How could he be a Republican?

Posted by | September 3, 2015

“The Republican Party can never become strong and deserving of support from the best men of the State until it is purged of people whose only purpose in being in the party is to secure offices. This office-grabbing, selfish class of Republicans has been the disgrace of the Republican Party of the South for years and it must get out … We are going to continue the fight for the organization of the Party in Virginia and we will win.”
—Colonel Campbell Slemp, 1904

How could he be a Republican? This question, the grown- ups in the family did not even attempt to answer. I overheard, as I often did when I was not supposed to be listening, Grandmother ask her daughter, Hagan, to please call Carroll, her only son, at once. She explained that there was a matter she must discuss with him now.

Colonel Campbell Slemp

Colonel Campbell Slemp

Aunt Hagan went for Uncle Carroll immediately. The naughty grandchild disappeared behind the head of Grandmother’s bed – a disappearing act which she had learned, and by which knowledge not meant for one so young could be obtained.

Grandmother’s request was due to the fact that she felt that her son, who was twenty-one, and would cast his first vote in the upcoming election, must hear from her a fair appraisal of her brother, Campbell. The decision, she told her son, was to be made by him and without any pressure from the fact that “your Uncle Cam is my brother, but your Father was a Democrat – always a Democrat – and your Uncle Cam has not always been a Republican.”

Thus, the young man casting his first vote was admonished to weigh matters. The word “high tariff” was used, and distinctly remembered, but a small girl’s expectations had certainly been dampened. Why was he a Republican? This question remained unanswered. The grown-ups in the family simply evaded it.

Why was he a Republican? Uncle Cam, a Republican! As a child in school this question was often raised. School children can be cruel, and as school children, we suffered, especially when those 9th Virginia District campaigns were in full swing.

Prior to 1880, the debt question split the [Democratic] party of the State. Southwest Virginia was confronted with the Whig inheritance of opposition to Democracy and even the most conservative of the Clay Whigs had to be graduated into the Democratic ranks through the name of “Conservative Democrats.” A great number refused to take the degree. So in 1878, a third party, the Readjuster Party, swept the State, producing bitterness of feeling and dividing the Democratic Party.

In 1879 Colonel Slemp was elected to the House of Delegates of Virginia [as a Democrat], where he became an ardent advocate of the readjustment of the State indebtedness.

Numbered among his friends were General Mahone, Senator H. H. Riddleberger, and Honorable John E. Massie. He was reelected to the House of Delegate by a greatly increased majority in 1880. Up to this time, Colonel Slemp was a Democrat. But, along with Mahone and other prominent Readjusters, he became affiliated with the Republican Party and ever afterwards to that party gave his allegiance.

In 1883, he was defeated for State Senate. In 1889, he received the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor on a ticket headed by Mahone – an unsuccessful ticket.

But the grand entrance of Colonel Campbell Slemp and Major C. Bascom Slemp, father and son, into active politics in the Ninth Congressional District of the State of Virginia was in 1902, just one year after the introduction of the six-year-old grand niece to Campbell Slemp, and just one year after his visit with John Fox to the White House.

Incidentally, John Fox, in his book ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine,’ honored Colonel Slemp by calling him Black Hawk of the Cumberland.

Campbell Slemp wanted to make this race well-known throughout the Ninth District. He had represented Lee County for two terms in the House of Delegates; was a presidential elector on the Harrison ticket in 1888; and again on the McKinley slate in 1896. But he was perhaps best known to the voters of the District as the Republican Party nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 1889, on the same ticket which offered General Mahone for Governor. Campbell Slemp’s sons, Bascom and Will, campaigned ardently for their father.

That Colonel Slemp was courageous is found in an editorial from the Tazewell Republican with the lead – To Your Tents

“Under existing conditions it seems to us a useless expenditure of time and energy for the Republicans of the Ninth Congressional District, or even of Virginia, to make any contest in National or State elections.” The newspaper cited the Walton Act and stated that it would be worse than folly for the Republicans to undertake and expect to win in any Congressional District in Virginia.

We have it from [Virginia historian] W. C. Pendleton when he says: “A courageous spirit was found to confront and conquer the obnoxious political conditions in the Ninth District, and on September 3, just two months before the election in November, Slemp as nominated and elected by a majority which was not considered as great as it really was. Yet, it was said of the election that it was the fairest election that had been held in the State for 20 years.”

After this victory, Slemp’s political foes made numerous and vicious attacks upon him. His opponents sneered at his intellectual qualifications. He was too often condemned in his home territory – this, primarily because he had, at the worst possible time, turned Republican.

The New York World, May 14, 1913, commented, “The North can scarcely comprehend how bitter was the abuse visited upon Wise, Longstreet and other Southern leaders when they became Republicans.” And for some of those men this new political faith closed their public careers.

From the article quoted above one finds said of Mr. Wise, “No braver act was ever performed in battle than Wise performed in the Virginia of the new era when he turned from all of his friends and took his post in politics by the side of his freed slaves to seek the right as he saw the right.” In the opinion of the writer, this quotation could as well be applied to Colonel Campbell Slemp.


Portion of Colonel Campbell Slemp, by Rose Slemp Quillen, ‘Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia,’ Publication 5, March 1970, online at

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