Graham, William A. (William Alexander), 1804-1875

Alternative names
Birth 1804-09-05
Death 1875-08-11

Biographical notes:

Governor of and U.S. senator from North Carolina.

From the description of Letter of William A. Graham, 1852. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79450527

William Alexander Graham (September 5, 1804 - August 11, 1875) was a United States Senator from North Carolina from 1840 to 1843, the 30th Governor of North Carolina from 1845 to 1849 and United States Secretary of the Navy from 1850 to 1852. He was also a candidate for the vice-presidency in 1852.

From the description of Letter, February 26, 1852. (Naval War College). WorldCat record id: 18168854

William Alexander Graham of Hillsborough, N.C., was a lawyer, legislator, United States senator, Secretary of the Navy, Whig vice-presidential candidate in 1852, Confederate senator, trustee of the Peabody Fund, and member of the board of arbitration for the Maryland and Virginia boundary dispute.

From the description of William A. Graham papers, 1750-1940. (Oceanside Free Library). WorldCat record id: 23150419

William Alexander Graham, an 1815 alumnus and Virginia physician, was the son of Edward Graham, a Washington and Lee University professor and Margaret Alexander (sister of Archibald Alexander); and the nephew of William Graham, first rector of Liberty Hall Academy in Lexington, Virginia.

From the description of Narrative, [18--]. (Washington & Lee University). WorldCat record id: 53308354

William Alexander Graham, born 5 September 1804 on Vesuvius Plantation, the family home in eastern Lincoln County, was the eleventh child and youngest son of Joseph and Isabella Davidson Graham. An iron entrepreneur and public servant, Joseph Graham (1759-1836) achieved local fame as a young but dedicated Revolutionary officer. Isabella Davidson Graham (1762-1808) was the accomplished daughter of John Davidson of Mecklenburg County. Also a Revolutionary patriot, John Davidson was a substantial farmer and blacksmith, who with his sons-in-law Alexander Brevard and Joseph Graham, pioneered the Catawba River valley iron industry.

William A. Graham enjoyed a rural childhood and was educated in classical schools in nearby Lincolnton and Statesville before completing his preparatory education in the Hillsborough Academy. Graham began attending the University of North Carolina in January 1821 and was an active member of the Dialectic Society. Graham shared first honors when he graduated with the class of 1824.

After graduation, Graham studied law with Thomas Ruffin of Orange County, who later became chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. By March 1828, Graham had established himself in the legal community of Hillsborough, N.C. Graham went on to become a successful lawyer and owner of three plantations.

On 8 June 1836, Graham married Susannah Sarah Washington (1816-1890), daughter of John and Elizabeth Heritage Cobb Washington of New Bern. During their long marriage, the Grahams had ten children, eight of whom survived both parents. Their children were Joseph (1837-1907), John Washington (1838-1928), William Alexander (1839-1924), James Augustus (1841-1909), Robert Davidson (1843-1904), George Washington (1847-1923), Augustus Washington (1849-1936), Susan Washington (1851-1909), Alfred Octavius (1853-1854), and Eugene Berrien (1858-1863). Four sons were attorneys, two were physicians, and one, William Alexander Jr., was a planter and North Carolina commissioner of agriculture. Susan Washington Graham married Judge Walter Clark.

In the early 1830s, Graham joined with other opponents of Andrew Jackson to form the Whig party. Graham represented Orange County as a member of the House of Commons in 1836, 1838, and 1840. From December 1840 to March 1843, he represented North Carolina in the United States Senate. In 1844, Graham ran successfully for governor, defeating Michael Hoke, a formidable Democrat. Graham was reelected for a second term and was governor from January 1845 to January 1849. Much of his time in office was absorbed by the Mexican War, of which he disapproved although he raised and officered a North Carolina regiment, and on railroad development.

Graham continued to keep his hand in politics, serving briefly as Secretary of the Navy (1850-1853), but he devoted most of his time to his family. In the days leading up to the Civil War, Graham argued against secession. Only after the firing on Fort Sumter did he accept the inevitable. Along with Thomas Ruffin, Graham helped to negotiate the terms by which North Carolina entered the Confederate States of America. Five of his sons were Confederate officers. In 1864, Graham became a Confederate senator and an open opponent of the Davis government. As the war came to a close, Graham, along with David L. Swain, was authorized by Zebulon Vance to surrender Raleigh to William T. Sherman.

Because of his support to the Confederacy, Graham was forced to apply for pardon, which was delayed by W. W. Holden. Nevertheless, Graham was elected to the state senate in November 1865, but he declined to be seated before his pardon was granted. In early December he was elected to the United States Senate, but his seat was denied along with others elected under the Johnson Reconstruction plan. In 1867, he was appointed to the original board of Peabody Fund Trustees and served in that capacity until his death. Graham became an outspoken advocate of the conservative position and white supremacy. An advocate of the redemption movement in North Carolina and for further constitutional reforms, Graham was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1875, but he died before it assembled.

Graham died unexpectedly on 11 August 1875 at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he had gone to attend a meeting of the Virginia-Maryland Arbitration Commission. He was buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church.

From the guide to the William A. Graham Papers, 1750-1940, (Southern Historical Collection)


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  • Meteorology
  • Soldiers--Correspondence
  • Inventors
  • Legislators
  • Slavery
  • Politicians
  • Plantations
  • Iron industry and trade--History--19th century
  • Lectures, Popular
  • Education
  • Lawyers--History--19th century
  • Geology
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  • Natural history
  • Medicine History 19th century
  • Smithsonian Publications
  • Medical education--19th century--Diaries
  • Smithsonian Institution


  • Governors--North Carolina
  • Senators, U.S. Congress--North Carolina


  • Confederate States of America (as recorded)
  • South Carolina (as recorded)
  • Virginia--Abingdon (as recorded)
  • Virginia--Lexington (as recorded)
  • Oxford (N.C.) (as recorded)
  • North Carolina (as recorded)
  • North Carolina (as recorded)
  • Lexington (Va.) (as recorded)
  • Hillsborough (N.C.) (as recorded)