Jonathan Worth, Governor

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About Jonathan Worth, Governor

Jonathan Worth (November 18, 1802 – September 5, 1869) was the 39th Governor of the U.S. state of North Carolina from 1865 to 1868, during the early years of Reconstruction.

Early life

Jonathan Worth was born on November 18, 1802 to Dr. David Worth and Eunice Worth (née Gardner). A native of Guilford County, Worth settled in Randolph County and made his fame and fortune there as an attorney and legislator. A Quaker and protégé of Judge Archibald Murphey, Worth championed the cause of free public schools, and, though he belonged to the greatly outnumbered Whig party, gained much stature for his practicality and vision.

In 1830, he ran for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives from Randolph County, motivated in large part by a failing law practice. His major shortcoming, he had decided, was his deficiency as a public speaker. His peers at the Bar persuaded him there was no better way to improve his oratory and achieve better rhetoric than to become a member of the North Carolina General Assembly, which thrives on "talk".

He served two terms in the House, took a break from public service to build a lucrative law practice, was elected to the North Carolina Senate, and then ran twice for Congress, both times unsuccessfully.

In 1858, Worth was again elected to the State Senate, where he was made chairman of a committee to investigate the poorly-run North Carolina Railroad. He pursued this official duty so relentlessly that the president of the Railroad, formerly a good friend, challenged Worth to a duel, which Worth declined.

Civil War Treasurer

Worth was an avid opponent of North Carolina's secession from the Union. Though opposed to the Confederate stands on most issues, Worth remained loyal to North Carolina and refused to take part in several peace movements. In late 1862 or early 1863, the legislature elected him State Treasurer by acclamation.

Worth had the unhappy duty of issuing notes and bonds to finance the State's share of its war debt. Of the some $20 million in notes authorized by the State, Worth issued $8.5 million and $5.2 million were outstanding at the end of the war. War bonds totaling more than $13 million were issued. At the end of the war, all of the State's war debt was repudiated.

Just before Raleigh was occupied by Sherman's conquering forces at the end of the war, Governor Zebulon B. Vance charged Worth with the duty of safeguarding the State archives, which he did by evacuating them to Company Shops in Alamance County. Worth was so highly regarded that when William W. Holden was installed as the provisional Governor, he requested Worth continue as the provisional Treasurer. Worth held that title for five months until he resigned during his campaign against Gov. Holden in a special November 9, 1865 election. Worth is the only statewide North Carolina Treasurer to become Governor.


Worth was nominated by the Conservative Party, a state coalition that included most Democrats and some former Whigs, to run for Governor in North Carolina's first and only special election for the office. Worth had been associated with the Conservative Party since the beginning of the Civil War. His opponent was the incumbent Gov. William W. Holden, who had been appointed by President Andrew Johnson and was running on the National Union Party ticket. Worth's strength was in the eastern part of the state, and Holden carried the western counties which had mostly opposed secession and the Civil War. Worth won with 32,549 votes (55.5%) to Holden's 25,809 votes (44.0%). Worth won with the support of many elements of the state that had supported secession. The 1865 election had been conducted according to the 1865 state constitution, which was rejected by the U.S. Congress.

Worth was re-elected on October 18, 1866 for a term that started December 22, 1866. He won 34,250 votes (75.9%) to 10,759 votes (23.8%) for former U.S. Rep. Alfred Dockery, running on the National Union Party ticket. In both his gubernatorial campaigns, Worth emphasized that he had opposed secession and that he sought to heal state and national divisions. He expressed support for President Andrew Johnson.

The major event of Worth's second term was the state constitutional convention, held in early 1868 to draft a constitution meeting the requirements of Congress. One of Worth's major interests was to restore North Carolina to the Union. Worth was disappointed with the new constitution and refused to run for re-election on the Conservative Party ticket in the election of 1868. He did not recognize the legitimacy of that election, which William W. Holden won. Nevertheless, he wrote to Holden: "I surrender the office to you under what I deem Military duress."

