William Evelyn Cameron was born on November 29, 1842, in Petersburg, the son of Walker Anderson Cameron, a cotton broker, and Elizabeth Page Walker Cameron. His mother was related to the Byrd and Harrison families, and his father to John Cameron, a Scottish clergyman who had served as the rector of Blandford Church in Petersburg.
Growing up in Petersburg, Cameron attended local schools and developed interests in history, music, and poetry. After his parents died he lived with two unmarried aunts in Petersburg before enrolling in 1857 in a military academy in Hillsboro, North Carolina. Two years later Cameron went to live with an uncle in Saint Louis, Missouri. Following a brief, undistinguished sojourn as a student at Washington College in that city, he worked as an assistant purser on a Mississippi River steamboat. Nomination in 1860 for a cadetship at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, rekindled Cameron’s zeal for academic pursuits, and he received preparatory tutoring in Missouri from John F. Reynolds, a captain in the U.S. Army.
At the start of the Civil War Cameron broke off his studies. Joining a secessionist militia company stationed on the outskirts of Saint Louis, he was captured but escaped and began an arduous journey back to Virginia. Cameron reported to Confederate authorities in Norfolk and was assigned to a Petersburg militia contingent that became part of the 12th Virginia Infantry Regiment. On June 14, 1861, he was elected a second lieutenant, and on May 18, 1862, he was commissioned a first lieutenant and appointed a regimental adjutant. Wounded at the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in August 1862, Cameron was transferred to Brigadier General William Mahone‘s command as brigade inspector and commenced a close association with Mahone, a fellow Petersburg resident, that lasted for more than two decades. Promoted to captain and assistant adjutant-general as of November 2, 1863, Cameron served in the Army of Northern Virginia until the surrender at Appomattox Court House.
In his early twenties when the Confederacy collapsed, Cameron returned to civilian life in Petersburg. On October 1, 1868, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, he married Louisa Clarinda Egerton, of Petersburg. They had two sons and one daughter. The economic hardships of the postwar era hastened Cameron’s entrance into the professional arena. He read law with a Petersburg attorney, but journalism exerted a more powerful attraction. Between 1865 and 1875 Cameron served in editorial capacities at a succession of newspapers: the Petersburg Daily News, the Norfolk Virginian, the Petersburg Daily Index (in which, with Mahone’s backing, he purchased a financial interest), the Richmond Whig (which Mahone controlled), the Richmond Enquirer, and the Petersburg Evening Star. Cameron wrote poems and Civil War articles for sale to various publications. He also worked briefly in 1869 as an administrative secretary to Governor Gilbert Carlton Walker.
Early Political Career
Cameron vigorously supported the Conservative Party in its struggles against the Radical Republicans and in 1870 was the party’s unsuccessful candidate for Petersburg’s seat in the state senate. His journalistic sallies against Robert W. Hughes, editor of the Republican Richmond State Journal, led to a duel in 1869 in which Cameron was wounded. Although vociferously critical of those he called carpetbaggers and scalawags, he accepted such Republican innovations as African American suffrage and a tax-supported public school system. These pragmatic stands were popular with many Petersburg residents, who beginning in 1876 elected Cameron to three consecutive two-year terms as mayor. That year he was also admitted to the practice of law in the local courts, and he wrote for the editorial pages of the short-lived Petersburg Evening Star and for the Richmond Whig.
Issues involving Virginia’s massive public debt took center stage in state politics and split the Conservative Party into bitterly antagonistic factions. Funders demanded full payment of the principal and interest, while Readjusters proposed to reduce the amount of the principal to be repaid and to refinance the debt at lower interest. The split between the factions gave the Republican minority the balance of political power in the state. Cameron initially supported the Funders and argued that Virginia was honor-bound to repay its creditors regardless of the budgetary hardships the commitment imposed. As the depression-ridden 1870s wore on, however, he began to side with the Readjusters. Difficulties with his personal finances may have encouraged Cameron’s change of heart, but his ties with Mahone exerted a more decisive influence. During a failed bid for the Conservative nomination for governor in 1877, Mahone announced support for Readjuster principles, and Cameron signaled his new allegiance by acting as a floor leader of Mahone’s delegates at the party convention.
Cameron followed Mahone down a path that led in 1879 to the creation of an independent Readjuster Party and two years later to an alliance with national and state Republicans. In June 1881, a few months after Mahone took office as one of Virginia’s U.S. senators, Cameron secured the gubernatorial nomination of the new Readjuster-Republican coalition. An outpouring of support from whites in western counties and from blacks in the Tidewater and Southside enabled him to defeat his Funder opponent, John Warwick Daniel, by more than 12,000 votes in November. Supporters of the coalition also won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.
The Chesapeake Oyster Wars of the 1880s
Egalitarian reforms and executive dynamism were hallmarks of Cameron’s administration. So too were political turbulence and partisan intrigue. Inspired by Mahone’s unabashed manipulation of federal patronage, Cameron took similar advantage of his own state-level powers of appointment and removal and even attempted in several instances to oust hostile officials before their terms expired. Amid rising protests against bossism and machine politics, the governor unsuccessfully pressured a special session of the General Assembly to gerrymander congressional districts and to restructure the circuit court system so that Funder judges could be discharged from their posts. Frustrated by legislative intransigence, Cameron subsequently sparked an even greater furor by replacing Richmond’s Funder-dominated school board with new appointees, several of whom were black.
