About Henry Mason Mathews
Henry Mason Mathews (March 29, 1834 – April 28, 1884) was the 7th Attorney General and 5th Governor of West Virginia. He was the first ex-Confederate to be elected Governor in the United States, and is regarded as the first of the country's Bourbon governors.
Born in Frankford, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, he received an A.M. from the University of Virginia and B.L. from Lexington Law School. He was admitted to the Bar in 1857 and practiced law for several years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. He was commissioned Major in the Confederate States Army and served throughout the Vicksburg Campaign. His service experience was marred by difficulties and frustration with military procedures.
He entered politics after the war and was elected to the West Virginia Senate in 1865 but was unable to serve due to state restrictions for ex-Confederates. When these restrictions were overturned in 1871, he was sent to the 1872 State Convention to rewrite the West Virginia State Constitution. The following year he was elected Attorney General and, following one successful term, was elected Governor of the state in 1877.
His election ushered in the quarter-century era of the Bourbon Democrat, the conservative, pro-business faction in the Democratic Party, who sought to oust the Republican coalition of freedmen, carpetbaggers, and scalawags. He was identified as a Redeemer, the southern wing of the Bourbon faction. As governor, his administration would seek resolutions to the Long Depression, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and issues of state debt. He was criticized for his handling of the Great Railroad Strike, which spread from West Virginia to several other states before he called for Federal support—an action his critics believed could have prevented the national strike if taken sooner. Mathews retired from politics at the end of his term in 1881. He died in Lewisburg, West Virginia in 1884.
Henry Mason Mathews was born on March 29, 1834 in Frankford, Greenbrier County to Mason and Eliza (Reynolds) Mathews. His family was politically prominent in Greenbrier County. He was educated at the Lewisburg Academy, and then the University of Virginia, receiving the degrees of A.B. in 1855 and A.M. in 1856 and joining the fraternal organization Beta Theta Pi. He entered Lexington Law School and studied under John W. Brockenbrough, graduating in 1857 with a degree of B.L.. He was admitted to the Bar in 1857 and opened a law office in Lewisburg with his brother, Alexander F. Mathews under the name Mathews & Mathews. Soon afterward he accepted the professorship of Language and Literature at Alleghany College, Blue Sulphur Springs, retaining the privilege to practicing law in the courts.
He was a proponent of liberal arts, a field of study that he believed to be waning in the decades before the Civil War, as the country progressed towards industrialism. In his 1854 University of Virginia Masters Thesis, "Poetry in America," he was critical of the increasing importance placed on science and technology at the expense of literature and poetry, and he expressed resignation about the arts being "sacrificed on the altar of progress," as described by historian Peter S. Carmichael. Carmichael further described Mathews as one who had "accepted the decline of fine taste and cultivation as an inevitable casualty in society's advance." Mathews, in "Poetry in America," stated, "while we may regret to see the art of poetry declining, .... we know also that this very fact is an evidence of the continual improvement of the mind of man, and of the advancement of the world in the accomplishment of its destiny." This clashing of aesthetics and industry would be a theme throughout Mathews' life.
In 1857, he married Lucy Fry, daughter of Judge Joseph L. Fry. They had 5 children: Lucile "Josephine" (b. 1871), Mason (b. 1873), William Gordon (b. 1877), Henry Edgar (b. 1878), and Laura Herne (b. 1881).
On the outbreak of the American Civil War, Mathews, along with his two brothers, volunteered for the Confederate States Army (CSA). He entered the service as a private, ending the war with a commission of major of artillery.
Throughout the war he experienced difficulties with administrative aspects of the CSA. In 1861 he was among the staff for general Henry Wise during his feud with general John B. Floyd, during which Wise refused to supply reinforcements to Floyd at a Confederate stronghold due to disagreements over military superiority of the western Virginia region. His father, from the Virginia House of Delegates, recommended in writing to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that both generals be deposed after spending several days in each camp. President Davis removed Wise from command on his receipt of the letter.
In 1863, Mathews, at this time on the staff of his uncle, Brig. Gen. Alexander W. Reynolds, requested a transfer to the War Department of the CSA at Richmond, citing disagreements with his uncle over administrative decisions in the camp. He was moved temporarily to the War Department before being reassigned to active duty under Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson, C.S.A.
In 1864, he was arrested by orders of General Robert E. Lee. He described the circumstances in a letter to his brother, Captain Joseph William Mathews:
"On the night of the 6th [October 1864], I got into Camp tired and wet, went to bed and slept very soundly. About midnite a courier brought me a note that each brigade should move with its own ordnance. By a very dim light and just aroused, I read the note incorrectly, that each division shall move with its own ordnance. When I discovered my mistake I explained the matter to General S[tevenson]. He said that my explanation was perfectly satisfactory and asked me to make it in writing in order that he might forward it to Gen. Lee. I did so and just before Lee rec'd the explanation he ordered S. to arrest me and prefer charges. So here I am in arrest."