Worth died 14 months after leaving office as Governor. He is buried in Historic Oakwood Cemetery.

His younger brother, John M. Worth, was also a successful politician and North Carolina State Treasurer from 1876 to 1885.

Personal life

On October 20, 1824, Jonathan Worth married Martitia Daniel, a niece of Judge Archibald Murphey. They had eight children: Roxana Cornelia (b. 1826), Lucy Jane (b. 1828), David Gaston (b. 1831), Eunice Louisa (b. 1832), Elvira Evelyna (b. 1838), Sarah Corinne (b. 1839), Adelaide Ann (b. 1842) and Mary Martitia (b. 1846). Famous descendants include grandsons Worth Bagley and David W. Bagley and great-grandson Jonathan Worth Daniels.


Jonathan Worth (1802-1869) found his Quaker upbringing and temperament tested by the trials of Reconstruction. The first of Dr. David and Eunice Gardner Worth’s twelve children, Jonathan Worth was born on November 18, 1802, at Center in Randolph County. He received a basic education in local schools and at the Greensborough Male Academy. Worth learned law as a student of Archibald D. Murphey and received his license in December 1824. He moved to Asheboro to establish his practice. Jonathan Worth married Martitia Daniel, niece of Murphey, in 1824; they had eight children, six of whom survived their father.

Worth possessed an inhibited personality and found public speaking distasteful and laborious; consequently, his early law practice floundered. He was more successful in business, investing in early textile mills as well as navigation and plank road companies. Believing that politics might help him overcome his professional handicaps, he entered the race for the state House in 1830 and was elected. There he voted against resolutions endorsing the administration of President Andrew Jackson yet spoke out strongly against the concept of nullification. Ostracized for standing on his principles, he returned to his law practice and prospered.

During the 1830s, Worth became a devoted member of the Whig Party, viewing Democratic doctrine as subversive to good government based on the federal Constitution. He spent three terms in the state Senate between 1840 and 1861 denouncing the Democratic policies. Twice he ran for Congress but was defeated. Worth bitterly opposed secession and refused to be a delegate to the May 1861 convention that took North Carolina out of the Union. He detested war or any form of violence owing to his Quaker heritage but, faced with the inevitable, chose to support his state.

Jonathan Worth frequently disagreed with the Confederate administration but, despite his hatred of war, never became associated with peace movements. He supported the Conservative Party in 1862 and was elected state treasurer on December 3. At the close of the war he was asked by Governor William W. Holden to continue in that office as part of the provisional government. He resigned on November 15, 1865, to run against Holden for governor in the general election called by the convention that met earlier in the year. A combination of Worth’s popularity and Holden’s lack of it led to Worth’s victory by nearly 6,000 votes.

The new governor faced major obstacles: quarreling factions within the state that needed to be reconciled; a president in Washington whose skepticism of North Carolina’s sincerity had to be assuaged; and a hostile Congress demanding satisfaction from increasingly stringent rules and regulations. Worth enjoyed moderate success in the first two, but the last proved intractable. He had barely taken the oath of office for his second term when Congress passed the first of the Reconstruction Acts that imposed military rule upon the South. The governor developed a good relationship with Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, who had charge of the Second Military District. Sickles frequently asked for and followed Worth’s advice; he was replaced by Gen. Edwin R. S. Canby in August 1867 and the situation changed. Worth found himself working simultaneously to restore North Carolina to the Union while trying to fend off military encroachments upon civil authority. With new elections ordered for 1868, Worth refused to run against Holden, now a Republican, who was certain to win. A military order directed Worth to turn over the governor’s office to Holden on July 2. In failing health, he retired to his home, “Sharon,” in Raleigh where he died fourteen months later on September 5, 1869. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

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Jonathan Worth, Governor's Timeline

November 18, 1802
Guilford, NC, USA
Age 23
Asheboro, Randolph, North Carolina, United States
Age 25
Age 28
Age 29
Age 35
December 9, 1842
Age 40
Asheboro, Randolph, North Carolina, United States
Age 43
September 5, 1869
Age 66