Mr. Revercomb of West Virginia

By Ray Hill

Stephen Jones of Oklahoma was a personal friend and the biographer of Senator Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia. As Mr. Jones wrote, Revercomb, especially in his second term, looked as if he were made to wear the senatorial toga. Between 1942 and 2014, the Republicans won two elections for the United States Senate and both times their candidate was Chapman Revercomb. Best-selling novelist Allen Drury was a young reporter for the Associated Press when he covered the United States Senate in 1943, the year Revercomb first came to the Senate. Drury thought the senator’s name “romantic,” and sounded more Southern than not. TIME magazine noticed the senator’s name as well when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1942. The most widely read news magazine in the country, TIME noted the defeat of veteran politico Matthew Mansfield Neely, ordinarily a powerhouse at the ballot box, who was serving as governor at the time. Neely had lost decisively to a “handsome, young (47 years old) lawyer making his first political campaign, a Republican upstart with liberal leanings and a storybook name: Chapman Revercomb.”

Those candidates who are not expected to win in the first place, much less beat a political institution, always get considerable attention from the news media and Revercomb was no exception. TIME noted Revercomb possessed “remarkable beginner’s skill at campaigning.”

Once upon a time, West Virginia had been a largely Republican state. Also at one time, West Virginia had been a literal part of Virginia but became the only state to break away and become a state on its own. Much like Tennessee, the voting patterns of West Virginia had much to do with sympathies formed during the American Civil War. Yet by 1932, things had changed considerably in the Mountain State. The Great Depression had inflicted horrific suffering in an already poor state and upon its people. The coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt, as in much of the country, seemed like a Godsend. West Virginia’s congressional Republicans were wiped out in the 1932 Democratic landslide. Two years later, the only Republican still holding statewide office, U.S. Senator Henry D. Hatfield, lost to a Democrat who was, at the time of his election, not able to take the oath of office because he was only 29 years old. The Democrats became entrenched in the political fabric of West Virginia. TIME magazine had been wrong about the 1942 campaign being Chapman Revercomb’s first effort to win elective office. Revercomb had made a bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 1936, but he ran third. In 1942, Revercomb became a candidate for the GOP nomination for the United States Senate and faced a hard-fought primary with self-funded millionaire Raymond J. Funkhouser. Revercomb won the nomination by a scant 124 votes. Few gave Revercomb much chance of defeating the colorful Governor Neely, who had left the U. S. Senate to become West Virginia’s chief executive to exterminate the statehouse machine and fold it into his own federal organization. Neely had easily beaten the leader of the statehouse machine, former Governor Guy Kump, inside the Democratic primary and it appeared nothing could keep him from returning to the United States Senate.

Revercomb was an able speaker and as a campaigner was indefatigable. Once, Revercomb noticed several hunters on the side of a mountain and got out of the car and wearing a business suit, went up the mountainside and shook hands with the squirrel hunters.

The GOP candidate had an abiding love of hot dogs and could down five or six in one sitting and was relentless in his pursuit of votes. Revercomb was courtly, polite, and intelligent. Observers gave Revercomb credit for a game effort, but virtually no one gave him a shred of hope of beating Matt Neely. Election Day proved the political prognosticators wrong, and Chapman Revercomb gave Matthew Neely the worst political thrashing of the latter’s political career. Revercomb won the general election by ten percentage points. In Kanawha County (Charleston), the seat of state government, Revercomb won by 62% of the ballots cast. A chagrined Matt Neely snapped voters were entitled to do as they damned well pleased.

Revercomb’s six-year term saw him become an important member of the United States Senate. While TIME had written about Revercomb’s supposed liberal leanings, by the end of his term, the West Virginian was painted by the media of the day as the blackest of reactionaries. That was largely due to Senator Revercomb’s legislation revamping American immigration policy. It is too complicated an issue to address in one column, but suffice it to say Revercomb was painted as a bigot and antisemite, which he most certainly was not. Yet the senator’s record was so tainted that Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican presidential nominee, was so confident of his own victory that he believed he had the luxury of deliberately snubbing some GOP nominees for state offices. Dewey ignored pleas to campaign in West Virginia and pointedly did not endorse Senator Revercomb for reelection. The Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate was the irrepressible Matthew Mansfield Neely, making yet another of his remarkable political comebacks. Neely had left the governor’s office and won his old congressional seat, only to be defeated in the 1946 Republican landslide. The 74-year-old Neely returned to the stump, spouting his usual Biblical quotes and damning Revercomb’s record. The grudge match ended with Neely beating Revercomb soundly.

Revercomb sought to make his own comeback in 1952 and ran on a ticket headed by Rush Holt, a former Democrat who had served in the U.S. Senate from 1935-1941. Holt may well have been counted out of the gubernatorial contest, but Revercomb campaigned heavily on the anti-Communism issue and lost by more than 60,000 votes.