The administration’s foes (who began to call themselves Democrats in 1883) effectively exploited these controversial developments. At the outset of that year’s legislative races they pragmatically disavowed their allegiance to the state’s creditors and instead began to denounce spoilsmanship, Mahone’s party leadership, and the alleged willingness of Cameron and his associates to “Africanize” Virginia in pursuit of political gain. These tactics, accentuated by a bloody racial clash in Danville a few days before the 1883 election, paid handsome dividends at the polls. A dramatic upsurge in white voter turnout enabled the Democrats to win large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.
Shaken by this setback, Cameron faced ever-proliferating adversities during the last two years of his gubernatorial term. Democratic legislators purged many of his allies from administrative posts, investigated his sometimes imprudent handling of public funds, and routinely overrode his vetoes of flagrantly partisan measures such as the Anderson-McCormick election law of 1884. Equally troublesome for Cameron, his ties with Mahone began to deteriorate. Mahone insisted on absolute control over the battered remnants of the old coalition, which renamed itself the Republican Party of Virginia in 1884. Cameron’s term ended on January 1, 1886. Scorned by the Democrats and increasingly powerless within his own party, he had tested the limits of political dissent in post-Reconstruction Virginia.
Late Nineteenth Century
Only forty-three years old, Cameron still had a long and multifaceted career ahead of him. He established a law practice in Petersburg in 1886, but other professional pursuits attracted his energies as well. A two-year stint in Chicago, first as an agent and then as official historian of the World’s Columbian Exposition, resulted in Cameron’s most extensive literary effort, an 800-page chronicle entitled The World’s Fair, Being a Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition (1893). With the cooling of the antagonisms generated by his gubernatorial term, Virginia’s cultural and intellectual establishment welcomed Cameron back into its elite circles. He participated in Lost Cause commemorative activities, published articles in Confederate veterans’ journals, and received appointment as commissioner-general of the 1907 Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition.
Cameron also reestablished himself as a figure of some importance in Virginia politics, albeit at the cost of betraying the egalitarian principles that he had earlier espoused. His two-year stay in strike-plagued Chicago may have helped push him more firmly into hard-line conservatism. Six years of intraparty clashes with Mahone ended in 1890 when Cameron announced his decision to leave the Republican Party. He lambasted national Republican policies as detrimental to states’ rights and to southern economic needs. In 1896, proclaiming his support for a dissident faction of the Democratic Party that refused to support William Jennings Bryan and the free coinage of silver, Cameron took to the campaign trail once again. His debt-repudiation past a distant memory, he denounced Bryan and free silver in speeches from one end of Virginia to the other, but few voters heeded Cameron’s appeals in behalf of the gold Democrats.
Convention of 1901–1902
The progressive impulse at the turn of the century afforded a more favorable venue for Cameron’s maverick, independent-minded brand of reactionism. Endorsed by local Democrats, he was elected over token opposition in 1901 as one of the two Petersburg representatives to a state constitutional convention. Although such delegates as one-time foe John Warwick Daniel, then a U.S. senator, enjoyed greater prestige and influence, Cameron played a substantial role. He chaired the Committee on the Executive Department and served on the Committee on the Judiciary. Under his leadership the Committee on the Executive Department successfully advocated constitutional provisions strengthening the governor’s authority to discharge subordinate officials and permitting him to return bills to the General Assembly with suggested amendments.
In floor debates Cameron defended the Committee on the Judiciary’s insistence that judges should continue to be chosen by the legislature, a stance that provoked the ire of western delegates who favored popular election. Unswayed by appeals from the convention’s hopelessly outnumbered Republicans, he supported the reinstitution of the poll tax and the adoption of other registration restrictions intended to reduce the number of African American voters. As the proceedings entered their final stage, Cameron introduced the motion for approval of the Constitution of 1902, but he opposed the majority’s decision to proclaim the new fundamental law rather than submit it to the electorate for endorsement or rejection. Even this futile gesture reflected something less than a full defense of democratic principles. As Cameron saw it, ratification could best be accomplished through a referendum in which only literate, taxpaying white men would be allowed to participate. He had traversed a broad expanse of ideological terrain since leading the biracial Readjuster-Republican coalition to victory in 1881.
Cameron hoped that his performance at the convention would set the stage for a sustained political comeback, but he withdrew from a 1904 bid for the Fourth District Democratic congressional nomination because of poor health. His old passion for journalism then resurfaced. Joining the staff of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in April 1906, Cameron soon took charge of its editorial page and remained at the helm of that newspaper, which became the Virginian-Pilot and the Norfolk Landmark in 1912, until he retired in September 1919.
Cameron’s wife died in January 1908. He divided his final years between stays with his daughter in Tallahassee, Florida, and with one of his sons in Louisa County. Cameron died in Louisa County on January 25, 1927, and was buried not far from the grave of William Mahone in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery. The Democratic press lamented the passing of a brave soldier, a talented journalist, and a colorful figure from Virginia’s past. Devoting scant attention to the reforms of Cameron’s gubernatorial term, obituaries instead emphasized his independence of character and his unwillingness to submit to factional dictates, especially as manifested in his bolt from the Republican Party.