Today, March 1st, is the 105th anniversary of Tam Bowie’s election as North Carolina Speaker of the House. It is also in the midst of our modern primary election season. To honor both, this article explains how politics in Ashe County looked before the current primary system and how one small Jefferson Newspaper fought back against the most powerful politician in Ashe County History.
Thomas Contee Bowie, more popularly known as ‘Tam,’ is someone quite familiar to anyone interested in Ashe County History. He seems to have been involved in almost every event of local historical significance in the early 20th century. Bowie was the prosecutor in the Will Banks case. He was instrumental in the founding of West Jefferson. He helped bring the train to Ashe County. He owned the Glendale Springs Inn for a time, and was one of the investors responsible for reopening the Ore Knob mine.
However, for the state of North Carolina, Bowie’s significance comes from his legislative career. In 1902, just three years after his graduation from the University of North Carolina, Bowie was elected to the state senate. He later served for over 10 years in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Throughout this long career, the ‘“Lion of the Mountains,” as he was known, held a variety of important positions; chair of the Federal Relations Committee, representative on the Citizen’s Highway Commission, and Speaker of the House. Bowie had the most illustrious and influential political career of any Ashe County resident. However, more interesting than that career was the system that allowed Bowie to rise to the top of local politics and the means Bowie used to maintain that position.
Bowie’s political career began at a time before public primaries. In those days, voters were not asked to choose party representatives to appear on fall ballots; rather, party executive committees decided privately who would run and who would not. This system gave local political parties incredible power and encouraged corruption. When Tam Bowie first began his political career, appearing on the fall ballot did not require raising money or appealing to voters; however, it did require loyalty and deference to the party establishment. When Bowie first decided to run for the House of Representatives in 1904, his campaign ended before it began. The Democratic Party, which was the dominant party in western North Carolina at the time, had determined that another candidate was entitled to the seat, and Bowie was forced to drop his bid. In exchange for his cooperation, he was allowed to run for presidential elector, a much less desirable office.
In 1906, Tam was again hoping to fulfill his dream of serving in the House of Representatives, but again, his hopes were denied. The party decided that R.N. Hackett, of Wilkes County, had seniority, and again Bowie was required to withdraw his candidacy.
In 1908, Bowie’s time had finally come and he was given a place on the Democratic ticket. Luckily for Bowie, being placed on the Democratic ticket in western North Carolina gave candidates an easy path to victory, and in 1908, Bowie was elected to the House.
Bowie was successful as a state representative and was ready to take the leap to the Federal level. The 8th district, of which Ashe was a part, was represented by a Republican and the seat was believed to be very winnable for a Democratic candidate. Bowie knew that his two years in Raleigh had prepared him for this step and announced his desire to run for the seat, but, again, the Democratic Party intervened. Party executives determined that R.L. Doughton, of Sparta, was a more desirable candidate, and Bowie once again withdrew his candidacy, choosing instead to endorse Doughton. Doughton would go on to be one of the most influential politicians from western North Carolina, serving for years as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Bowie was asked to run again for his seat in the state government.
Over and over, Bowie’s political aspirations had taken a back seat to the desires of the party. But soon that loyalty would pay off. After being elected to the state legislature in 1910, 1912 and 1914, a new chance for advancement emerged when Emmet R. Wooten, the Speaker of the House, was seriously injured in a car accident. Wooten would succumb to his injuries, dying on February 27th, 1915.
Wooten’s death left open the most powerful position in the North Carolina legislature. Bowie was ready and announced his candidacy for the speakership. Now, all the political machinations lined up behind him. The Democratic parties of western North Carolina put their support behind Bowie. R.A. Doughton of Sparta, R.L. Doughton’s brother, formally nominated Bowie and all the representatives from western counties lined up in support. Bowie argued forcefully on the floor of the house that western North Carolina was entitled to a speakership position, and, as he was the only candidate from the western counties, he should be chosen. On March 1st, Bowie was elected and sworn in.
Just a few months after being sworn in as speaker, Bowie was confronted with a reminder of one of his ugliest fights in Congress. In August of 1915, the new North Carolina Primary Law went into effect. This law allowed citizens to vote in primaries to determine which candidates would appear on fall ballots. Although this method is taken for granted today, during the bill’s passage in 1913, it was quite controversial. Proponents argued that it would encourage transparency and democracy and help stamp out local corruption. The law was overwhelmingly popular with voters, but still found detractors, notably Tam Bowie.
Bowie fought tenaciously against the Primary Bill, and, given his ascension in the local Democratic party establishment, it is easy to see why. Bowie had suffered for over a decade under a system that rewarded loyalty and seniority only to have the system threatened as he was in a position to benefit from it. Bowie argued that he wouldn’t support the new primary law, basing his criticism in local sentiment. Bowie argued that the people of Ashe County preferred the old system and would not want the responsibility of choosing party candidates thrust upon them. Unfortunately for Bowie, one reporter in Ashe County chose to disagree.
In February of 1913, the Jefferson Recorder, the only newspaper in Ashe County, published an editorial that attempted to undercut Bowie’s argument. The editor wrote that “we are heartily in sympathy with such measures of reform as these – feeling and knowing the extent of corrupt practices in Ashe County politics in both political parties, and we believe that every man woman and child of our county is more than anxious to eliminate such practices.”
Bowie’s wrath was swift. Utilizing the deep connections he held in Ashe County, Bowie had the landlord of the Jefferson Recorder’s office building forcibly remove them from the premises. However, the damage was already done: the editorial had been reprinted in papers around Raleigh, humiliating Bowie and giving his critics ample ammunition for attack. The editorial was frequently cited as evidence that Bowie was deaf to his own constituency. Bowie’s chief rival on the bill, E.J. Justice, of Guilford County, wasted no time pointing out Bowie’s hypocrisy. He presented a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in which he directly reference the editorial, noting that “the facts showed a need for a corrupt practices act in Ashe County.”
Bowie’s humiliation at the hand of Justice and the Jefferson Recorder was documented and republished in papers all over the state. Bowie continued to argue against the Primary Bill, but he was part of a small group fighting the overwhelming will of the North Carolina electorate. The bill would ultimately be passed, and went into effect in August of 1915, during the first year of Bowie’s speakership.
Bowie was never directly impacted by the primary law; although he was defeated in the election of 1916, his rival was a Republican, Ambrose Clark, rather than a fellow Democrat. Even after his momentary defeat, Bowie’s prior incumbency and name recognition allowed him to continue a career as a popular politician, and during his time in government, he had many notable achievements. Even though he was first elected to public office in 1902, Bowie was in many ways a relic of a 19th century political system. He belonged to a school of political thought that valued loyalty and seniority and that encouraged politicians to use intimidation and secretive arrangements to achieve their goals. Bowie vigorously supported this political system and used it to propel himself to the most powerful legislative position in North Carolina. This system, though effective for cultivating party loyalty and streamlining elections, discounted core democratic principles. Bowie was incredibly powerful during his time in office, but this power was not always derived from the will of the people he represented. How fitting that his most public defeat was given to him by a small local newspaper giving a voice to the people of Ashe County.