Though the charges were dismissed on Lee's receipt of the explanation, he had experienced enough discontent with Confederate States Army that he would request discharge from the service before the war had ended.
Despite his troubled military career, Mathews' reputation at home had not diminished. In a post-war state that was dominated by the Republican party, Mathews, a Democrat, was elected to the West Virginia Senate in 1865 but was not allowed to serve due to the restriction that prohibited former Confederates from holding public office. Though the legislative minority, Democrats grew in popularity in the half-decade following the war until, in 1871, the Flick Amendment was ratified to the West Virginia State Constitution, returning state rights to former Confederates and allowing the Democratic party to regain control of the legislature. He was sent as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1872 to overhaul the 1863 Republican-drafted state constitution. The following year he was elected 7th Attorney General of the state under Governor John J. Jacob and served one term in which his popularity within his party rose.
At the end of his term as Attorney General, Mathews, as a Democrat, defeated Republican Nathan Goff by 15,000 votes in the most one-sided race for governor in state history at that time. He became the first Confederate veteran in the country to be elected to the office, and the first of the country's Bourbon governors, a label applied by the faction's opposition that alluded conservative Democrats to the Bourbon kings of France who had, opponents claimed, learned little from the divisive and bitter French Revolution during which they were overthrown and subsequently returned to power. Bourbons were accused of identifying with the values of the 'Old South' by promoting classism and seeking to minimize the impact of Reconstruction efforts on policy.
His inaugural address was centered around a theme of unity and progression in the wake of war, promising: "The legitimate results of the war have been accepted in good faith, and political parties are no longer aligned upon the dead issues of the past. We have ceased to look back mournfully, and have said "Let the dead past bury its dead," and with reorganized forces have moved up to the living issues of the present."
His term would be defined by a national depression and labor strikes.
The Panic and the Great Railroad Strike
Awaiting him in office were economic woes associated with the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent Long Depression. In July 1877, four months into his term, he learned that in Martinsburg, Berkeley County, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad workers had been stopping trains to protest wage cuts. He called out a local militia company to disperse the protest. Among the company were several rail workers sympathetic to the strike. The militia acted indecisively until a striker named William Vandergriff fired on the militia and was mortally wounded when a militiaman returned fire. Local papers criticized Gov. Mathews' initiative and deemed Vandergriff a "martyr," and the militia officially conveyed to Mathews that they would thereon refuse his orders.
He responded by sending another militia company—this time containing no rail workers—to address the growing strike. When he was informed that this company too sympathized with the strikers, he complied with the urging of his administration to request Federal troops from newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes. President Hayes had vowed not to involve the Federal government in domestic matters during his candidacy several months prior, and he sought to solve the matter diplomatically. After failed negotiations with leaders of the railway "insurrection," he reluctantly dispatched Federal troops to Martinsburg. However, by this time the strike, by then referred to as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, had reverted to peaceful protest in Martinsburg while violence spread to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Missouri. The strike gained considerable support in other states across the country.
In 1880, he was again required to dispatch the militia, this time to Hawks Nest, Fayette County, to stop the state's first major coal strike, miners from Hawks Nest having been threatened with violence to cease productivity by a rival constituent.
Issues of state debt
Questions of debt owed between Virginia and West Virginia followed the war. Virginia authorities had determined that West Virginia should assume approximately one-third of the state debt as of January 1, 1861—the year Virginia was seceded from the United States, determining West Virginia’s total to be $953, 360.32. Mathews’ advisers determined that Virginia was indebted to its western counterpart $525,000. Another figure given to him was $7,000,000, owed from his state to its eastern counterpart. Unable to determine the accuracy of these reports and unsure of the appropriate course of action, he pursued policy intended to suspend a resolution until the specifics had become clear. His successor, Jacob B. Jackson, inherited the same problem and further suspended the resolution of the matter.
In policy, Mathews was a strict Bourbon Democrat, being a proponent of increased immigration, improved transportation, expansion of the coal and oil industries, and funding to establish a state geological survey. Of his oratory style William A. MacCorkle said of him:
"He was not a good come-and-take debater, but when he had prepared himself to make an oration on the issues of the day, he was splendid. His oratory was easy, smooth, perfectly balanced, his voice was splendidly modulated, his gestures were perfect, and he could make as fine an impression on a rather cultivated audience as any man in the state."
He was described by historian James Callahan as “a patriotic, broad, and liberal minded ex-Confederate who had fully accepted the results of the Civil War and was well fitted to lead in meeting living issues.”. His administration at large has been characterized as "an era of good feeling," due to his appointing of Republicans to office during his Democratic tenure.
Mary L. Rickard offered a more critical analysis of his administration:
"At this time there was less wealth per capita in West Virginia than in 1865, the result of which had a pronounced effect upon State politics. Those highest up in the social scale held the highest political positions and the entire organization became dangerously corrupt."The social, political, and economic ills of West Virginia were not to be cured nor even successfully treated during Mathews' administration nor during his life time."
After his term as governor, Mathews returned to Lewisburg to resume his law practice. He died unexpectedly in 1884.