It is rare for a former senator to seek election once again and win. In recent times, only Slade Gorton of Washington State has managed it. Revercomb was the best-known Republican in West Virginia and the only GOP candidate who had demonstrated the ability to win. Revercomb had been the GOP senatorial nominee in 1942, 1948 and 1952 when he announced he was a candidate in the 1956 special election. Some argued Revercomb had lost two out of three races and the GOP primary had five candidates seeking the nomination. Revercomb beat his nearest competitor, Tom Sweeney, who had been the GOP senatorial nominee in 1946 and 1954. Revercomb’s comeback was aided by two factors: the first being it was a big Republican year in West Virginia. Secondly, the Democratic nominee was Governor William Marland, who, after four years in office, had become a highly controversial figure.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for reelection and was highly popular. Eisenhower had not carried the Mountain State in 1952, but he did win it in 1956. With Ike came the GOP ticket. Cecil Underwood became West Virginia’s youngest governor while Chapman Revercomb beat William Marland decisively. Two Republicans were also elected to Congress from West Virginia’s four-person delegation in the House of Representatives.

In 1957, the United States Senate wrestled with civil rights legislation. In particular, the Senate debated an amendment guaranteeing a trial by jury for any individual charged with criminal contempt. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had put the full force of his prestige behind the bill, which was the first civil rights legislation to come close to receiving congressional approval in 82 years. Minority Leader William Knowland of California had carefully cobbled together a coalition of Republicans and liberal Democrats in support of the civil rights bill. Unfortunately, Bill Knowland was overconfident and didn’t reckon with several senators whom he had counted as certain votes for the bill who still had very deep concerns over ensuring jury trials in criminal contempt cases. It was a complex problem. Senator John F. Kennedy asked four Harvard law professors about the concept of trials by jury and whether it would be good law and public policy. Much to Kennedy’s dismay, the professors offered perhaps the most unhelpful response possible inasmuch as they were divided in their opinions, deadlocked at 2 to 2.

Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson faced a different problem than Knowland, yet it was no less complicated. LBJ needed to come up with a solution to the jury trial provision that would keep the Southern senators from launching a filibuster. Johnson pondered several possible amendments but finally settled on an amendment offered by freshman Frank Church of Idaho. The wily Johnson used the amendment to peel off some Republicans who strongly favored jury trials. Two of the recalcitrant Republican senators firmly favoring jury trials were also able lawyers: John Marshall Butler of Maryland and Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia. Minority Leader William Knowland of California eventually recognized the problem with several of the votes he was counting on to pass the civil rights bill disappearing. Knowland appealed to the White House to help hold his votes in line and Acting Attorney General William Rogers was dispatched to Capitol Hill to shore up the doubtful Republicans. Apparently, Senator Revercomb was singled out for the most intense lecture by the Eisenhower Administration. At some point, Revercomb began warming up to the trial by jury amendment. Senator Revercomb was not only an able lawyer, but also a shrewd politician. Revercomb, facing reelection for a full six-year term in 1958, kept an eye on his home state and the concerns of West Virginians foremost in mind. Revercomb pointed out the trial amendment would also necessarily broaden the use of juries in the instance of labor contempt cases. Revercomb had been in the Senate when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley legislation, which he had supported, much to the fury of organized labor in the Mountain State. Taft-Hartley had pointedly limited the use of jury trials in contempt cases. Revercomb’s position had been approved by the still-formidable John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, which remained a strong political force in West Virginia. Chapman Revercomb, along with several other GOP senators, were summoned to the office of Vice President Richard Nixon. Whatever happened behind closed doors did nothing to change Revercomb’s mind. The senator returned to his office without having been swayed an iota.

Knowland lost his bid to beat the jury trial amendment and lost several Republicans, including Revercomb, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Homer Capehart of Indiana.

During his second term in the U.S. Senate, Chapman Revercomb was regarded as more of a “moderate” or Eisenhower Republican. Revercomb was joined in the Senate by another Republican in January of 1958 when 83-year-old Matt Neely died of cancer. Governor Cecil Underwood appointed John D. Hoblitzell to the vacancy. Both Revercomb and Hoblitzell had to face the voters in the 1958 elections. Revercomb wanted a judgeship and felt he could be nominated by President Eisenhower, but his ambitions were undercut by Governor Underwood and Senator Hoblitzell, who worried Revercomb was too old to serve on the federal bench. Ironically, Revercomb would outlive the younger Hoblitzell by more than a decade.

Revercomb sought reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1958. It was a terrible year for GOP candidates, especially as the country was going through a recession. Revercomb also faced perhaps the strongest candidate the Democrats could have possibly nominated, Congressman Robert C. Byrd. While Revercomb ran at the top of the GOP ticket, both he and Hoblitzell lost the general election.

Chapman Revercomb’s last campaign for public office came in 1960 when he announced his candidacy for governor. Once again, Cecil Underwood stepped in to thwart Revercomb’s ambitions. Underwood openly endorsed the candidacy of Harold “Punchy” Neely and threw the full weight of his administration behind his favored candidate. Revercomb lost and his many friends never forgave Cecil Underwood, who went on to lose a Senate race in 1960 and campaigns for governor in 1964, 1968 and 1976.

Chapman Revercomb continued practicing law and remained an elder statesman of West Virginia’s Republican Party until his death on October 6, 1979.

© 2023 Ray Hill