Wilbur Clarence Daniel was born on May 12, 1914, in Pittsylvania County and was the son of Reuben Earl Daniel, a sharecropper, and his second wife, Georgia Lee Grant Daniel. He attended Mecklenburg County public schools until age fifteen, when he went to work as a store clerk to help support his family. In 1933 Daniel (called Clarence until adulthood, when he acquired the nickname Dan) joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in Spotsylvania County. He married Daisy Rivers Greene Fines on June 2, 1934, in Hyattsville, Maryland. The childless couple separated three years later. By 1939 Daniel had discovered that Fines’s divorce from her first husband had not been made final at the time she married Daniel. He sued for a declaration of annulment, which the Stafford County Circuit Court granted on September 16, 1939.
In July 1934 Daniel began working as a shipping clerk for a clothing-manufacturing company in Fredericksburg. He also played semiprofessional baseball, and by 1937 a major-league team was scouting him. In that year he fractured his shoulder after falling from a bus and at a hospital received ether twice. The procedure may have weakened his lungs, and Daniel developed tuberculosis. He was treated at the Blue Ridge Sanatorium in Charlottesville from the autumn of 1937 until April 1939 and at a Danville sanatorium from then until July 1939. While hospitalized he met Ruby Gordon McGregor. They married in Chatham on September 30, 1939, and had one son.
Daniel moved to Danville, where he worked first as a cloth handler and then as a junior foreman at Dan River Mills. During World War II (1939–1945) he enlisted in the navy but received a medical discharge because of a collapsed lung, the result of his treatment for tuberculosis. After four years of adult evening classes, Daniel graduated from high school first in his class in 1948. He won steady promotion at Dan River Mills, from supervisor of hourly employees, to employment manager, and finally in 1957 to assistant to the chairman of the board.
Daniel joined the local chapter of the American Legion in 1944. He served as state commander for the 1951–1952 term and four years later was the first Virginian to be named national commander. Throughout his Legion service Daniel championed the conservative themes of the 1950s: limited government, self-reliance, nationalism and a strong national defense, and above all anticommunism. With three million members the American Legion was a formidable pressure group, and Daniel was able to lobby nationally for veterans’ rights and benefits.
In Virginia politics Daniel comfortably aligned with the Democratic Party organization controlled by United States senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. Daniel opposed integration of the public schools, supported Massive Resistance, and publicly called for a congressional investigation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also served on Virginia’s Commission on Constitutional Government, which developed philosophical attacks on the civil rights movement and theoretical justification for states’ rights and nullification.
Daniel represented Danville in the House of Delegates for nine years beginning with the assembly session of 1960. His committee assignments included Education, Finance, General Laws, Militia and Police (which he chaired during the 1968 session), Privileges and Elections, and Public Property, as well as the Commission of Veterans’ Affairs and the Virginia State Crime Commission. A Byrd loyalist, Daniel supported retaining the poll tax, helped gerrymander legislative and congressional districts to protect organization stalwarts, and often joined his colleagues in thwarting Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr.‘s legislative proposals after the governor deserted Byrd on Massive Resistance. Although Daniel attended the Democratic National Conventions in 1960 and 1964, he followed Byrd’s lead in remaining silent on the party tickets and, by implication, in supporting the respective Republican presidential candidates.
During the first administration of Mills Edwin Godwin Jr., Daniel shifted from conservatism to conservative moderation by endorsing a state sales tax, an increase in teachers’ salaries, a statewide system of community colleges (which he helped construct as a member of the House Committee on Education), and a 2 percent automobile titling tax earmarked for improvements in transportation. In foreign affairs he remained strongly conservative; in 1966 he publicly denounced opponents of the Vietnam War as cowards unworthy of their country.
In 1966 Daniel managed the successful statewide senatorial campaign of Harry F. Byrd Jr. The following year he leaked to the press his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 1969. Unfavorable reaction in the press forced him to retreat to the more attractive option of running for the House of Representatives. In 1968 Democrats in the Fifth Congressional District (comprising the cities of Danville, Galax, Martinsville, and South Boston and eleven counties in the southern part of Virginia along the North Carolina border) unanimously chose Daniel. Garnering 70,681 votes in the November election, he soundly defeated the Republican candidate, Weldon W. Tuck, who received 34,608 votes, and an independent candidate, Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity, a prominent Danville attorney and civil rights activist, who tallied 24,196 votes.
Reelected to the House of Representatives nine times, Daniel did not disappoint his conservative constituency. During nineteen years in Congress, he often received 100 percent ratings from the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action. He served on the Armed Services Committee in each of his terms and chaired its Readiness subcommittee during the 100th Congress (1987–1988). Daniel was also appointed to the Committee on the District of Columbia during the 94th and 95th Congresses (1975–1976, 1977–1978). He sat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during the 99th and 100th Congresses (1985–1986, 1987–1988) and during the latter was named to its Program and Budget Authorization subcommittee. Daniel worked tirelessly to strengthen national defense. He called for massive military operations to defeat the communists in Vietnam but ultimately acquiesced in American withdrawal. Daniel opposed détente and prodded the military into creating forces adept at antiterrorism and brushfire wars.
During the Watergate investigation Daniel supported Richard M. Nixon until the release of audiotapes finally demonstrated the president’s complicity in obstructing justice. Daniel was one of thirty-four friendly legislators invited to the White House on the evening of the president’s resignation. During Ronald Reagan’s administration Daniel became a leader of the Boll Weevils, a group of conservative Sunbelt Democrats who supported supply-side economics and increases in defense spending. He helped write the Omnibus Anti-Drug Act of 1986, which provided money for interdiction, enforcement, rehabilitation, and education.
On January 19, 1988, Daniel announced that because of heart disease he would not seek reelection. Four days later, while visiting his son in Charlottesville, he was admitted to the University of Virginia Medical Center after suffering chest pains. Daniel died of an aortic dissection later that afternoon, on January 23, 1988. He was interred in Highland Burial Park, in Danville. In 1990 Averett College (after 2001 Averett University), of which Daniel had been a trustee, established a professorship bearing his name. Three years later Danville leaders named a 170-acre recreational facility Dan Daniel Memorial Park.