Gov. Thomas Walter Bickett supported
many progressive causes
The Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College recently acquired several buttons from the 1916 gubernatorial campaign of Thomas Walter Bickett (1869-1921). Measuring less than an inch in diameter and bearing a photograph of the candidate, the buttons read "Bickett for Governor [:] 'The Record is the Reason.'"
The people of Franklin County were proud of Bickett's record. A native of Monroe, he was graduated in 1890 from Wake Forest College. After a stint as a public school teacher, Bickett studied law at the University of North Carolina.
He moved to Louisburg in 1895, where he was senior partner in the law firm of Bickett, White, and Malone. He served in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1907 and then won two four-year terms as attorney general. A Democrat, Bickett in 1916 sought his party's nomination for governor.
He easily defeated E. L. Daughtridge in the primary and, in the general election that fall, Republican Frank A. Linney. The November 10, 1916, issue of The Franklin Times featured a large photograph of Bickett on the front page. The caption proclaimed that local citizens were "proud of both him and his majority and gratefully return their appreciations to the entire State for the confidence they have shown in him by their tremendous vote."
Described in a sketch in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography as a humane individual, Bickett supported many progressive causes of the early twentieth century.
As a legislator, he worked hard to secure passage of a law to improve facilities for the care of the mentally ill and advocated the establishment of East Carolina Teachers' Training School (now East Carolina University). Although America's involvement in World War I had a significant impact on the shape of Bickett's term as governor, he urged the General Assembly to increase funding for public schools and institutions of higher learning and to enhance the scope of agencies responsible for public health and welfare. He sought to address the plight of the state's struggling tenant farmers and supported modest prison reform measures.
Bickett's campaign button focused on his record
Governor Bickett pardoned or paroled an exceptionally large number of prisoners during his time in office and received criticism for his actions.
On December 22, 1920, as he was preparing to exercise this responsibility for the last time, the governor explained his reasoning.
He said that he was "profoundly convinced that the average man sent to prison is not essentially a criminal . . . but is a perfectly normal man who, by reason of an environment for which he was not responsible, or by reason of some sudden passion or overwhelming temptation, commits an act for which he is very properly sent to prison." Most prisoners, he thought, would become good citizens, if given a second chance.
Bickett considered his actions a "confession of faith" with deep roots in his childhood, when he heard the words of a gospel hymn:
"Deal gently with the erring one,
Oh! do not thou forget,
However darkly stained with sin,
He is thy brother yet.
Heir of the selfsame heritage,
Child of the selfsame God;
He has but stumbled in the path
Thou hast in weakness trod."
Published in The Franklin Times on February 20, 2014.
Credits: Portrait and quotes by Bickett from Public Letters and Papers of Thomas Walter Bickett (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1923); campaign button courtesy of Louisburg College.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.