William Alexander Anderson was born on May 11, 1842, at Montrose, near Fincastle in Botetourt County, the eldest of three sons and sixth of nine children of Francis Thomas Anderson, later a justice of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and Mary Ann Alexander Anderson. He was educated at home and also attended the Fincastle Academy. Anderson enrolled at Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) in Lexington in 1857 but did not graduate. In April 1861 he left school to join the Liberty Hall Volunteers, which he and his classmates had just formed. Heon June 2 and became orderly sergeant of Company I, 4th Virginia Infantry Regiment. Anderson was shot in the left kneecap at the (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, spent several months at the Richmond home of his uncle , a prominent industrialist, and was discharged on December 14. In 1863 he entered the University of Virginia, from which he received an LLB on June 20, 1866.
Anderson returned to Lexington and began a long and successful career as an attorney and important conservative Democratic politician. By acting as counsel for a number of mining and other business firms, he became relatively affluent. Between 1889 and 1891 Anderson won praise for helping to attract foreign investment to turn the Rockbridge County town of Glasgow into a major industrial center, but the boom collapsed in 1893. Unlike many other investors, Anderson apparently made money out of the Glasgow bubble. He married Ellen Graham Anderson, daughter of his uncle Joseph Reid Anderson, in Richmond on July 19, 1871, but she died on January 25, 1872. He then married Mary Louisa “Maza” Blair, of Lexington, on August 9, 1875, and they had four daughters and one son.
In 1868 Anderson first ran for elective office and was nominated to the House of Delegates, but the state’s military commander postponed the election. The next year Anderson ran successfully for the Senate of Virginia and represented Alleghany, Bath, and Rockbridge counties from 1869 to 1873. He was deeply committed to returning the antebellum patrician oligarchy to power and spent the next thirty years working toward that goal. In a legislative session known later for passing the two ill-considered bills, Anderson voted both for the controversial 1871 Funding Bill to repay in full Virginia’s $37 million antebellum internal improvements debt and for the act to dispose of the state’s railroad holdings at bargain rates. At the same time, as a lifelong advocate of education, he also sponsored and helped pass‘s 1870 act to establish the public school system that the Funding Act was soon to deprive of state aid.
Anderson did not seek elective office again until 1879, when he campaigned unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates as a Funder (who favored full funding of the state’s debt) against a pair of Readjuster candidates who had initially been elected two years earlier. The Readjusters, who wanted the state’s debt readjusted downward, first won a majority in the General Assembly in 1879. By 1883 the Conservative Party, renamed the Democratic Party, had learned from its losses and revised its platform in order to wrest control of Virginia’s government from the Readjusters. Anderson benefited from the change by winning election to the House of Delegates, defeating the three-term Readjuster candidates to whom he had lost in 1879. Anderson served as chairman of the Committee on Schools and Colleges, and in spite of his earlier vote on the Funding Bill he introduced the resolution by which the Democrats accepted the Riddleberger Act of 1882 as the final downward readjustment of the public debt. With Delegate J. Marshall McCormick, Anderson also sponsored what became the Anderson-McCormick Election Law of 1884, which was designed to give control of elections to the Democratic Party and thereby cripple the Readjuster andparties. The result was widespread voter fraud.
Anderson did not seek reelection in 1885 but did serve for the 1887–1888 term and again chaired the Committee on Schools and Colleges. Elected a trustee of Washington and Lee University in 1885, he served on the board until he died forty-five years later. He was rector from 1913 until 1924 and supported breaking the school’s ties to the Presbyterian Church as a prerequisite for making it a major national university.
In 1885 Anderson became a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, serving until 1900. He also served on the Democratic Executive Committee from 1885 to 1890. Jeopardizing his party standing, he was one of many conservative Democrats who resented the ascendancy within the party ofwho had used railroad money and influence to become United States senator in 1893. Anderson joined a splinter movement to break Martin’s power, curb widespread voting fraud, and lobby for the direct election of . He served as permanent chairman of the conference and made the principal speech in Richmond on May 10, 1899, at the meeting of the disaffected Democrats to decide a course of action. However, Martin crushed the May Movement, as it was called, and retained his Senate seat. Nevertheless, election reform remained an issue that ultimately had to be addressed.
Many Democrats believed that voter fraud could be eliminated by disfranchising the black electorate. Chosen president of the Virginia State Bar Association on April 30, 1900, Anderson used his July 17, 1900, presidential address to explain how the forthcoming constitutional convention could disfranchisewithout violating the letter of the to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, his speech formed the basis of the suffrage provisions of the Constitution of 1902. Anderson and James William Gilmore easily defeated two Republicans on May 23, 1901, to represent Rockbridge County in the convention. Anderson was elected president pro tempore and chaired the Committees on the Elective Franchise and on Final Revision. He voted with the majority for the restrictive suffrage provisions adopted on April 4, 1902, but sided with the minority that favored submitting the constitution to a ratification referendum.
In the meantime, on August 15, 1901, the Democratic state convention nominated Anderson for attorney general of Virginia, and he easily defeated Republican D. Lawrence Groner on November 5, 1901, with 61 percent of the vote. On November 7, 1905, he won election to a second term, defeating Republican candidate George A. Revercomb with 66 percent of votes cast in an election that saw a one-third decrease in total votes from the 1901 figure.
Anderson served as attorney general from January 1, 1902, until January 1, 1910. The years were unusually busy ones for the office because of questions that arose under the new constitution, its requirement that the attorney general represent the interests of the state before the new State Corporation Commission, and Anderson’s defense of its controversial suffrage provisions and the decision to put the constitution into effect without voter approval. His most important achievement was instituting the Virginia v. West Virginia suit in the U.S. Supreme Court that in 1915 resulted in a final settlement of the longstanding disagreement between those states over debts incurred for internal improvements prior to the Civil War. Anderson served as paid counsel for Virginia in the case after leaving office as attorney general.
At the age of seventy-six Anderson served one more term in the House of Delegates session of 1918–1919 and supported the better roads movement. He was one of the last Civil War veterans active in politics and because of the pronounced stiff-legged limp that had resulted from his war wound became known as the “Lame Lion of the Confederacy.” The sobriquet “Lame Lion of Lynchburg” had originally been applied to railroad executive and U.S. senator, who had rebuilt the Democratic Party in the 1880s, but after Daniel’s death Anderson received the honorific title in appreciation of his lifelong commitment to the Democratic Party. Anderson died at his house in Lexington on June 21, 1930, and was buried in Lexington Cemetery.