a census (there hadn’t been a census yet!), but rather the best guesses on population from the founding fathers. In November, that jumped to 64 after North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution itself and was awarded five seats. After the first actual census in 1790, that number jumped to 105. It went up as the population grew and as more states were added to the union. It was only capped at its current number, 435, in 1929.
Here, then, is how many seats have been awarded to North Carolina, based on the census year. Look at the chart below and see what jumps out at you:
After the 1830 Census, North Carolina was given 13 representatives in Congress. After the 1840 Census, it only had 9. It wasn’t that North Carolina’s population suddenly shrank. Rather, in 1842, Congress passed an apportionment act that did two things. It shrank the size of the House by 19 seats. It also, for the first time, required states to create congressional districts.
The Rules Were More Like Suggestions, Really
Up until that point, states could kinda do what they wanted when it came to electing congressmen. Some states, like North Carolina, split themselves up, with a single member representing each single district. Other states had more than one member in each district. Other states just held at-large elections. Basically, states that didn’t have congressional districts usually ended up as winner-take-all affairs for political parties. Districts, in theory, meant that a minority party in a state had a realistic shot of getting some representation in Congress.
The 1842 act told states that they had to create congressional districts, but didn’t really have a way to enforce it. From fairvote.org:
In the first election after the passage of the 1842 act four states -- Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, and New Hampshire -- continued to elect representatives at-large rather than by districts. While there was considerable debate as to the legality of their election, these states' representatives were seated in the House. It was later determined in an 1844 report from the Committee on Elections that these four states' members had been duly elected. This report, too, questioned the constitutionality of Congress' authority to dictate changes in pre-existing state election laws.
It went on like that for a while. Some apportionment acts—the once-a-decade federal laws that doled out the number of House seats to each state—mentioned districts. Some didn’t. Some states only had at-large elections for Congress. Others had a mix of districts and at-large representation. At one point in the 1960s, 22 of the 435 members of the house were at-large.
It wasn’t until 1967 that Congress really put its foot down. It required each state with more than one congressperson to create districts, and each district could only have one representative:
This law was passed largely because of two factors. The first concern was that, in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, southern states might resort to winner-take-all at-large elections to dilute the voting strength of newly-enfranchised blacks in the South. The second concern was that the courts might order at-large elections in states which were having difficulties with redistricting. Such elections could have threatened the position of incumbents whose district seats were considered safe for re-election.
So, until 1842 (and, if we’re being honest here, until 1967), North Carolina really could have done whatever the hell it wanted. But! During all of that time, North Carolina stuck to its single-member district plan. So, again, if that was always the case here, how did it elect an at-large member?
Back In My Day, Things Happened A Lot More Slowly
As you might imagine, it takes a long time to count every person in the United States. Back in the 19th century, it took a very long time. In fact, even though the census began in years that ended in zero (1840, 1850, 1860, etc.), the actual numbers didn’t come in until much later. In fact, for some datasets, it took eight years to process all of the information collected during the 1880 census.
The population numbers from the 1880 census didn’t come in until 1882, which meant that Congress didn’t update its apportionment until February of that year. Because, again, this was the 1800s and things happened much slower than they do now, Congress realized that states that were awarded more congresspeople may not be able to draw new districts before their elections. Hence, there’s a loophole in the law: “If the number as hereby provided for shall be larger than it was before this change, then the additional representative or representatives allowed to said state under this apportionment may be elected by the state at large.” Conversely, if a state lost a seat (or seats) and didn’t have time to redraw its seats before the next election, then all of its seats would be at large.
Over time, many states used this loophole to elect at-large congressmen. North Carolina only did it once.
So, Who’s This Risden Bennett Guy Then
So, here’s the situation that presented itself to Risden Tyler Bennett in 1882. North Carolina had eight congressional districts. It was entitled to nine seats in Congress. It hadn’t redrawn its district maps, and wouldn’t do so until March 6, 1883. So, Bennett ran at-large. And, on November 7, 1882, he defeated his opponent from the Liberal Anti-Prohibition party, Oliver Dockery of Rockingham. Years later, his obituary in the Charlotte Observer would call it one of the biggest political battles in the state. Before the votes were counted, Bennett was asked how he thought things would go. "Well." he said, "it’s going to be so close that the man who wins will leave hair on the hole as he goes in."
I have no idea what that means, but it sounds kinda of gross when you say it out loud!
So, why this guy? Well, for one thing, Bennett was running as Reconstruction was falling apart. He was an ardent secessionist and big states’ rights guy, and had some popularity and name recognition from his time as a traveling judge, as well as the bona fides provided by his time in the Confederate army. A speech made to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1933, 20 years after Risden’s death, laid out why Democrats nominated him to the at-large seat in 1882:
Party leaders feared that all the reform measures which the Democrats had been able to adopt, with a view to restoring the government of the East to the control of white leaders, was in danger of being overthrown by hostile forces. In this emergency, Judge Bennett’s personal popularity and his political record led to his being chosen as the most likely of all the public men to stem the tide and avert the disaster. He resigned his seat on the bench, was nominated, made a brilliant canvass of the State, carried the State by a small but safe majority, and the opposition, being thus defeated, after a great contest, abandoned hopes of success in the State and for ten years after made no important effort against the domination of the Democratic party.
The subtext here: Democrats were, then, the conservative party, and had been able to return to power, turn the tide against Reconstruction, and install white supremacist policies (The last federal troops left the South in 1877). According to this telling, which is very pro-Bennett, the election helped cement the Democrats’ power in North Carolina for another decade.
Bennett seemed to be a fairly regular and sometimes bi-partisan member of Congress for his time. By the next election, in 1884, North Carolina had finally been divided into nine districts. Bennett could no longer run as an at-large candidate, but was able to win reelection from the 6th district, which encompassed his home in Anson County. After that term ended in 1887, Bennett retired from politics and went home to be a lawyer in Wadesboro. Later in life, he became a fairly prolific writer of obituaries, according to the Observer:
Probably the most noted expression he ever used, one now quoted frequently by the daily press of the State, was the following, said of his friend, "He stumbled on death at an hour (between midnight and day) when all men are cowards."
Again, I do not know what that means.
So, With All Of The Uncertainty Over Our Current Congressional Maps, Could We Get Another At-Large Member?
If you haven’t seen, Republicans (like, the present-day conservative kind) were in charge of drawing new congressional maps for North Carolina this year. But! There’s a wrinkle again. North Carolina’s population growth means the state is going from 13 to 14 seats in the House. The new maps have 14 districts, but they’re being challenged in court.
There are historical precedents for what can happen if a judge declares new maps unconstitutional. In 1932, a federal judge just threw out ALL of Kentucky’s districts, and in that November’s election, every congressman in that state ran at-large. However, because of the 1967 law, you really can’t do that anymore, so instead, North Carolina’s primaries have just been moved from March to May by the state Supreme Court. You can’t go back to the old maps which have only 13 districts, and you can’t have an at-large member anymore, so things are just on pause for now. The courts have pledged to go as fast as they can do resolve the issue by mid-January, although they’re really going to be cutting it close. So close, maybe, that the man who wins will leave hair on the hole as he goes in.
h/t Chris Cooper, Gerry Cohen, Aylett Colston, and Michael Bitzer for sending me down this particular rabbit hole.