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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 517

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This is the grave of John Daniel.

Born in 1842 in Lynchburg, Virginia to the state’s elite slaveholding class, not everything was great as a child for the young John Daniel. His mother died when he was three, giving birth to his little sister. His maternal grandparents raised him in the luxury expected of his class. He went to elite private schools and of course was surrounded by slaves. When Virginia chose to commit treason in defense of slavery, Daniel was right there with it. He joined a cavalry unit, but was commissioned as a second lieutenant by May 1861. He was then wounded at First Manassas, but recovered enough to return and advance. He became a major by 1864, when he was Jubal Early’s adjutant. A minie ball hit his leg during the Wilderness. He did not lose the leg, but struggled to walk for the rest of his life.

His military career over, Daniel went to the University of Virginia and passed the bar in 1866. He then joined his father’s firm. Daniel became interested in politics, buoying by his hatred of emancipation, Reconstruction, and black rights. This was a winning combination in the postwar South. The Conservative Party (basically the old Democrats) sent him to the statehouse for a few years. But he failed to win election to Congress in 1872 and 1874. Instead, he went to the state senate for a couple of terms, leaving office in 1881. While there, he became a leading opponent of the Readjusters, led by William Mahone. These were people who formed a somewhat populist, somewhat biracial alliance in favor of overturning the old Virginia elite, providing universal schooling, working toward economic modernization, and at least somewhat protecting black rights. So of course a man like Daniel would despise them. But the Readjusters had enough political heft and enough black voters to keep them competitive into the 1880s.

In 1882, the Conservative Party once again became the Democratic Party. Daniel was a leader of these people. Wrapping himself in the dead or aging Confederate elite, he wrote a book on Stonewall Jackson’s “character” and gave a three-hour speech at the dedication of the Robert E. Lee statue at what was now known as Washington and Lee University. That speech was reprinted in newspapers around Virginia and even in other parts of the country. In 1884, he was elected to Congress. In 1886, Daniel would be the candidate for the Senate against Mahone. He summed up his political position bluntly: “I am a Democrat because I am a white man and a Virginian.” OK then. Democrats won the state legislature that year, partially through repressive violence, and Daniel was then sent to Washington. He stayed in the Senate until his death in 1910.

As a senator, Daniel was a racist and an imperialist. He played up stories about the Spanish treatment of Cubans to justify America’s imperialistic invasion in 1898. He wasn’t much of a senator. He was always given pretty marginal committee slots, for instance. He never introduced a major piece of legislation in his entire career. To the extent he really cared about policy, it was for inflationary monetary policy, leading him to oppose the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and support William Jennings Bryan. But by 1904, he turned on Bryan and rejected his earlier monetary positions, helping to ensure Bryan was not the nominee that year. He was the chair of the Democrat’s platform committee that year and made sure that there was nothing economically radical on there. He also continued his interest in Confederate nostalgia, doing a lot of the political work to get the Virginia monument at Gettysburg, which should be taken down.

Daniel stayed involved in Virginia too. Specifically, he was a central player in the state constitutional convention in 1901-02 that led to the creation of the poll tax. He was initially seen as slightly a moderate on this issue, but he didn’t do much to lead the convention and ended up taking a back seat, coming out in favor of Carter Glass’s tax plan. He fully admitted this would disfranchise whites too, but saw it as a slight price to pay to make sure blacks couldn’t vote. He said, “the Anglo-Saxon … will accept tyranny rather than … surrender to the inevitable consequences of a putrid electorate.” So tyranny it would be. He did sort of want a vote on it, but instead supported the majority position that it would be imposed on the state.

Now a staunch conservative, Daniel received some attention as a potential presidential candidate to counter Bryan in 1908, but the Great Commoner would win another nomination and lose another general election. In 1909, Daniel had a stroke but was reappointed to the Senate in early 1910 anyway. But shortly after, he had another, more significant stroke and he died in June. He was 67 years old.

John Daniel is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other southern senators that were contemporaries of Daniel you can donate to cover the required expenses here. They are all peaches. Edmund Pettis is buried in Selma, Alabama and Pitchfork Ben Tillman is in Trenton, South Carolina. Previous posts are archived here.

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